There is no doubt that other forms of music are a huge influence on anyone creating music in the 21st century. With the huge collection of recorded music available to the modern artist and the speed at which this music comes to us, it becomes difficult to distinguish a bands influences from it's creativity. So what qualifies a band as being derivative? I believe it is the extent to which they are able to synthesize these influences and progress the art form. Derivative music can be traced back to a tiny handful or perhaps just one major influence. Truly good modern music can trace its lineage to a thousand different influences and a progressive form that pushes the boundaries of how you define what you're hearing. It is said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. That may be so, but I don't feel compelled to listen to it.
Any decent musician has spent a huge amount of time listening to music; absorbing, reacting, analyzing and deconstructing their favorite recordings. They will have spent innumerable hours listening to their own work and the performances of others and reflecting on what they like about it. Likewise, they have an opinion about what they don't like. Taste is everything in music production. There is little doubt that what you listen to has a deep rooted influence on what you play, they are both extensions of your musical tastes and come from the same place. This is an inescapable fact of music. It doesn't mean that you can't innovate.
Derivative music is music without risk. It is the safe road, the comfortable pair of shoes. It is familiar and does not challenge the ear. Papa Roach is a perfect example of derivative music. Its actual worth as music can be debated endlessly, such things are the realm of taste but even a most ardent fan of their work must admit that there is little innovation present. Their music is a culmination of modern rock radio habits. The song structure that they employ varies by no more than 10% per song. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out. It is a method that has evolved significantly in the last 30 years and left this particular canker sore of pop music behind. There is nothing distinctive whatsoever about this band, they pass through my ears like every other craptacular band with a Digitech pedal rig and a few bad ideas about songwriting that radio calls "modern rock".
In another sense music that, while derived from a great number of influences, fails utterly to either properly synthesize these influences or innovate upon them is just as bad. Ne-Yo is little more than a place marker sitting on top of twenty years of dull eyed, radio friendly R&B music. It is the culmination of a generation of mediocrity in soul, artists unwilling to take a risk with their sound or truly flex their vocal abilities; choosing instead to play to the least common denominator and appease the lazy listening habits of a pre-defined market. It is a grand example of the major label music form, as bland and lifeless as a bowl of cold oatmeal. The fact is, there is a great deal of room for innovation even within the context of soul music and performers like Ne-Yo fail to even recognize it's existence. If you don't believe me, go listen to Cee-Lo.
In that light there is merit to traditional forms. Soul music is becoming a tradition slowly, and it is still very young. If you want to see the progression of a traditional form that has a longer lineage look no further than bluegrass. Abigail Washburn is a banjo player of considerable skill. This is not why she stands out. Bluegrass is chock full of extremely talented pickers and the dexterity with which they play amazes me constantly. Her talent is in the arrangement of her material, her fine sense of timing and her inclusion of Chinese folk forms in her music. There are deep parallels between Celtic root and Chinese root music but I won't bore you with the technical aspects of this. Instead, look to the beauty and uniqueness of her art. One can draw a direct line between her and her influences and still, we must stand in awe of her brilliant fusion. It is what distinguishes her from so many other bluegrass musicians and it shows a deep commitment to progressing the tradition instead of keeping it locked away in a glass box to be admired from afar.
Broken Social Scene stands in as my example of truly excellent modern music. I can dissect the influences that lead into it, I can analyze the structure and it would take me far too long. It is a finely woven mesh of music, pulling from so many areas of culture that it takes in a life of it's own. It is transcendent art, recognizing it's past while embracing the future. Broken Social Scene is becoming an influence on music moving forward, which is the mark of true innovation. You could debate the relative worth of their contribution to music but one cannot escape the fact that they have made a contribution, which is more than I can say for the vast array of trite, boring crap that occupies so much of popular culture. Even within their collected recordings and side projects there is a remarkable amount of diversity and creativity. They give me hope, they make me think that I'm not doomed to listen to the same music over and over again until I die.
High quality modern music is more than the sum of it's influences. It is a unique synthesis of other musical forms but achieves far more than acting as a single point at the end of an extensive lineage. It expresses the personalities of the musicians involved and ensures that their voices come through in the song. It challenges our preconceptions of what music is capable of and keeps the lifeblood of art flowing forward. It synthesizes and improves on music we thought we knew so much about and keeps people like me from getting burned out and cynical. On occasion an entirely new form of musical expression will come along. Many times it is simply not worth listening to, a great deal of modern music theory revolves around concepts so cerebral, so disconnected from reality that it has little resemblance to an enjoyable experience. I would not presume to know the future history of musical innovation (who in the 60's could predict the rise of hip-hop?) but I can tell you one thing. Influence is no bad thing, there is a considerable amount of synthesis that has yet to be explored and music will continue to evolve. I hope we will always have artists that refuse to be derivative and take big artistic risks for the chance to make me wake up and pay attention.