Adele’s “Hello” & Tom Waits’ “Martha”: Inspiration Or Imitation?
Adele‘s “Hello” sold 1.1 million digital copies in its first week of existence. It was widely welcomed as a classic Adele tearjerker, but now there’s a small contingent of music listeners/trolls on Twitter arguing that it’s a little too classic, in that they think it copies a 1973 Tom Waits song. Unlike most of the cases of copyright infringement that get lobbed around these days, this argument doesn’t suggest she stole a melody or copied a “feel,” but that she cloned the concept.
Wait’s “Martha” details a man calling up his old lover after many years, and contains the lyrics: “Hello, hello there, is this Martha? This is old Tom Frost / And I am calling long distance, don’t worry ’bout the cost / ‘Cause it’s been forty years or more, now Martha please recall / Meet me out for coffee, where we’ll talk about it all.”
Adele’s new song starts off thusly: “Hello, it’s me / I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet / To go over everything / They say that time’s supposed to heal ya, but I ain’t done much healing.”
They both use the word “Hello,” sing about the passage of time and depict a telephone call. Fair enough. And Fuse points out that “Hello” producer Greg Kurstin did mention that he and Adele spoke about “Tom Waits, and different storytellers like that” when coming up with the track. So maybe we have another inspiration vs. imitation case, similar to the “Blurred Lines” debacle.
But the argument gets a little flimsy when you zoom out a bit. I know it’s crazy to imagine, but there used to be a time in which friends/family/exes/colleagues would go long stretches without talking or staying updated on each others’ lives. And the only way to break the drought was to call and maybe set up a get-together. Countless songs have depicted such a scenario in the past 5o years of pop music. Adele has admitted she isn’t a heavy social media user, so is it really so hard to believe that she may actually still cling to this ancient ritual and decided to write about it?
Or does this all mean all these songs are copies of each other? That “Hanging On The Telephone” (“It’s good to hear your voice, you know it’s been so long / If I don’t get your call then everything goes wrong”) and Stevie Wonder‘s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” piggyback off “Martha” and other phone-based precursors, which were all then jacked by Billie Myers‘ “Kiss The Rain” (“Hello, can you hear me, am I getting through to you, hello, is it late there?”) until the through-line finally gets to Adele? I could play this game ALL NIGHT, people. I’m not even wild about “Hello,” but if you wanna do this let’s do this!