Saturday, September 11, 2010

Did Lady Gaga Co-Opt Madonna's Career?

OK, let’s set politics aside for a moment and talk about something really important.

With the MTV Video Music Awards looming, I decided to tackle a question that has been asked with increasing frequency: Is Lady Gaga pilfering Madonna’s career?

Not long ago, I watched a panel of Fox News commentators arguing over whether Lady Gaga had ripped off Madonna’s entire act. The panelists quoted a comment by Madonna herself, who stated that she “saw a lot of” herself in Lady Gaga. That remark could be taken as a compliment or an indictment – a dichotomy I’m sure wasn’t lost on Madge when she said it.

Clearly Madonna was an influence on Lady Gaga’s music and her provocative style. So were David Bowie and Queen, for that matter. So was Bruce Springsteen, as Gaga herself has stated.

When a new performer bursts on the scene, a tendency exists to dissect them for their influences. When Madonna achieved stardom in 1984, she was universally likened to Marilyn Monroe – a comparison she spoofed in her “Material Girl” video. Similarly, when Monroe became famous in the 1950s, she was compared to earlier sirens like Betty Grable.

But, it is a stretch to say that any of these performers were deliberately “ripping off” their predecessors.

Looking at Madonna and Lady Gaga, I see more organic similarities than anything else.

Both Madonna and Gaga are Italian Catholics rebelling against their faith.

Both emphasize themes of sexuality and religion in their work.

Both have established a reputation for edgy and highly creative music videos.

Both had outrageous, self-defining moments at the MTV Video Music Awards – Madonna with her “Like a Virgin” performance, and Lady Gaga with her bleeding onstage routine.

Both are fantastic live performers who pride themselves on delivering fan-pleasing concerts. Watching her onstage in 1990, it was clear Madonna wanted to execute her carefully-designed shows in as cool, flawless and perfect a manner as possible. Gaga was a little more raw and engaging onstage, as if she wanted to connect with her fans on a more emotional level. From what I saw, both artists succeeded.

Both owe their success to the support of a huge gay fan base. In Madonna’s case, she benefited by using them as a bellwether for emerging cultural and fashion trends which she incorporated into her ever-changing image. Gaga has earned their loyalty in part by positioning herself as the loudest and most ferocious advocate for homosexual causes.

Madonna once commented that her goal as an artist was to “push people's buttons” and “break useless taboos." Lady Gaga has made very similar statements in interviews.

Madonna and Gaga’s paths to success have similarities that are more tactical than substantive. Other artists that followed Madonna used music videos, or played up taboo themes in their work, to achieve success in their careers. Utilizing elements of the same winning formula that has worked for many other artists doesn’t make any one of them guilty of stealing it.

It’s also appropriate to look at the differences between these two artists as well.

Madonna was a dancer by training who segued into music. Lady Gaga is a musical prodigy who earned early admission to the prestigious Tisch School for the Arts in New York, and first achieved success as a songwriter for artists like Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls.

Both artists are marketing creations, albeit to different degrees.

Madonna’s success can be attributed to 65 percent marketing, 35 percent talent. She effectively served as her own chief marketing officer in an era when conquering the musical world meant conquering MTV.

Gaga’s success comes down to 65 percent talent, 35 percent marketing. Unlike Madonna, she has clearly needed a marketing team to help her utilize tools such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the Internet as a whole.

In terms of talent, having seen both these woman perform live, it's clear that Gaga definitely has a stronger voice. Further, she performed a piano set in concert – something Madonna could never do. Outrageous costumes or not, the woman has legitimate musical talent. And, that’s not something she lifted from Madonna.

So, perhaps we should set the comparisons aside and appreciate both these performers for who there are.

Madonna is the first female superstar. She has a place in the pantheon of pop icons which includes Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson.

Lady Gaga dominates a music industry populated by very formidable competition, including Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Eminem, Beyonce, Kanye West and others. While each of these other artists had their career breakout moments, Lady Gaga simply exploded.

So, let’s stop picking these two artists apart, and instead hope for the day when they will perform together.

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