Why I think the Madonna vs Lady Gaga argument is reductive
With the release of Lady Gaga’s new single this week, Applause, the debate surrounding the legitimacy of the pop crown has been reignited. Madonna fans have gone hell-to-leather on Applause, claiming it to be a commercial disaster and are already calling time on her career. Many Gaga fans are disappointed with the single and have defected, not to Madonna, but to Katy Perry, whose new single Roar leaked during the same week and is already creating a huge buzz. I’m not entirely sure why there is so much hate for Applause – it’s horribly self-referential, but with Gaga that’s nothing new. But for me, it’s huge chorus, seductive beats, and David Bowie impersonations hit the right spot for me. The song goes straight back to Gaga’s beginning – it’s EDM cut from the same sonic cloth as Just Dance. I will stick my head on the line and say, I for one rather like it.
People’s opinions about Applause are colouring their opinions of ARTPOP, an album that hasn’t even been released yet. A leaked demo, Aura/Burqa has given another hint of what we can expect on the album though it hasn’t been confirmed whether this song is included. Some people love the song, others hate it. It sounds like nothing else on the radio at the moment with its Machiavellian laughter, stuttering guitars, squelchy beats, and swooping chorus. Personally, I welcome anything that is removed from the utter crap that fills the top 40 at the moment. But no matter, many have been vocal about how they think Gaga is over, no more than Perez Hilton who has embarked on a campaign this week to discredit Gaga’s single and generally added to the rather hateful dialogue surrounding Gaga’s new output. Funny – it was Perez who prominently featured her music on his website in 2008 and where I first heard about her. Now he’s posting pictures of Gaga in a wheelchair with a photoshopped image of Madonna wielding a gun and the word ‘Karma’ scrawled over it.
What I find so depressing about all of this is how two female artists are pitted against each other – you can’t like both, you have to make a choice. Many regular readers know I have loved Madonna since I was about 11 years old though there have been some artistic choices of hers that I have particularly disliked. I discovered Gaga very early on, as I mentioned above via Perez, almost six months before the rest of the UK had even heard of her (they caught up when Just Dance went to no.1 in January 2008.) All of a sudden, Indie rock (latterly dubbed ‘Landfill Indie’) ceased to be the pervasive style of music on the radio as Gaga signalled a return to EDM pop. Everything you hear on the radio today is a result of the success her debut album, The Fame. Madonna was very complimentary about Gaga at the beginning, and Gaga was equally respectful towards Madonna. They even appeared on SNL and mocked the supposed rivalry between them. Then Gaga released Born This Way and the mood frosted over night.
In hindsight, Born This Way was an unfortunate, and I suspect unconscious, plagiarizing of Madonna’s superior hit, Express Yourself, released in 1989. Suddenly everyone turned on her, including Madonna. There was the infamous ‘reductive’ comment Madonna made about the song, though most people think Madonna called Gaga reductive (she did not). Elton John had a huge spat with Madonna as a result. Madonna then mashed up Express Yourself/Born This Way/She’s Not Me on her MDNA tour. Most people didn’t know if Madonna was being tongue-in-cheek or a being spiteful. In any case, it added fuel to the fan wars between both camps. Madonna fans determined Gaga’s album, Born This Way, a flop (not sure how with classic songs like Marry the Night, Edge of Glory, and You and I on it – some of the best songs she has ever written) and Gaga’s fanbase, notoriously well-mobilised on Facebook and Twitter, attacked back. Watch any Madonna video on Youtube and you will find thousands of comments deriding the singer as a whore, old, past-it, you name it.
Sad really, when both singers are very keen to espouse a message of love and acceptance. This has been Madonna’s narrative throughout all of her work, while Gaga has invested a lot of time into her anti-bullying foundation. Both were very vocal about the spate of gay teen suicides in recent years. And yet, what message are they giving to their young gay fans when they can’t even put their own differences aside and kiss and make up? They are not setting a good example – Gaga by not condemning the invective in the comments made by her fans, and Madonna by engaging in this dialogue of who’s better than who. Why also are we so keen to forget how much Madonna stole from Deborah Harry when she first started out? We rarely talk about these two artists together nowadays and yet at the time, it was quite clear that Madonna hijacked the blonde sexuality of Blondie, mimicked the band’s great hooks for her songs, and emulated Harry’s thrown-together, slutty New York City style.
Of course Gaga is going to be inspired by Madonna – she grew up listening to her music. But if there is any artist that Gaga truly plagiarises, it’s David Bowie. But because he’s a man, it doesn’t quite fit the narrative of female against female. Everything about Gaga screams Bowie – the characters, the wackiness, the clever ear for melody, the absorbing of all sorts of art and culture to create her world. No one wants to hear this and indeed, you rarely find comments from Gaga’s fans on David Bowie’s videos calling him an old hag and a has been. Frankly, I am more than happy to say I am a fan of Madonna and a fan of Gaga. For me, Gaga has made pop music interesting and fun again and she came up during the three-year hiatus between Madonna’s below par Hard Candy album in 2008 and her much better follow-up, MDNA, in 2012. While Madonna decided to go on tour forever and direct her film W.E., Gaga came in with her strange apparel and genius songs like Bad Romance and Dance in the Dark.
I for one am tired of the debate – embrace the music people, embrace the fact that Madonna finally has another artist pushing her to be better so she doesn’t make lazy records like Hard Candy. Let’s embrace the fact that it is women who are innovating in pop music and making the men – Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Chris Brown – look completely boring and generic. Let’s get over the X is better than X debate. And let’s start showing each other a bit more love and respect.