I know, even my eyes are rolling at the title of the post, but I am continuously asked by some of my friends as to why I have not written about Madonna and why I am not into Lady Gaga – so, being the pragmatist that I am, I decided to do both in one fell swoop. So, as I was folding my laundry, in my boxer briefs, dancing to Microfilm blasting in the background, this post started to formulate in my mind, so I warn everyone it is a bit heady (and long). Though I have sort of addressed the issue before (link), I want to be a bit more (since I have no plan on being completely) definitive. Considering the nature of this blog, I am sure some people may be puzzled as to why I would dedicate time to thinking and writing this post when I have other posts to write and interviews to post (shortly), but I do have a reason. In the back of my head, this is not about “mainstream” musicians, or recent controversies (but they are included), but rather a real look at an ongoing debate within the music industry and some the of issues they spill into. Regardless of what anyone (including myself) thinks about these two, there is no denying that the here-and-now of pop culture bends to them to variant degrees. And I want to say off the top that I think both of them are talented, but for very different reasons. But I think that this debate of “Madonna vs. Lady Gaga” needs to be intellectualized in a way that I don’t feel it has been… so I am going to put my two cents in (and I am sure that some of my very friends who asked me to write about them are not going to be happy!)
Image is important in music; considering that The Cure is my favorite band of all time, I have no issue with artists who have an image or gimmick in their appearance. And though the media always references Robert Smith’s constant use of make-up (he sort of looks like an overweight, drunk, gothic version of Bozo the Clown), at the end of it all it is always about the band’s music. This is the model that anyone who wants to sustain a career of music should take note of; people get tired of image and gimmick after a few years, but noteworthy music (and live performance) will give you longevity. This is something that Madonna knows all too well. Of course there have been moments when her music may have been overwhelmed by image (like those cone bras) or by scandal (the now almost trite “Sex” book), at the end of it all, the press has always come back to her music. Her fans even get upset if you mention she is a media mastermind, but I yet to meet a Lady Gaga fan who cannot stop talking about her image and “scandals.” (Really, giving the finger at Citi Field was not a scandal as much as a cry for free promotion; if you want to do something scandalous at a sporting event, you will have to top Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, which topped Roseanne Barr’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1990.)
Madonna’s image is polymorphic; it is in constant change and flux, but each image is consistent with an album or tour. More so than any musician, a simple image will conjure up thoughts of specific albums and tours. It is a visual moniker for what she is selling. And when she simulates masturbation on stage during “Like a Virgin” on the Blond Ambition Tour, it fits the song. Everything is carefully crafted, carefully designed, and carefully controlled. By comparison, one never knows what to expect from Lady Gaga; like Cher (and sometimes Bjork), she makes the grandest of appearances wearing some of the oddest clothing – some of which I have to admit is eye-catching. She has a complete understanding of glam (and even camp), but her visual moniker is not her image, but rather the fact that she is uber-polymorphic – and that is not something that is sellable but is extremely marketable until she and the wardrobe people run out of ideas. When Madonna performs at an award show, we wait anxiously to see how she will interpret her song; if she is going to simulate masturbation or kiss her two female co-singers is just icing on the cake. When Lady Gaga performs at an award show, everyone cannot stop wondering about what she is wearing and why and what antic will come next. At the last Grammy Awards (or the Grannies as I refer to them), she crosses the red carpet in an egg – she ginned it up from before her performance, instead of allowing her performance to stand on its own. Again, more controversy about the egg/incubator thing, as if anyone believes that she was “reborn” when it was so crafted. (At least after Madonna kissed Britney and Christina, I wondered if they all got together with Missy Elliot and did more than simulate masturbation.)
And as for that meat dress Lady Gaga wore, don’t get me started on starving children and the waste of food.
