Has pop reached a saturation point with interpolations and sampling?
If you’ve been paying close attention to mainstream pop music lately, you may have noticed that a lot of it sounds vaguely like something you’ve already heard before.
Last summer, Bebe Rexha and David Guetta’s “I’m Good (Blue),” went viral on TikTok and Twitter, slathering the infectiously repetitive chorus of Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Be Dee)” with fizzy EDM piano chords and blissed-out lyrics that feel generated from an AI on spring break. More recently, Kim Petras’ latest single and team-up with Nicki Minaj, “Alone,” borrows heavily from Alice Deejay’s iconic late ‘90s dance track “Better Off Alone,” slowing down its club-heavy production and morphing it into an intriguing if sluggish trap beat. And that’s not the only recent interpolation from Minaj, one of our most preeminent hip-hop/pop crossover artists. Earlier this year, she altered Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” into a Flamenco-inspired bop with “Red Ruby Da Sleeze,” and before that in 2022 she sampled Rick James on the “Anaconda” rehash “Super Freaky Girl.” (Her latest single fares only slightly better — simply because it features the hilariously WTF line, “I don’t fuck with horses since Christopher Reeves.”)
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Though pop music recycling tunes from the past is as old as pop itself, this increasingly widespread fad of interpolation (recreating a song note-for-note) and sampling (copying and pasting a snippet of a song) has effectively flattened mainstream pop music into an uncanny valley of sonic pastiche. A reliable formula may guarantee commercially successful results, but an overreliance on regurgitating older intellectual property only serves to highlight a failure in capturing what made the original work so, well, original in the first place.
Even music listeners have taken notice of this endless feedback loop of monocultural pop and have responded critically to the risk aversion and creative disposability that defines the trend. But despite the online discourse, music publishing companies haven’t stopped mining the internet’s obsessive fixation on pop culture history for how to best catch the rapidly dwindling attention spans of fans. This is an especially alarming concern for musicians whose sound is entirely devoted to taking from more popular works without adding any further flair to them.
For instance, Meghan Trainor recently cashed in on this fad with “Mother,” which interpolates the Chordettes’s frequently sampled and covered “Mr. Sandman.” Given Trainor’s brand of department store-friendly doo-wop, it makes sense that she would recontextualize a song from the era. However, in refashioning the song’s recognizable “dum-dum-dum” refrain into an on-the-nose condemnation of hypermasculinity (“you’re just a bum-bum-bum”), “Mother” only reiterates how incredibly dated and uninspired Trainor’s artistic vision is, with its themes of women’s empowerment echoing the #girlboss feminism that dominated the 2010s. The use of the song’s other sample — an ironic TikTok of a man saying, “The fact that Meghan Trainor is literally mother right now” — also feels like a misguided, contrived attempt at pandering to an online, progressive audience.
Ava Max is another example of the pop nostalgia-industrial complex, often known for reworking several older pop songs from artists like ATC, Jon Bovi, Bonnie Tyler, Aqua, LeAnn Rimes, and ABBA to fit her dance-pop template. Even though Max is well aware of her overuse of interpolations and the criticism from pop fans, she remains steadfast in maintaining her strategy. Max has a strong voice and her music certainly makes a fun soundtrack for a Drag Race lipsync, but it’s frustrating to watch a clearly gifted artist limit their own ambition to what’s comfortable — making what sounds like a classic but isn’t one itself.
This anodyne pop pastiche is affecting the hip-hop world too, arguably to a worse degree. Rising rapper/singer Coi Leray did a minorly tweaked update of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” (a frequent snippet in reportedly over 300 songs) for her most popular single, “Players.” When comparing the two, Leray’s take is shorter, more polished, and lyrically simpler, but otherwise resembles a hollow, perfunctory facsimile of the genre-defining classic. Even her verses mimic the cadence of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Nasty Boy” and Nate Dogg’s outro on Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.”
The same goes for her more recent single, “My Body,” a cringey re-interpretation of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” and her feature alongside Anne-Marie on David Guetta’s “Baby Don’t Hurt Me,” a numbingly algorithmic remix of Haddaway’s “What is Love.”
Yung Gravy, another TikTok fave, has also revolved his entire discography around lazily riffing from older songs, from Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” to Player’s “Baby Come Back” to (once again) “Mr. Sandman.”
Both hip-hop and pop have a lengthy, rich history of interpolating and sampling, but these particular songs simply microwave the sounds and feelings from an older era. Not only that, they are bittersweet reminders of how much better those original works are.Simply acquiring the rights to older hits in order to redistribute them not only leads to potentially sticky legal complications, but furthers the creative drought we’re currently in. Just look at the oversaturated, fatiguing reboot/remake-centric entertainment market, where IP reigns supreme and TV and films made in this century are already getting revamped. Essentially, it’s disappointing to see commodified nostalgia become so continually ingrained in the fabric of our culture that people with the most to spend on making art are seemingly so uninterested in creating their own original timeless works.
Of course, not all recent interpolation/sample-heavy songs are valueless. Take Ariana Grande’s brief but clever flip of *NSYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill” in her slinky “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” Doja Cat and SZA breezily absorbing Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” for their addictive collab “Kiss Me More,” or Charli XCX extracting two great Europop bangers — September’s “Cry for You” and Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” — to underscore her deeply catchy songs “Beg for You” and “Used to Know Me.” Though Olivia Rodrigo reused similar chord progressions from Paramore and Taylor Swift for “good 4 u” and “deja vu” (and retroactively credited those artists after some noticed and publicized the similarities), both songs still stand as promising efforts from the up-and-coming pop singer. Beyoncé, arguably the biggest pop artist of our time, has a discography rife with innovative interpolations and samples.
What makes these interpolations and samples great isn’t necessarily exposing younger audiences to a classic work or honoring the emotional staying power of the older song. It’s bringing an entirely new, specific angle to it — a way of creating a dialogue between the past and present. Interpolating and sampling may continue to be a prominent constant in pop music, considering TikTok’s acceleration of this particular trend and our culture’s yearning for pacification and predictability after years of chaos. But pop music trends do come and go (remember the millennial whoop and cursive singing?) and newer pop artists that emerge in the next few years will hopefully learn from the past instead of trying to replicate it.