Op-Ed: When Beyonce's Inspiration Turns Into Imitation


Beyonce, Kerli

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but what if the person imitating is a polarizing icon that should be doing otherwise -- someone like Beyoncé?

On Monday (April 29), pop singer Kerli posted a side-by-side photo on her Facebook page of her and Beyoncé donning the same Amato Haute Couture dress. The photo of Beyoncé comes from the pages of her 2013 "Mrs. Carter Show" tour book.

Except, it's not just the Furne One designed dress -- which also Nicki Minaj wore in her "Va Va Voom" video -- that's similar in the photo. Both singers can be seen painted in white, from head to toe, and stylistically posed as sculptures.

No one owns a look, image, dance move (after all, how many artists have pulled out signature Michael Jackson moves?), or in this case, an experimental costume. They're not copyrighted property, but filed as intellectual property.

Any artist, including Beyoncé, can wear whatever another artist wore, but that multiplicity gets suspicious and easily pegged as stealing. And understandably so, when it's not only the look of the artist that is being traced, but his or her entire idea.

Beyoncé first caught flak for working up a dance similar to Josephine's Baker's iconic banana dance in her "Deja Vu" video, then was seen sporting a skirt with dangling bananas when performing the "B'Day" track. But let's be honest: that wasn't that serious, at least not at that point in her 20-year plus career. She later borrowed from Bob Fosse's routine, "Mexican Breakfast," in the video for her girls anthem, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." There are also references to "Rich Man's Frug" scene (of Bob Fosse's "Sweet Charity") in Bey's "Get Me Bodied" video.

There's a difference between inspiration and imitation. "Countdown" is a good example of Beyoncé doing both in one piece of work. She references Audrey Hepburn's "Funny Face" dancing and both Hepburn and Peggy Moffitt's late 50's/early 60's fashion, then elaborates with color schemes and pairs the choreography perfectly with the pace of the soundscapes. She also samples Boyz II Men's countdown from their song, "Uhh Ahh."

As the video continues, we see Bey' using the same choreography, cinematography and costumes that Belgian choreographer and dancer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, used in  "Rosas Danst Rosas." It's one thing to be inspired by someone else's work and revamp with one's personal style, but it's another to duplicate exact movements, which is ultimately violating the artist's intellectual property. Context matters.

Before the debut of "Countdown," Beyonce was criticized for nearly replicating Italian singer Lorella Cuccarini's live performance with her performance of "Run the World (Girls)" at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards. She later stated that she had hired the same choreographers that had worked on Cucarini's performance, but it's still puzzling as to why she didn't work with them to create a groundbreaking concept of her own.

The choreography, seen in the performance and the song's accompanying music video, comes from Mozambigue dance troupe Tofo Tofo. Instead of thanking them for the inspiration after the fact, as she's done with Cuccarini and Keersmaeker, Beyoncé brought them to the U.S. and hired them to dance alongside her in the "Run the World (Girls)" video.

The 2011 song, off her fourth studio album "4" swipes the beat from Major Lazer's 2009 "Pon De Floor." According to Diplo, one half of Major Lazer, the making of "Run the World (Girls)" started out as a "joke" (whatever that means).

Beyoncé's "1 + 1" video features scenes similar to the unfinished French film, "Le'Enfer," while her "Love On Top" video has dancing scenes much the same as those in New Edition's "If It Isn't Love" video.

But more bothersome than Bey's inspiration-turned-imitation act – and less subtle as her career progresses – is that she's playing off the risks that other artists have been brave enough to take (and appropriately praised for) instead of challenging herself and taken some herself.

Perhaps visual and dance concepts don't come as naturally to her as vocal prowess, but I'm doubtful that she can recruit those for which it does. No shots at Frank Gatson Jr. (but shots?) who is a director, visual artist developer, creative director and choreographer who's worked closely with greats like Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, Tina Turner and consecutively with Beyoncé.

Even as a vocal performer, Beyonce is more of a canvas than a creator. The majority of her discography was written (yes, some co-written) by other singer-songwriters, from the likes of Ne-Yo to The-Dream. But the formula works for her: she holds 19 top 10s on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart with six No. 1s.

The bittersweet side of Beyonce stealing imitable art is that when she does, she does it well. Perhaps it's why we give the diva a pass, or two, and will in the future. Let's also not forget that voice of hers and stage stamina that hypnotizes many into disregarding such acts -- after all, words and imagery can only strike a chord or transcend to a degree if they're executed with astounding talent.