I applauded that Lady Gaga set the record for the fastest selling single in one week on iTunes, over a million in five days. In this broadband revolutionized world, where free music is everywhere, this was an incredible feat. But here are a few things to consider: will the single continue to sell, how did the hard copies sell, and does the fact that unlike the 80s and 90s when artists had a harder time reaching international markets, iTunes now allows for a broader audience (and not the talent of any individual artist or band) also a factor? To any new (under ten years) artist/band out there, I congratulate you if you sell over one million units, now impress me by being around over twenty-years and doing the same. I am not trying to be snarky; the music industry is the world of youngsters and the unknown becoming known; the fact that bands like Depeche Mode and U2 are still able to sustain such mega-careers at the thirty-year mark is more impressive than a debut album going platinum. Furthermore, that a fifty-year old woman shaking her kooshie could reach the fourth most grossing tour of all time as of this date with the Sticky and Sweet Tour is even more impressive. And the fact is that it was the second most grossing when the tour finished. (FYI, the most grossing tour ever was The Rolling Stones’ “A Bigger Bang Tour” in 2005-2007 as of this date.)
Picture this: you are in an airport and someone says the word bomb; the entire place in an uproar, people are searching for one, while the person who said it is in the middle of a controversy. Continue to picture this: once it is determined there is no bomb, and someone says, “Really, bomb,” it may be aggravating, but the threat of the original scare is never matched. Unfortunately, things do become mundane. Madonna was the first to say, “Bomb.” Of course, this is an unfair comparison as Madonna is old enough to be Lady Gaga’s mother, but at the end of it all, she said bomb first. And we can apply this to their career over and over again, but let’s look at the most loyal part of their fan base. So they both may support gay rights, but it was Madonna who really pushed the cause in the 80s when most Americans were not pro-gay. This did not alienate her from radio play or popularity; her taking a stance on a social issue made her more notable, somehow more real. Lady Gaga’s support of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and gay rights in general is just complicit with what most Americans now believe and really not that risqué. (I am not saying that there isn’t a good ole fight ahead for gay rights, but the reality is that it now has the support of most Americans, just not the old men in the Congress.) Lady Gaga is just capitalizing on a long tradition of gay men being into female divas, but really does nothing for their quality of life or pushes a cause that most Americans do not agree with – like global warming or green energy, but then again, there is really no way to make those issues sexy to an audience.
In Georges-Claude Guilbert’s book “Madonna As a Postmodern Myth” (2002) (link to Amazon USA site for book), Madonna is quoted saying, “I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer. But, I can fucking push people’s buttons and be as provocative as I want.” At once, the typical Madonna dichotomy, that lovely binary opposition, is presented: the humility and the bombastic. And this can best be demonstrated by a video.
Let’s be a bit counter-intuitive, though, and start with the video for “Alejandro.” My first reaction to the song was that it is build on the same platform as “Who’s That Girl?” (The Madonna song, not Eurythmics, to confuse them would be blasphemous!) Now don’t go quoting me as saying that the song is a rip off; by far, it is not, but they share the same approach and “underpinnings.” English sung, with some words in Spanish, with a near Caribbean-Latin beat, but really closer to dance ready radio house music for people who have never listened to deep house and only know two dance moves. As for the lyrics, it is a love song that can’t get its narrative point of view straight: first, “I know we are young and I know you may love me…” Then, “She’s got both hands in her pockets.” At best, I am confused if she purposely switched the pronouns or if this is some love triangle. But it is a love / break-you-heart song, so when we get the video, which is visually brilliant, I am left wondering.
[“Alejandro” from video from LadyGagaVEVO YouTube Channel.]
