Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video is just four days old, and she’s already readying her next clip, even as critics argue that her choreographic homage crosses the line. MTV News reports that a teaser for a “Love On Top” video has hit the Internet, and even R&B new-jacks can tell she’s nodding to New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love.” Less well-known is Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, whose work is quoted in the “Countdown” video. Director Adria Petty told MTV News that “German modern-dance references” informed the video’s creative process. The use of the needle-dragged-across-the-turntable “say what?” sound effect in the shot-for-shot comparison video, above, implies that the quotations are not homage but theft—and when the video’s creators, Studio Brussel, contacted the choreographer, she gave a statement which includes the following:
People asked me if I’m angry or honored.
Neither; on the one hand, I am glad that Rosas danst Rosas can perhaps reach a mass audience which such a dance performance could never achieve, despite its popularity in the dance world since the 1980s. And Beyoncé is not the worst copycat; she sings and dances very well, and she has a good taste!
On the other hand, there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can’t imagine she and her team are not aware of it.
It’s unclear whether de Keersmaeker will pursue any legal action, but this—and the kerfuffle over Beyoncé’s performance at the Billboard Music Awards—illustrates that there is a huge gray area as to what is inspiration, what is homage, and what is theft. These are especially tricky waters to navigate when a style is re-envisioned for a much wider audience, as has been the case with Beyoncé (and, for that matter, Lady Gaga). Notwithstanding the court of law, the court of public opinion can easily be swayed, and this story has gotten us thinking about what constitutes “fair use” in a pop-cultural sense. We’re not sure if there is a cut-and-dried answer.