Musical Deja Vu ••

Tuesday, January 09, 2018
Copyright © 2002-2018 All rights reserved.
Musical Version of "Separated at Birth"

When modern pop music began in the mid-1950s with rock ‘n’ roll, it was indeed one of the most significant developments of the 20th century. Like any other business—with or without a creative side—imitators were busy at work almost immediately. As this rock thing approaches its 60th birthday, it seems every other song on the radio sounds like something we’ve heard before. If you couldn’t quite put your finger on it, we’d like to do for sound-alikes what Spy magazine did for look-alikes.

Rules of the Game

First of all, we feel there should be no considerations for songs that have a reason to sound like each other.

  • Identical music

    • One is a remake of the other, including adaptations based on classical, folk, traditional, or other music sources.
    • One is an answer song to the other.
    • One samples the other, either directly or through interpolation (a limited remake).

  • Identical vocals

    • They feature the same lead singer.
    • The lead singers are related.

  • Musical or vocal homage

    • One is a tribute to or parody of a genre or artist.

While related singers don’t always sound alike, genetics cannot be overlooked. As a brother Gibb, Andy did sound a little bit like the Bee Gees. One could say Julian Lennon has inherited his father’s voice. Billy Joel’s 1983 hit “Uptown Girl” was done in the spirit of an unmistakable sound from the 1960s. So any resemblance to The 4 Seasons was no accident. Similarly, Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” had that 1960s vibe that was tailor-made for the second Austin Powers film in 1999.

However, we get into a gray area when we consider records produced by the same person or team. (To a lesser extent, the same issue arises when an artist employs the same musicians who played on another artist’s records.) Some producers have a very distinctive sound that comes through on all their records. Phil Spector was a prime example from the 1960s. He perfected his “wall of sound” on records by The Crystals, Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, and Ike & Tina Turner. Nile Rodgers (Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna) left his signature all over his clients’ records in the 1970s and ’80s. In recent years, producers such as Rodney Jerkins and The Neptunes duo have fashioned a familiar sound in their work with a variety of artists. But since many other producers don’t have a specific sound or style, records that share production credits should be judged on a case-by-base basis.

Too Close for Comfort

The most famous case of musical deja vu in the rock era is probably the one that pits George Harrison’s first and biggest solo hit from 1970, “My Sweet Lord,” against The Chiffons’ only No. 1 single from 1963, “He’s so Fine.” A court ruling in 1976 found Harrison guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” of the plaintiff’s “He’s so Fine.” And how does a songwriter express his feelings about such a lawsuit? With a song, of course. Harrison’s 1977 top 30 hit “This Song” made references to the case.

Most songwriting lawsuits involve plaintiffs whose songs are not familiar to the listeners. So it’s hard for the public to judge for themselves the merits of these cases. The last legal case involving two equally familiar songs (though not classics like “Fine” and “Lord”) was settled out of court in 1998. The plaintiff in this case, who wrote Kenny Loggins’ 1991 top 10 adult contemporary hit “Conviction of the Heart” with Loggins, had sued Garth Brooks over his 1994 top 10 country hit “Standing Outside the Fire,” which was co-written by Brooks. Loggins had declined to join the lawsuit, obviously uneasy about pursuing a fellow performer. However, a copyright’s co-owner usually benefits from any legal action automatically.

Twin Songs of Different Masters

Except for songs that end up in litigation, a record usually gives us that feeling of deja vu by way of its musical arrangement, which contributes greatly to the overall sound. (That’s why you can cut a remix of any given song and end up with something very different.) Take, for instance, Mariah Carey’s fifth No. 1 in a row from 1991, “Emotions.” Many thought it reminded them of the 1977 No. 1 hit “Best of My Love” by, ironically, The Emotions. One more coincidence: both singles were released on Columbia Records. Some radio stations were inspired to play a special version featuring the two songs spliced together.

In 1994, the listeners were hearing double again with Sheryl Crow’s first single and top 10 hit “All I Wanna Do.” Its musical arrangement seemed to recall Stealers Wheel’s top 10 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” from 1973. Note that the Stealers Wheel’s song was featured prominently in a wickedly intense scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 cult film “Reservoir Dogs.” For those interested in six degrees of separation, Crow had worked as a backup singer for Harrison.

Singing Doppelgangers

Corporate executives have been criticized for promoting only people who are like themselves (the old-boys network). Well, some recording artists may be guilty of the same thing. Babyface put his sound-alikes Tony Rich Project and Jon B on his own label and his wife’s label, respectively.

When the lead singer leaves a group, the surviving members invariably hire a replacement who sounds reasonably like the ex. No one has succeeded as well as Vince Clarke of Yaz, who managed to find a male singer, Andy Bell, who sounded remarkably like predecessor Alison Moyet. If he hadn’t renamed the duo Erasure, it might have taken the listeners a while to miss Moyet. Sometimes artists help identify their own audio twins. For example, Ke (a male singer) included a remake of a Melanie song on his debut album, thus making our work a lot easier.

Timing also plays a part in our sense of deja vu. If two similar songs are played on the radio within a span of 12 to 24 months, we are that much more inclined to notice. When Meredith Brooks’ top 10 hit “Bitch” was released soon after multiple tracks from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 smash album “Jagged Little Pill” saturated the airwaves, the resemblance was apparent immediately. If that song was released today, the listeners might not notice any similarity to Morissette. For the latest updates, set your browser to

[See the Official MDV List]

Nolo Contendere

Yes, we are aware there are many other examples of sound-alikes in the last 55 years. In fact, we have purposely excluded the following genres because they inspired (and, in some cases, continue to inspire) many similar-sounding contemporaries.

  • 1950s doo wop
  • 1950s rockabilly
  • 1960s girl groups
  • 1960s Motown sound
  • 1960s Stax/Volt sound
  • 1960s/70s acid rock
  • 1970s Philly sound
  • 1970s disco
  • 1970s/80s heavy metal bands
  • 1980s hair bands
  • 1980s freestyle
  • 1980s/90s ska bands
  • 1990s Euro dance acts, especially the he-raps-she-sings genre
  • 1990s new jack swing
  • 1990s grunge bands
  • Child acts, teen acts, family groups
  • U.S/Euro reggae
  • Rock ‘n’ rap acts
  • Current boy bands (need we say more)

Send in the Clones

If we missed any noteworthy song/artist doppelgangers, please let us know. You can send your musical clones to simcoblog at the domain Please specify “MDV” in your subject line when you e-mail your suggestions. Depending on how your browser is set up, you can also do this by clicking on Mail-Off. All accepted nominations will be incorporated into our master list. And tell us how you found out about Musical Deja Vu.

You’re probably wondering why we haven’t mentioned lyrical copycats. The list of songs that share common themes is endless; it’s more fun to compare music than words. Besides, we don’t know of a successful copyright infringement case involving just song lyrics (somebody will write and correct us on that).

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