Okay, I admit, my favorite moments are when Lady Gaga “mounts” the dude in the bed (I love the subversive), but the video is totally disassociated from the lyrics. Now, videos do not have to recapture the narratives of songs, and I am often attracted to videos that are conceptually stunning more than anything else, but why create a totally different narrative? I get the video: she gives into religion/spirituality by the end of the song. Her “eating” the rosary is the acceptance of Christ in her, and, in the words of video director Steven Klein, “Thus at the end of the film, she chooses to be a nun, and the reason her mouth and eyes disappear is because she is withdrawing her senses from the world of evil and going inward towards prayer and contemplation” (link). But where is the evil world alluded to in the scantily-cladded world of choreographed dancing that seems more inviting than threatening? Was it in the dancers’ near-Nazi looking costumes? (A more controversial issue in my book!) If that was so threatening, why was she dancing in unison with them and not running from them? And did the losing of her “senses” have to look like something out of “Ghost Busters”? Don’t get me wrong, the video is visually appealing, but I don’t get the controversy. In the world after church scandals, preachers hooking up with people on escort services, and Nine Inch Nails, isn’t the world over religious shook? This song was good enough to stand on its own, to have a video that matched its infectious beat, but instead in an attempt to gin up some controversy, which really came and went. This was another attempt at promoting a song with something other than actual music or video; it relied more on the audiences’ visceral reactions and sexual images than the actual artistry or music. And I am personally turned off when any artist does that. But the reality is that it is a page out of Madonna’s book; remember the video for “Like a Prayer”?
To quote another Madonna song, “This is not a love song.” Unless you really want to stretch what is textually present in the lyrics, this is a song about faith and epiphany… so what else was the girl to do but produce a video that matches the song. In a world before religious (sexual) controversies and when more people identified themselves as churchgoers, Madonna released “Like a Prayer” to the horror of the Vatican. (I would love to have been a fly on the wall as the Pope watched this one.)
[“Like a Prayer” from Madonna’s MySpace Videos Page.]
Like A Prayer
Madonna | Myspace Video
Now never let it be said that I think this video was an original concept. Let’s not forget all of the sexual imagery found in “The Song of Solomon.” Sexuality and the Bible are not mutually exclusive. Mark Judge in his article, “Lady Gaga Is No Madonna” (link), interprets the video better than I ever could. “Madonna’s video for “Like a Prayer” is an intelligent and even devout meditation on grace, love and conscience.” He quotes Fr. Andrew Greeley, “Only for those who think that sexual passion is an inappropriate metaphor for divine passion…” could this video be controversial. Judge continues about the characters in the video, “They are powered with the power of the Holy Spirit, which gave Madonna grace and courage to fully respond the call from her conscience.” Ultimately, Madonna stands up against the symbolism of the burning crosses (racism), runs to the authorities (responding to her conscience), and helps free a man from wrongful prison, which is implied by his appearance in the curtain call. But it is a “curtain call” – it is understood that this is a video, a performance, and not reality, just symbolic.
Though we can question the level of controversy for each video, only one questioned the norms and beliefs of its time. Only one was produced during an era that intimated that such a production would be an end to a career. Though both of them ginned up controversy, at least one has a tangible moral lesson that anyone could relate to: live your faith and allow it to guide your conscience and conscious actions. The other fails at any intended meaning in its lack of a strong narrative structure and relying more on imagery and choreography.
Homage or Rip Off
There is such a thin line between homage and ripping someone off, and the reality is that you can rip someone off in homage. And a further reality: just how many original people are there? Let’s consider all of this current post-punk and 80s synthpop revival. These bands may not be replicating the songs of Joy Division, The Cure, Depeche Mode, or Erasure, but they sure enough have ripped off their style of music in many ways that beg for direct comparisons. But there is a big difference in imitating the style of someone and replicating a song. Yes, we have reached that now infamous comparison of “Born This Way” with “Express Yourself.”
[Madonna’s “Express Yourself” from her MySpace Video Page.]
