All of a sudden, it’s hard to be Lady Gaga.
Since bursting onto the music scene in 2008, the artist born Stefani Germanotta has achieved that rare alchemy of massive commercial success combined with highbrow fascination (albeit grudging fascination.) Standing almost alone amidst an imploding music industry, she has sold over 55 million albums in the past three years and racked up 340 million views on the avant-garde themed video for her song "Bad Romance." Considerations of the meaning of Gaga littered the landscape, and her eclectic stew of references had many a university cultural studies department working overtime.
And what brought her to the top of this zeitgeist pyramid were her unrivaled skills in the post-modern art of pastiche. She patched together bits of Madonna, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson with performance art, '70s avant-garde, Wiemar Berlin—the list goes on and endlessly on. To her fans, such vigorous borrowing is an art form in itself; juxtaposing various found objets was a commentary about the transient nature of artistic reality. The more she took, the more celebrated she became.
Until Sunday, when the train finally hit a wall. If her songs in the past have seemed sprinkled with fairy dust from previous artists, her new single “Born This Way” has been drenched in a Seaworld-sized orca tankful of Madonna; to be precise - about 10 thousand gallons of Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself,” to which the new Gaga outing bears an almost note-to-note resemblance. And in case anyone missed the point, Gaga debuted the song at last weekend’s Grammy Awards in an outfit that could only be described as a Madonna Halloween costume, complete with head-topping ponytail.
But suddenly, the audience wasn’t cheering the brilliant appropriation, and for the first time in her career Gaga is facing an uprising not from uptight critics or the morality police, but from her own camp, who seem to feel the performance and the single are one idolization too far.
Moments after the performance, Twitter—long Gaga’s home turf— exploded with cries of Material Girl. The controversy has lingered and been dragged out by Gaga’s not-entirely supported claims that Madonna herself approved of the remake.
For the first time in her career Gaga is facing an uprising not from uptight critics or the morality police, but from her own camp.
For Lady Gaga, this moment must be fairly stunning, to be suddenly villified for the very thing that has made her a sensation all these years. What’s more, Gaga is not the only artist working in the school of pastiche. In fact everywhere you look our culture is dominated by highbrow borrowers. Kayne West and P. Diddy have both been hit by suits alleging overuse of sampled song parts. Sofia Coppola’s much celebrated film Somewhere, called “exquisite, melancholy and formally audacious” by the New York Times, seems to have purchased the entire style and mise en scene of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni at an estate sale, lock, stock, and stricken gaze into the middle distance. Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated Black Swan would most generously be described as a “tribute” to Italian horror master Dario Argento. Meanwhile, the contemporary art world has all but surrendered original creation in favor of satiric commentary on images of the past.
The arts of the elite today look more like a lending library of the 20th century’s greatest hits than anything like an ongoing movement. So one can almost pity Gaga, who must be wondering, what post-modern line did I step over to deserve this?
While art is lawless, and rules in the long run exist only to be violated, it nonetheless seems like a good time to try to lay down some markers as to where the boundary lies between good and bad stealing.
1. Show Some Respect
When borrowing someone else’s work, a little humility goes a long way. Quentin Tarantino has built a career on mixing and matching sequences, songs, and costumes from early works, but so great is the reverence of the world’s leading film geek for those earlier works that no one accuses him of trying to steal their creative glory. His useage is widely accepted as genuine homage. Each generation of artists builds upon or rebels against their predecessors. The French New Wave referred to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Scorsese/Francis Ford Coppola generation referenced the French New Wave. But in every one of these cases, where innovations were borrowed, there was a clear master/student relationship, made abundantly clear by those on the receiving end. (Truffaut and Godard edited a magazine largely devoted to praising the works of Hawks and Hitchcock, for instance.)
Gaga once seemed to be paying homage, appearing alongside Madonna on Saturday Night Live, but no longer. On Grammy night she looked like a schoolyard (or record charts) bully, stealing the lunch of a now-lesser-selling act. There was nothing of tribute in her performance, only wanting the fruits of a hit for herself.
2. Do Something With It
The above filmmakers didn’t just appropriate the works of their elders to say, "This is cool, let’s throw in some of that." They used the devices they borrowed to enhance otherwise original works. While Black Swan owes a huge debt to Argento, the resulting film is something that feels cohesive and contemporary, not just a shell with bits of Dario glued on here and there. Hip hop artists have sampled previous songs in order to let the familiar melodies play with and counterbalance their harder, sharper raps, much as jazz artists before them used Broadway standards as jumping off points for improvisations.
It can be argued whether collaging and pastiche is an art form or merely an undergraduate term paper masquerading as art, but by its own standards, to work it must at the very least form striking new contrasts. Tarantino, if only by stringing together the greatest hits of film, creates something out of them that is louder, bolder, more aggressive than the originals were.
Whatever intellectual ambitions Gaga had for her reworking of "Express Yourself," they were lost on most. By purely lifting an entire song, along with its accompanying wardrobe, masking it in the thinnest of disguises and trying to sell it as a brand new pop hit, Gaga left herself little intellectual defense.
3. Live by the Intelligensia, Die by the Intelligensia
It’s no good complaining about a double standard. When you pose as an intellectual darling modern performance artist, people expect more from you than trying to steal an old song to make a few bucks on the pop chart. Katy Perry can sound like Bananarama or any other oldies act she wants; she has never claimed to be doing anything more than warbling some catchy tunes. Gaga, who once said of herself “I am a great artist,” has claimed much more.
What must be alarming to Gaga at this moment is that having made a career on being more than just a pop singer, it’s a little hard to fall back on “I’m just a pop singer.” But America’s culture is forgiving of much, especially in the name of spectacle. There are few artistic sins that a confession in the arms of Oprah can’t overcome. Perhaps this can be the beginning of a new level of meta-commentary for Gaga.
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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost. His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.