Does Britney Spears' new single, "Hold It Against Me," rip off the Bellamy Brothers' 1979 country classic, "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body"?
You bet your life.
Sorry, that's not an actual judgment call. It's just a reference to the fact that the Bellamys have previously admitted copping their famous line—"If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?"—from Groucho Marx, as heard on his 1950s TV series, You Bet Your Life.
But that didn't stop the brother act from expressing (or at least feigning) outrage at Britney's re-use of their signature lyric, which she slightly alters and renders as: "If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?""Hey, Brit, if I said you ripped off our song, would you hold it against me?" said Howard Bellamy. Added brother David, "If you listen to the lyrics of Britney Spears' new single, you'll find some major similarities... She's a talented gal. But professionally, well, in all honesty, we feel completely ripped off. Where's the originality?"
[Related: 50 Cent sued for copyright infringement]
Naturally, the statement released by the Bellamys' Nashville publicist includes nary a mention of how the phrase in question wasn't original to them, either.
In an interview with Songfacts a few years ago, Howard Bellamy was open about the source of the famous quote. "I have to give credit for that line to Groucho Marx," he said then. "Groucho used to have a show on TV when we were growing up... He'd have guests on, and different quiz questions... He'd use that line occasionally and say, 'If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?' and shake his cigar and kind of raise his eyebrows."
We can only hope Britney's upcoming video for "Hold It Against Me" includes her shaking a cigar, so she can prove she ripped it off from the same source the Bellamy Brothers did.
Although the Bellamys' statement seems a little disingenuous in its claims for originality and omission of Groucho, there's no doubt that, in adopting Marx's old catchphrase into a song, they were being less un-original than Spears is. It's probably true that anyone under 30 who doesn't come from a country-loving family has never heard the phrase before. But certainly almost anyone over 35 or 40 has, and not even just country fans, thanks to the title's ubiquity in popular culture in the early '80s.
It may not count as plagiarism, but even after a few decades, you're still kind of surprised that anyone would have the chutzpah to go there. For anyone in middle age or older, hearing a song with that as its lyric hook, it's as if someone wrote a new song called "(I Don't Have Any) Satisfaction" or "Janey Got a Glock" or "Hi, Jude."
Or as if they wrote a new song called "California Girls" or "I Kissed a Girl." Oh, wait...
There does seem to be a bit of a pattern emerging in the Dr. Luke/Max Martin camp, where everything old is new again, when it comes to appropriating familiar old titles or lyrical hooks. Dr. Luke has said in interviews that he's not that much of a lyric guy, so it seems entirely likely that Katy Perry was responsible for borrowing those earlier titles—and that Britney had this one pop into her head, after almost certain exposure to it growing up in the South.
No one is likely to ever confuse the songs in or out of a court of law, since "Bellamy Brothers" and "dubstep" aren't often mentioned in the same breath. Somehow, we suspect the bros are a little less offended and more bemused than they come off in their statement. But we're glad to know they have "no beef" with Brit-Brit, because we'd hate to see the mustachioed "Let Your Love Flow" dudes caught up in a drive-by.
[Rewind video: Gretchen Wilson sued for ripping off The Black Crowes]
What do you think of the Bellamy Brothers' charge against Britney? Are her lyrics fair re-use, or a simple case of cross-genre copycatting?
(While you mull that question over, here's a vintage episode of You Bet Your Life to mine for new hit song ideas...)
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- Britney Spears
- Groucho Marx