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Why Tom Petty gets songwriting credit on Sam Smith's 'Stay With Me'

Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ is now firmly established as a first-rate ‘light of the morning’ tearjerker of a ballad. With Smith’s bellowing gospel-tinged vocals and the biggest sounding chorus most of us have ever heard, the song paired the highly dramatic gutsy singing style popularised by Adele with a strange sense of familiarity that gave the song a sense of instant canonisation, almost like the song had always existed in our brains.

That last part is what got Smith into trouble. Wixen Publishing Company apparently got the same sense that the song’s chorus melody had existed before, and belonged to one of their most prominent clients, Tom Petty. Indeed, the comparison to ‘I Won’t Back Down’ was apt, and although Smith claimed ignorance of Petty’s Full Moon Fever cut, they decided to give Petty and co-writer/ELO leader Jeff Lynne 12.5% songwriting credit rather than go through a lengthy legal battle.

Petty was a pretty amicable figure when it came to alleged songwriting theft. When The Strokes copped to lifting the ‘American Girl’ riff on ‘Last Nite’, Petty said it made him “laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.” When the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Dani California’ sounded uncannily like Petty’s ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, there were no lawyers involved, with Petty saying “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike.” So what made ‘Stay With Me’ different?

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty and see if my years of music theory training, which I have subsequently abandoned in favour of a writing career, can actually pay off. First off, ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’ are in similar, but different, keys: ‘Stay With Me’ is in C Major while ‘I Won’t Back Down’ is in G Major. This means that a number of the chords used in both songs are going to overlap, not helping the plagiarism accusations. Also not helping is that the verses of both songs use similar, but again different, chord progressions: ‘Stay With Me’ has a vi-IV-I progression while ‘I Won’t Back Down’ has a vi-V-I progression. Although they may seem close enough to sue, it’s worth noting that music, pop and rock music specifically, use and reuse chord progressions all the time, to the point where finding a unique progression that no artist has used before and actually sounds good is almost impossible.

Really, what most likely caused the accusations of plagiarism are the melodic movements of each song’s title phrases being incredibly similar. The descending harmonic vocal lines are really what doomed ‘Stay With Me’. The fact that both songs have main hooks that are incredibly similar is what makes your ear connect the two, even if you have no formal music training.

So, would Smith have won in the courtroom had they decided to fight Petty’s publishers on the claim? Well, that’s hard to say. In the years since ‘Stay With Me’ was released, songwriting plagiarism cases have yielded drastically different results. Led Zeppelin managed to win their case over similarities to Spirit’s ‘Taurus’, but Robin Thicke lost his claim that ‘Blurred Lines’ didn’t plagiaries Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’, despite the songs having different keys, progressions, and instrumentation. The world of music plagiarism is ill-defined and subject to constant change.

It seems believable to me that Smith hadn’t heard ‘I Won’t Back Down’ before writing ‘Stay With Me’, at least more so than the Chili Peppers having never heard ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ despite literally using that song’s producer, Rick Rubin, on their own ‘Dani California’. The similarities are certainly there, but it seems more likely to be a case of pop music only having a small number of common progressions and melodic lines that actually appeal to the masses rather than blatant stealing.

If it depresses you that music can literally be calculated down to a formula, I’m sorry, but it’s true. Either way, Smith and Petty are now intertwined forever, thanks to the limitations of earworms.