McGinnis: Did ‘Glee’ steal from a cult-favorite musician?Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s a wonderful comedic premise. Take Sir Mix-a-Lot’s kitschy rap classic “Baby Got Back” and turn it into a soft rock ballad. It was wonderful when comic musician Jonathan Coulton first recorded his version of “Baby Got Back” in 2005. It helped establish his cult following, which exploded after he contributed the song “Still Alive” to the classic video game “Portal.”
Now, if it were simply a matter of two individual entities having the same great idea, that would be one thing. It’s plausible that no one associated with “Glee” has ever heard of Coulton or his version. So if they independently wrote a comically “soft” version of Mix-a-Lot’s song, that wouldn’t automatically scream “rip-off.”
Then an apparently official cut of the “Glee” version of “Baby” popped up on the Internet. And it became clear that the two versions share much more than a common inspiration. The two cuts are virtually identical.
From the opening chorus to the backing tracks to the beat to the … everything, this supposedly official “Glee” cut is essentially the exact same song as Coulton’s version. Canny Internet users showed via mashup websites that when played simultaneously, the two versions are pretty much indistinguishable. There’s even some debate over whether “Glee” sampled Coulton’s music track directly for its version.
Then there’s the matter of “Johnny C.” While the lion’s share of Mix-a-Lot’s lyrics were left intact in Coulton’s original cover, he did change one moment where the rapper referred to himself by name. Coulton altered the phrase to “Johnny C,” a reference to himself, of course. In the unearthed “Glee” version, the singer gets to that same lyric and refers to himself as … “Johnny C.” A remarkable coincidence, no?
Of course, if “Glee” was using Coulton’s work with his permission, that’d be one thing. But we have word from the man himself that this is not the case. Coulton has made plain in numerous postings on Twitter and his own blog that no one from the show had ever contacted him to request permission before the episode’s production — he found out when the track hit the net, just like everyone else.
Still, Coulton asked his fans to exercise caution in their outrage. “This is the Internet after all — it’s a complicated place and it gets a lot of things wrong,” he wrote on his blog. Maybe the leaked track wasn’t official. Maybe there was just a miscommunication. Maybe …
Then, on Jan. 24, two things happened. One, the “Sadie Hawkins” episode of “Glee” aired, featuring the exact same version of “Baby Got Back” as was leaked. No credit to Coulton was given. The track is on sale on iTunes.
Then, on his blog, Coulton noted that “They also got in touch with my peeps to basically say that they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version — so you know, it’s kind of SECRET
Apparently, the legalities surrounding re-recording a cover are murky enough that, even if a new version is demonstrably different from the original, FOX believes it’s on strong legal ground to simply copy the work outright without credit. And previous situations where cover artists claimed to have been “given greater exposure” by having work copied without credit on “Glee” have borne this out.
But let’s leave legalities aside, here. As someone who appreciates art, this is simply wrong. It is disgusting for employees of a major company to borrow another’s work, not give said artist credit and then tell him he should be grateful for the attention. FOX may be legally in the right. But morally, it’s utterly bankrupt.
Coulton, however, has responded with class and brilliance. He has posted a new track himself on iTunes, GooglePlay and Amazon — “Baby Got Back (in the style of ‘Glee’)”. Yes, that’s right, he’s released a cover of the “Glee” cover of his cover — which, illustrating his point, sounds exactly like the original. Oh, and all proceeds will go to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project.
And as far as FOX’s arrogant assertion about “exposure” — well, let’s prove it right. Look up Coulton on iTunes and through his official website at JonathanCoulton.com. Listen to his amazing work and support him. And let’s give “Glee” the opposite of exposure — if the show and its network feel so cavalier about borrowing from others to prop up their enterprise, “Glee” clearly does not deserve any more attention than necessary.
Email Toledo Free Press Star Pop Culture Editor Jeff McGinnis at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.