Madonna | Myspace Video
First off, let’s just say that Madonna has usurped the image of many people, from Marilyn Monroe to Marlene Dietrich, (and not just people’s images, but cultural and artistic ones as well, like the film “Metropolis”) but she never claimed originality when doing so. Furthermore, with each usurpation she more than imitated, she made it part of her. We all know that in “Material Girl” she is portraying Marilyn Monroe from “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend,” but in the imitation/usurpation, she uses the original as a mold and then extends its logical meaning into something new and fresh – or at least fun. Same as when she performed “Like a Virgin” as Marlene Dietrich. In both, she extends the symbolic meaning of the subject of imitation. It is not simple pastiche, but rather creating something new while acknowledging the past. But notice she goes into the no longer relevant past to breathe new life into new imagery. Lady Gaga, however, on this occasion usurps from the canon of a presently relevant artist.
[Lady Gaga’s Grammy Awards performance of “Born This Way” from the LadyGagaVEVO YouTube Channel.]
Now, if I were an aspiring female pop artist, I would pattern myself after Madonna – maybe not her music, but definitely how she has handled her career. Why the hell not? Can you imagine a more relevant female pop artist? So, I do not fault Lady Gaga, who has even referred to herself as the biggest Madonna fan (which properly pissed off a few Chelsea Queens), for paying homage to Madonna; but this bit of homage did go over a thin line into a rip off. Whether it is copyright infringement, I will leave that up to the artists, songwriters, and lawyers to decide, but for even the most loyal Lady Gaga fan not to acknowledge the eerie similarities is flat out denial. (Then again, I dismiss anyone who says The Cure has not written a great song in fifteen years!) Lady Gaga should have said at the Grammy Awards, “This was inspired by Madonna,” and not that odd reference to Whitney Houston, which echoes nowhere in her music and was a transparent attempt to divert attention away from the “Express Yourself” comparisons.
I hate musicians who say, “I do this for myself.” No you don’t; if you did, you would not record it, release it, promote it, perform it, and push the product like there was no tomorrow. I think musicians need to be less disingenuous. With that said, both Madonna and Lady Gaga want to have a cultural impact and want to be respected for making that impact. But this is something that only hindsight can see with 20/20 vision. Unfortunately, we cannot judge that for Lady Gaga yet, as she is continuing to unfurl her career – whether she is a fad or a trendsetter only time will tell. Ten years from now we shall see; my prediction, when the glitz and controversy wears away, Lady Gaga is going to start producing the best music and performances of her career. As for Madonna, I cannot say that the best is behind her as she is always full of surprises, but she has definitely earned the respect of the music industry and left a remarkable impact on that industry and culture in general. Unlike the women prior to the 80s in the music industry, men did not exploit her; she exploited herself. She turned the power of female sexuality into her most powerful appeal, at the same time helping to erase taboos, lashing out against racism and homophobia when it was not popular to do so, and continues to fight for causes she believes in (she even sang with Annie Lennox to support SING, to raise funds for and awareness of women and children with HIV.)
In her long career, many have come to think of her and not the Virgin Mother when someone says, “Madonna.” Producers and songwriters come and go, musical fads come and go, but now nearly thirty years into her career, Madonna refuses to go. No one looks back at her career and says she imitated this one or that; no one intimates it was her producers and songwriters that made her. Critics, fans, and causal listeners who are not hung up on her antics look back and say she has had the most remarkable and successful career of any female pop artist. To define her is simply to mention her name, “Madonna,” and this is the most important lesson that Lady Gaga could learn. Do not pattern yourself against one person repeatedly, make a name for yourself on your own terms, and strive to be defined by your own name, “Lady Gaga” and not comparisons to others. That is one of the marks of all great artists: to define them is to defer to their moniker – Abba, David Bowie, The Doors, Michael Jackson, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc… Furthermore, the true measure of relevance in music is not how your music charts or sells, but the mark you leave behind on the industry, how long your music survives relevancy, and your influence on future artists. Madonna has changed the idea of what women are capable of in music, people are still covering her early music, and almost every wannabe-girlie-diva is rehashing her antics and/or style. In a nutshell, Madonna is Madonna, and Lady Gaga is not. At least at this moment, I think it is easy to see who the winner of this match-up is.