“You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate.” —Mary Oliver
“Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” —Benjamin Franklin
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” —T.S. Eliot
If I were to ask a random sample of people whether it is better to be original or to imitate others, I predict almost 100% would immediately say it’s better to be original. It’s what we’re taught to prize in art, business, technology, many areas of our lives, and popular music is no exception. It appears that creativity and originality are symbiotic and practically synonymous. Much of the discourse around what it means to be original centers around being “yourself”— being authentically you without trying to be anyone you’re not, and that this will lead to your most original and successful work. This is certainly a lovely thought.
Through this premise, we can infer (and often do) that imitation is bad, the enemy of originality. Obviously if you imitate, you’re trying to sound like someone else, and therefore you don’t sound like “you!” We hear these types of criticisms all the time—that too many singers these days utilize the indie pop voice, or try to sing like they’re Auto-tuned, or they sound too much like Joni Mitchell/Aretha Franklin/Freddie Mercury/insert your vocal hero here. Basically the implication is that too many singers these days sound alike, sound like they’re imitating each other or their heroes, sound unoriginal—the cardinal sin of singing.
Fair enough—we don’t want to hear a voice imitating something we’ve already heard before and calling it new. But here’s the big issue: if we can’t imitate other singers, it becomes very difficult to learn how to sing.
Think back—how did you first learn to sing? Many vocalists can’t remember, it’s been so long. But even if you were in voice lessons and choir from a young age, learning all about the diaphragm and tall vowels, I imagine at some point early in your singing journey, you must have heard a singer you loved and tried to sound like them. For me it started with Alison Kraus and Amy Grant, then Celine Dion when Titanic was inescapable, then Jewel and Joni Mitchell, and it continued as my musical tastes expanded. Who hasn’t tried for Celine’s ease on those high notes in “My Heart Will Go On?” Who hasn’t belted out “You Oughta Know” at karaoke while doing their best Alanis Morissette impression?
We learn so much from these imitations, even if all we learn sometimes is that our voices weren’t meant to sound like the people we’re imitating. But often we learn more valuable lessons, sometimes technique (you can hear the openness of Celine’s vowels, her well-placed mix register), and sometimes style. Because the stylistic differences between the various genres of pop music are difficult to notate on the written page (how would you write a timbre change, a subtle phrasing choice, a yodel or cry?), singers usually need to learn these stylistic tools by ear. Not to mention the fact that many voice teachers will demonstrate exercises and passages in songs for their students, especially those that learn best aurally, so that they can hear the desired sound and imitate it during their lessons. In this way, listening to singers and trying to imitate them becomes a necessity for a commercial vocalist to learn how to sing well.
So where should teachers draw the line with imitation? When does it stop being a useful learning tool and start being the death of originality?
My thought is that imitation never stops being useful as a means of learning and sparking creativity—the trick is to widen your scope of sources. If you only imitate Aretha Franklin, it’s true that you’ll only sound like Aretha Franklin, and not very much like you. But if you imitate Aretha Franklin for a while, learn all you can, and decide to imitate Beyonce for the next little while, and Billie Holiday for the little while after that, and so on, suddenly you’ve got options. You can choose what you keep from the lessons each singer has taught you and create your own mix of influences. A particularly useful source, especially if a student is bent on imitating one particular singer, is inflooenz.com. Students can find their favorite singer, followed by a list of that singer’s influences and later artists who list that singer as an influence. This is similar to a tactic Austin Kleon describes in his wonderful book, Steal Like an Artist—he describes this as climbing the family tree of your creative lineage. Really, what he and T.S. Eliot mean by “stealing” is sourcing inspiration from many different places, as many as you can, and mixing them together into something you like. Cook up all these influences in your sound, and it will be easier, as Benjamin Franklin suggests, to “conceal your sources.”
One other major point to remember about the voice that makes all this imitation seem a bit less sinful—no one else in the world has the exact same voice as you. Truly no one. If I call a friend’s name when her back is turned, she knows it’s me by my voice. In the old days when we didn’t have cell phones or caller ID, you could still call your parents and say, “Hey, it’s me,” and they knew who you were instantly. So when you imitate another singer, what you’re really doing is learning their tricks, their techniques, their tones, through the lens of your own voice, which you could never truly change even if you wanted to. And that’s what you mix up with all the influences you’ve found in this equation:
originality = your many influences + your unique voice
If you think about it this way, unoriginality is almost impossible, because you are always singing with your own voice—how could you not? The Mary Oliver quote with which I began this article was shortened; in full, she said, “You would learn very little in this world if you weren’t allowed to imitate. And to repeat your imitations until some solid grounding in the skill was achieved and the slight but wonderful difference—that made you you and no one else—could assert itself.” Through your mixing and melding of all your imitations, you must simply find and keep that slight but wonderful difference.
I hope that I’ve made imitation a bit less scary, less of a bad word. It isn’t the enemy of originality and creativity that it may seem—in fact, it’s necessary for their survival! Imitation is often the first step for young singers, and it’s one they shouldn’t feel they need to slough off at some later point when they’ve suddenly become “an original.” Far from it—our students should keep exploring, keep listening, and keep imitating, because there is always more to learn!