George Harrison claimed Madonna “helped herself” to his song “Living in the Material World” for her tune “Material Girl.” The 1973 rock song’s name undoubtedly influenced the 1984 pop hit’s title, but that’s not where the tune’s similarities end.
George Harrison said Madonna ‘helped herself’ to his ‘Living in the Material World’ for ‘Material Girl’
In 1971, Bright Tunes Music, the publishing company of The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” sued George for copyright infringement. They claimed the former Beatle copied the 1963 song for his 1970 song “My Sweet Lord.”
In 1976, Judge Richard Owen of the United States District Court declared that George had “subconsciously” copied “He’s So Fine.”
The lawsuit made George paranoid. He vented his frustrations in his 1976 tune “This Song.” While recording, comedian Eric Idle dubbed two arguing voices saying, “Sounds like ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch'” and “Naw! Sounds more like ‘Rescue Me!'”
George often confessed he used his favorite songs as inspiration. However, that didn’t mean he copied any music. During a 1987 interview with Timothy White at Musician Magazine, George said plenty of artists copied each other.
“Not to mention Madonna helping herself to ‘Living in the Material World’ for ‘Material Girl.’ I was ahead of my time,” George said.
George and Madonna’s songs have more in common than their titles
Madonna might’ve gotten “Material Girl” from George’s “Living in the Material World,” but that’s not all the songs have in common.
Comparing the two tunes, at least at face value, one can’t deny how different they are. George sings about wanting to escape the material world.
He sings, “Can’t say what I’m doing here/ But I hope to see much clearer/ After living in the material world…/ I got born into the material world/ Getting worn out in the material world…/ Got caught up in the material world/ From the Spiritual Sky/ Such sweet memories have I/ To the Spiritual Sky/ How I pray/ Yes I pray/ That I won’t get lost/ Or go astray/ As I’m fated for the material world/ Get frustrated in the material world/ Senses never gratified/ Only swelling like a tide/ That could drown me in the Material world…/ Living in the material world/ I hope to get out of this place.”
Initially, one would think Madonna is singing about being a gold digger in “Material Girl.” She sings, “Some boys kiss me/ Some boys hug me/ I think they’re ok/ If they don’t give me proper credit/ I just walk away/ They can beg and they can plead/ But they can’t see the light (that’s right)/ ‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash/ Is always Mister Right.”
While George wants to leave the material world, Madonna can’t live without it. However, that’s not true. The pair are both warning against materialism.
George wanted to leave this world for the spiritual realm. Ever since he became spiritual in the mid-1960s, George wanted to connect with God in every way he could. Eventually, everything in George’s life, including the material things, didn’t impress him. No matter how much money he had, it never truly brought him happiness like God did.
In 1967, George told Melody Maker (per George Harrison on George Harrison: Interviews and Encounters), “The Beatles got all the material wealth that we needed and that was enough to show us that this thing wasn’t material. We are all in the physical world, yet what we are striving for isn’t physical. We all get so hung up with material things like cars and televisions and houses, yet what they can give you is only there for a little bit and then it’s gone.”
George told Crawdaddy 10 years later, “But people interpret it to mean, money, cars, that sort of thing– although those are part of the material world. The material world is like the physical world, as opposed to the spiritual. For me, living in the material world just meant being in this physical body with all the things that go along with it.”
Ten years after that, George added to Anthony DeCurtis, “What I realized over the years is that it’s not what you own, it’s how attached to it you are. And I think the danger is when you become attached obsessively to each other, even to your own body, or to your wealth, your motorcars, your fame and your fortune. It’s to be unattached to it, but you still can experience it. It’s all part of life’s experience.”
Nothing in George’s life held him down to the material world. In Martin Scorsese’s documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, George explained that while he laid stabbed during his family’s 1999 home invasion, he couldn’t find a reason to stay and prepared for death.
He said, “If I had to leave my body in an hour’s time, what is it that I would miss? And I think, well, I’ve got a son who needs a father, so I have to stick around for him as long as I can, but other than that, I can’t think of much reason to be here [laughs].”
Meanwhile, Madonna wasn’t longing for another realm when she recorded “Material Girl,” but she wasn’t exactly singing about her love of material things. She might seem like a gold digger in “Material Girl,” but it’s more of a satirical song.
The pop star confirmed she didn’t identify with her famous song. During a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Madonna said she liked “Material Girl” because it was “ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me.” She continued, “I am not a materialistic person…
“I feel lucky to be able to afford a Frida Kahlo [painting] or live in a nice house, but I know that I can live without it. I’m resourceful, and if I ended up in a log cabin in the middle of the forest, that would work too. These things are not mandatory for my happiness. That’s what I meant by ‘I’m not a materialistic person.'”
“Living in the Material World” and “Material World” have similar titles and warnings about possessions. So, that means George and Madonna had similar views of the material world.
The pair weren’t similar pop stars
George said he liked Penn and his work, but getting a performance out of him was hard when he was pissed off. Meanwhile, George thought Madonna was nice but didn’t have a sense of humor. She hadn’t learned from The Beatles’ mistakes either.
Madonna might not have been a materialistic person like George, but the pair didn’t have similar views on fame.
Creem said it was ironic that George had to defend the volatile couple against the press. George had experienced the media for years with The Beatles. It was a hundred times worse than what Penn and Madonna had experienced on the set of Shanghai Surprise.
George explained that The Beatles should’ve been an example to all pop stars. Whenever someone in the group “would start getting snooty or big ‘eaded we’d just broadside him,” George said. The Beatles looked after one another and remained humble.
However, pop stars like Madonna didn’t look at what happened to the group and learn from it. They “suddenly start thinking they’re God’s gift to man kind, when really all they are is silly pop stars. There’s much more to life than just being a famous pop star. Unfortunately, a lot them fall into the trap,” George said.
“They get surrounded by people saying how great they are, all these sycophants who surround them. And unfortunately, she has got all that going and she’s fallen for it. But I think she has the ability to be a really nice person–you have to see it from the other side, which I can see too, which is that the pressure you’re under when you are fab is tremendous.
“It sometimes does get you crazy when you can’t write and can’t do this when everybody’s bugging you and shooting cameras in your face. So I sympathize from that point of view, too. But what she needs is just 500 milligrams of LSD (laughs).”
George and Madonna weren’t similar by any means, but they did agree on the material world.