I used to think Lady Gaga was so different. Her clothes, her music and of course the way she presented herself were so unlike anything I had seen before, I knew she was going to be someone who would grab headlines for quite some time. Now Gaga is making news not for what she did, but for what Madonna did more than 20 years ago.
Many are comparing Gaga’s new single “Born This Way,” which was released Friday, to Madonna’s 1989 single “Express Yourself.” I have noticed, for some time now, that while we praise Gaga for her originality and forward-thinking, much of her career, whether intentional or not, has been influenced by Madonna.
The first time this really hit me was when I saw Gaga’s “Alejandro” video last June. On the one hand, “Alejandro” was very Gaga in terms of the visual. The avant garde costumes and elaborate narrative are signature Gaga. But as the video continued, a lot of the things it seemed Gaga was doing to be provocative were provocative…20 years ago.
Much of the video shows Gaga using religious iconography in controversial and often sexualized ways, such as donning a latex nun’s outfit, eating rosary beads or wearing a cross on her crotch. We’ve seen similar behavior before in Madonna’s 1989 video for “Like a Prayer,” where she dances in a barely-there dress in a church and in front of burning crosses.
The whole Gaga-Madonna comparison really struck me about three quarters of the way into “Alejandro” when the video turns to black and white and Gaga is shown wearing a vest and dress pants à la Madonna in her “Vogue” video. Gaga and her backup dancers even move as if they are on a catwalk in a fashion show, much like the posing of Madonna and her dancers in “Vogue.” Shortly after, Gaga whips out the gun bra which would have been interesting if Madonna hadn’t done the whole cone bra thing first.
Once this hit me, the comparisons just kept on coming. The spoken word bridge in Gaga’s “Dance in the Dark” is eerily similar to the one that appears in Madonna’s “Vogue.” Both divas drop the names of icons: James Dean and Grace Kelly in “Vogue,” Liberace and Princess Diana in “Dance in the Dark,” and Marilyn Monroe in both.
Many of Gaga’s outfits, hair and makeup are reminiscent of Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” phase. Gaga even wore a high blonde ponytail and bustier similar to Madonna’s 1990 look at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards. Sure, Madonna never arrived anywhere in an egg, but she’s no stranger to making a grand entrance. Madonna caused a stir at the 1991 Academy Awards when she showed up with Michael Jackson on her arm. That same year, she arrived at the Cannes Film Festival donning her famous cone bra and becoming the most talked-about thing at the festival.
Now we have Gaga’s latest derivation of Madonna in “Born This Way.” Madonna has not publicly commented on the single yet, but on Monday night’s Tonight Show, Gaga told Jay Leno that she received an email from Madonna’s “people,” saying they send her “their love and complete support on behalf of the single.” This isn’t surprising as Gaga has cited Madonna as a big influence on her career, and the two are generally on good terms.
What female pop star hasn’t been influenced by the Material Girl? Madonna is probably the single most important female artist living today. She set the standard for what a solo female artist can be. Since she burst onto the music scene, there really had not been a female pop artist as big as Madonna, and I don’t think there has been since.
This influence should not always be portrayed negatively, as if one artist is copying another. Madonna paved the way for female artists — and women in general — to be strong, independent and more open about their sexuality. Singers should want to incorporate these attributes into their careers.
It’s no secret that Madonna has been a gay icon for years. Her close relationship with the LGBT community as well as pushing the boundaries of her own heterosexuality has probably influenced Gaga’s openness with her bisexuality in her career. She has actively campaigned for the repeal of “Don’t ask don’t tell.” With lyrics like, “Don’t be a drag/Just be a Queen” and “No matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born to survive,” Gaga’s “Born This Way” has been proclaimed the new gay anthem. Gaga is becoming a gay icon in her own right.
Madonna isn’t completely original either. Artists like Cher and Diana Ross paved the way for her, too. Marilyn Monroe was a big influence on her early looks. Everything comes from somewhere.
This idea is really made apparent in a June 30, 2010 NPR piece comparing Gaga’s “Alejandro” to Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around.” The story also points out comparisons to Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” and ABBA’s “Fernando.” I personally don’t see many similarities between “Alejandro” and these songs, but nevertheless, no song — or even movie, TV show or book — is really 100 percent original. They are mostly derivations of what came before.
Even though there are several parallels between Gaga and Madonna’s careers, whether they are similar or not never really mattered. These two icons were destined to be compared since Gaga burst onto the music scene. Whenever there are two prominent females in pop culture, we as a society like to pit them against each other and make comparisons as if they are objects. We also like to imagine they hate each other. The same happened with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the late 1990s and early 2000s, both of whom have also been compared to Madonna.
Gaga and Madonna are just two artists who have pushed the boundaries of pop music and entertainment. Gaga’s career won’t be brought down by its similarities to Madonna’s. At least, it hasn’t yet. There is so much more to her persona and stage presence that is uniquely Gaga.
Madonna has proven her staying power as a music legend now going into the fourth decade of her career. With Gaga’s more gimmicky approach to pop music, I’m not sure if she is capable of the same growth and longevity. Artists like Christina Aguilera and Nicki Minaj have already emulated her theatricality, but true legends, like Madonna, know how to reinvent themselves beyond changing their wig color.