Justin Scott // Columnist
The worlds of sports and music thrive on inspiration. Athletes and artists are inspired by their peers and predecessors, often wearing their admiration on their sleeves with pride. However, where the two begin splitting views is where their work stops drawing from inspiration and borders on imitation.
American rock band Greta Van Fleet could tell you all about this conversation, seeing as they’ve found themselves at the centre of the debate for over a year now.
Breaking into the rock scene in 2016 with their first hit, “Highway Tune”, the Michigan-based group instantly garnered praise for their sound. It wasn’t new per se, but rather extremely reminiscent of the music of the 60s and 70s. Then, near the end of 2017, they released From the Fires – an eight-song double-EP. The more praise they received for their sound the more criticism they also received. It was undeniable that the group sounded incredibly similar to another rock band – Led Zeppelin.
If an up-and-coming basketball player had a game that almost replicated an all-time great player, not many people would complain. Take Zion Williamson of Duke University as a current example. The 6’7, 280-pound wing with explosive athleticism has been lauded by many as “the next Lebron”. Or Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers who nearly mimics old footage of Hakeem Olajuwon when he goes to work in the post. Basketball fans aren’t upset that Williamson or Embiid’s games are strongly inspired by those who came before them – and they won’t be as long as the pair continue to succeed.
The main reason for this is that finding success on a basketball court is measurable – there are statistics and analytics that offer easy and clear ways of measuring a player’s performance. Although Williamson may remind many of a young James, his game is measurably successful in its own right. In music however, songs and albums are subjectively good. There’s no definitive way to rank music. When a band like Greta Van Fleet comes along, it’s harder to digest their music as simply “inspired”.
But what’s so wrong with a group of young musicians making music that sounds like the stuff they grew up on and came to love? One of the biggest critiques of modern rock ‘n’ roll is that it doesn’t sound the way it used to. Yet, when it does, it’s criticized for being unimaginative.
The art world is the only realm of society where one’s work is held to such a standard. An investment banker wouldn’t be criticized for using the same tactics as their competitors if they yielded strong returns, nor would a pilot if they flew their plane the the same route as someone who flew before them. So why then are artists held to such a high standard?
Not only does it come back to tangibility, but it also comes back to the very nature of art. It’s in our nature to favour beauty. When Williamson seemingly flies over his opponent and finishes with a thunderous dunk, it’s clearly a more exciting play then an open layup – however, the two are worth the same. Art, on the other hand, has no attached worth. Its value is purely in its beauty and the feeling it evokes.
More than that though, is society’s assigned role of artists. They’re meant to be the honest. Artists are meant to create works that make us think about far more than what we see in front of us, and it’s because of this that many feel that Greta Van Fleet’s music is somewhat disingenuous as the group are portraying themselves as the second coming of 70s rock culture, when they’re really no more than a glorified cover band.
On the other hand, what could be so wrong with four kids playing some good old rock ‘n’ roll?
The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with it. Greta Van Fleet makes great music that brings listeners back to a different time. But, if they don’t evolve, they’ll become a novelty, they’ll be forever known as “the band that sounds like Led Zeppelin.”