In the sea of controversy that is Kpop these days, you might have missed the new release, “Back to the Future,” from hip hop group, Airplane. You might also have missed the Kpop fans who are crying foul. According to many, Airplane has plagiarized a section of their refrain from the popular Green Day song, “21 Guns.”
There is no indication that Green Day has taken any legal action. But it’s only a matter of time before a PR representative for Green Day notices that the band’s name keeps being flagged next to Airplane and “Back to the Future.” And American labels have sued Korean artists in the past over similar claims. So what do you think? Is “Back to the Future” a copy of “21 Guns” or no?
Plagiarism or No?
It’s plagiarism. But here’s why.
Both “21 Guns” and “Back to the Future” feature a refrain that rises a full octave in the span of very few notes. This is what everyone is hearing and pointing out as plagiarism. But there are also subtle differences. “21 Guns” uses five chords, with the middle three progressing slightly up the scale to connect first and fifth more dynamically. “Back to the Future” has only three chords, so the middle section has no added progression. That might sound like a very minor difference but consider it this way: try to get someone to guess “21 Guns” by humming only three notes. Now try by humming five. That middle progression is important. There are very real differences between the songs, but it’s not enough.
Even though “Back to the Future” is not a wholesale copy, the refrain is immediately recognizable. I recognized it, and judging by comments on both English and Korean websites, many others have recognized it too. What that says to me is that A) the refrain from “21 Guns” is distinct; and B) the refrain from “21 Guns” is memorable enough to detect in another song, far removed (geographically speaking). Perhaps most importantly for me, though, is that the songwriter, producer, artists, and label all should have been able to recognize the similarity, even if unintentional. Green Day is an internationally famous pop group, and Kpop draws heavily from American influence. It is the responsibility of everyone in the music business to be aware of the music that is out there, and I just cannot believe that no one on Airplane’s team had ever heard “21 Guns.”
It’s important to note that music has a set of common rules, much like grammar in language, that, when followed, can produce similar sounds. A child in Siberia could produce these same notes on accident. But I cannot stomach a claim of unintentional plagiarism when Airplane’s label, 1theK, is one of the biggest in Korea. The responsibility to not plagiarize lies with someone in that agency. True, not every similar sounding song equals plagiarism. In this case, however, I think it does. Which is a real shame, because I’d much rather listen to Airplane’s “Back to the Future” than Green Day’s “21 Guns.”
The End of Plagiarism?
Even though I think Airplane is guilty, there’s a good chance that this is the last time we’ll hear the cry of plagiarism in Kpop, at least for a long time. Why do I think that? Because the Hallyu Wave is no longer a fringe movement.
Since the late ‘90s, Kpop has been spreading across the world. It spread quickly through Asia, but much more slowly in the Western world. Artists like BoA, Rain, Wonder Girls, and more raised awareness, but ultimately, Kpop remained underground in America. In that type of environment, plagiarism could go largely unpunished.
In the last few years, that has changed. Although most Westerners still only know Kpop through PSY, there’s a sea-change in effect. Mostly thanks to the internet, new listeners are discovering Kpop every single day. The Hallyu Wave has been transformed into a powerful movement. What all that extra attention means is that Kpop can no longer get away with plagiarism; there’s simply too many eyes (and ears) watching.
Airplane will serve as a wake-up call to all the labels in Korea. Whether or not the plagiarism was intentional, and whether or not Green Day files a lawsuit, I guarantee we won’t see this again from any of the big labels. The PR disaster that Airplane finds itself in is enough to ensure that future releases will be vetted more carefully. There’s too much at stake now.