Steal With Me?: Sam Smith Wins Controversial Grammy

Becca Damante '17 Arts Editor 

Last Sunday night marked one of music’s biggest nights; the 57th annual Grammy Awards took place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. and was broadcasted to millions of viewers worldwide. The Grammy Awards are known for featuring interesting performance collaborations between more contemporary artists and older icons, and last night was no exception. Among the best combinations were Annie Lenox and Hozier singing “Take Me to Church” and “I Put a Spell On You,” Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige performing “Stay With Me,” and John Legend and Common, who closed the show with “Glory” from “Selma.”

Perhaps the most shocking award winner of the evening was rock singer Beck, who took home the coveted Album of the Year trophy for his 12th studio album, “Morning Phase.” He beat Beyoncé and Sam Smith, which infuriated Kanye West who jumped on stage momentarily as Beck was receiving the award. Later in the evening, he insisted that Beck should have given the award to Beyoncé during the show instead.

Among the other winners, Sam Smith was the clear champion of the night, taking home four awards including the prestigious Song of the Year and Record of the Year for “Stay with Me.” Although that song is unarguably one of the most popular songs of the year, I was a little bit shocked that the Academy awarded these honors to him due to the recent controversy over its conception. When the song was released last year, many listeners found the melody to be similar to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “I Won’t Back Down,” which was written by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. Smith and the other writers of “Stay With Me” claimed that they had never heard Petty’s 1989 classic, but acknowledged the similarity between the two songs. A few weeks ago, a settlement was made that gave Petty and Lynne partial songwriting royalties and co-writer status for “Stay With Me,” but deemed that Petty and Lynne would not share the Grammy award with Smith, should the song win for songwriting.

Despite the controversy, Smith still won four Grammy Awards. Song of the Year is given exclusively to the songwriters of a song rather than the performers. This just really perplexed me. Not only do the two songs sound extremely alike, but the Grammy’s is an organization actively involved in copyright reform. In fact, during this year’s show, front man and songwriter of One Republic, Ryan Tedder, announced the inception of the Grammy Creator’s Alliance, a coalition of artists dedicated to pursuing policy change in music copyright. With all of the controversy over the last year surrounding music on Spotify, the group is pushing for artists to receive fair pay for their music. If the Grammy’s are creating an organization that values recognition for one’s work, I find it hard to believe that they would bestow Smith with an award for a song that was not completely his own.

But the Grammy Awards actually have a long history of recognizing songs such as Smith’s that pull from other already acclaimed artists and their songs. Most of these cases are simply nominations; last year, both “Roar” by Katy Perry and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke were nominated for significant awards despite their alleged similarities to “Brave” by Sara Bareilles and “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye, respectively. Though these songs didn’t win, simply nominating them raises a question on where the Grammy’s really stand when it comes to authorship.

On one hand, we live in an era where the most popular songs are arguably those that sound the most familiar, so it makes sense that these are the songs nominated. But with so many streaming services and ways to download music illegally, we have entered an era of intense dedication to ownership and recognition. By awarding Smith so many awards at this year’s Grammy’s, including Song of the Year, the Grammy’s have set a precedent on the role plagiarism plays in receiving awards. Despite its founding of the Creator’s Alliance, what kind of message is the organization sending if it awards those who craft unoriginal songs, even if it’s unintentional?