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WHEN SHE FIRST burst upon the scene, with the release of The Fame in 2008, the artist formerly known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was written off by some as a second-rate Christina Aguilera—probably because they had similar bleached-blonde hair-dos.

The comparison was short-lived.  By the time “Bad Romance” came out a year later,  detractors dismissed the pop star as nothing more than a two-bit Madonna impersonator, a charge she can’t seem to shake.  While there are some surface similarities between Lady Gaga and Madge—they’re both women; they’re both superstars; they both hold with the less-is-more school of couture; and, yes, “Born This Way” sounds like “Express Yourself” to a degree best described as actionable—the two are worlds apart.

And I’ll see your They’re-the-Same argument and raise you.  Not only are Lady Gaga and Madonna apples and oranges, but the former is a glorious Fuji plucked at the moment of optimum freshness, while the latter is one of those canned, year-old, syrup-sodden mandarin slices your supermarket offers as a generic equivalent to Del Monte.

First off, Lady Gaga is possessed of legitimate musical talent.  She’s a classically-trained pianist, and her pipes, while not Aguilerian, are pretty solid.  Whether or not you dig on what she’s done with her talents is a matter of taste, but by any objective measure, she’s got skills.  Madonna does not.  I submit as Exhibit A the soundtrack to the film Evita…and I rest my case.

Then there’s the way they approach sex.  I’m old enough to have seen the first MTV Music Awards, when Madonna writhed on the floor in white lingerie, dry-humping her way through “Like A Virgin.”  And I also watched the videos: “Borderline”, she makes out with that greasy guy on the roof; “Material Girl”, a phalanx of tuxedo’d dudes do her bidding; “Open Your Heart”, she works a peep show in a now-iconic conical brassiere.  I flipped through her coffee-table book, subtly titled Sex.  I saw Truth or Dare in the theater.  My reaction to this stuff was primal: I wanted to schtoop Madonna.  I wanted to schtoop Madonna because she was a) hot, and b) sexy.

Although Lady Gaga has a killer body, awesome tats, and bedroom outfits that make a Frederick’s of Hollywood get-up look like one of Laura Ingels Wilder’s nightgowns, she’s not sexy (Camille Paglia said so, so it must be true).  You don’t check out Lady Gaga and think, “Wow, I gotta get some of that.”  If anything, she looks like a man in drag who happens to be a woman.

Gaga’s not sexy—and what’s more, she’s not trying to be.  She’s playing around with the idea of sex appeal, yes, manipulating it for her own artistic ends, but there’s nothing viscerally erotic about her.  And she does this on purpose, juxtaposing erotic images with deliberately erection-destroying ones: the charred burn victim of “Bad Romance,” the palsied hobble that works its way into her dance routines, “Telephone”’s razor-blade glasses, the bizarro cover of Born This Way.  Lady Gaga is not just a pop star; she’s a performance artist of the highest order.  Madonna, not so much.

Another difference: Madge has been, for her entire career, a shameless trend seeker.  She understands that, because she lacks raw musical talent, her image is all she’s got.  So she actively seeks out the Next Big Thing, whether it’s Kabala, William Orbit at the mixing board, or adopted African babies.  Madonna can’t do anything—anything—without first considering how it will affect her image; she probably checks her Q rating before taking a dump.  In short, she gives a crap about what people think of her.  Lady Gaga doesn’t seem to care.  I mean, she wore a meat dress!  She popped out of an egg Spinal Tap-style!  She flipped off those Mets fans!  Her concern is her artistic image, not her personal one.

In terms of the bottom line, too, the two are radically different.  Madonna is one of the savviest businesswomen of all time, but as a political creature, she seems aligned with the Michael Jordan Republicans-buy-sneakers-too school of thought: the man with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right.  (Her conspicuous absence from the “We Are the World” video is not an accident, it says here).  If she takes a stand on an issue—as she did with “Papa Don’t Preach,” for example—it’s generally to court controversy and, thus, increase sales.  There’s a reason we still call her the Material Girl.

Earlier this year, Gaga, an inveterate LGBT advocate, turned down a lucrative offer from Target because she was uncomfortable granting exclusive sales rights to a company that has made sizable contributions to anti-gay rights political candidates.  Could you imagine Madonna making the same decision?  A good third of Gaga’s Wikipedia page concerns her philanthropy; a third of Madonna’s, by contrast, talks about her legacy as a savvy entrepreneur.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Madonna.  She’s been a cultural mainstay in my post-pubescent life, and I still wish I was that guy making out with her in the “Borderline” video.  But whatever Lady Gaga is—pop oddity, charming eccentric, freak bitch—she’s not Madge 2.0.

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GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

37 responses to “There’s No Other Superstar: Lady Gaga is Not a Madonna Rip-off”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Very interesting, I agree the comparison constantly made between these two is a lazy one and that Lady Gaga has brought performance art to the mainstream imagination in an intelligent way (I like her cowgirl/burqa outfit in the one video whose name I can’t remember now).

    Still, she’s got to be at least as obsessed with her own image as Madonna was. Whether she’s following the trends, creating them or bucking them, I can’t imagine that she doesn’t calculate her every move in the same way, perhaps to a more brilliant degree than Madonna did. Turning down Target because of their anti-gay connections, while a good idea, is, of course, a no-brainer in terms of how her fan base would greet the decision.

    Also, Madonna can’t sing, but she had a knack for songwriting that I don’t see in Gaga (**ducks shoe being thrown at me now made of teddy bear fur and lobster claws **).

    • Greg Olear says:

      Yeah, you’re right, LG manages her appearance, too…but not in quite the same way. I’ve seen photos of LG walking around NY looking like shit, for example. I don’t recall ever seeing that sort of image of Madonna.

      Madonna is very good at picking good songs to do, I’ll grant her that. “Ray of Light” is her best one by leaps and bounds.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Madonna had a hand in writing most of her biggest hits after the Like a Virgin album. To what degree, I suppose we’ll never know. But she certainly has a great pop ear.

        And I think she’s a serviceable singer, especially after her training for Evita. She’ll never be known for her voice, but it’s not as bad as her reputation would indicate.

  2. Gloria says:

    “Palsied hobble” is the best description I’ve read in days. I don’t think that “palsied” is used as an adjective enough.

    You make a strong and valid case, Greg. I loved Madonna, still have a warm spot for her in fact, but yes – these two women are working toward different gains. I love what Madonna did for sex (for me, a child in the 80s in a small town where sluts were still a thing) and I love what Lady Gaga does for fun and fashion and paradigm tweaking.

  3. James D. Irwin says:

    I dislike both, but I won’t kick the radio off if Like A Prayer starts playing. And it often does if I’m listening to the ’80s station that nearly always plays Bon Jovi track after Duran Duran…

  4. A spot-on assessment, I think. Gaga always reminds me more, actually, of Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio. Or maybe Annie Potts’ Iona in Pretty in Pink, heh. I thought her turn as Joe Calderone at the VMAs was brilliant, if for nothing else but the “what are these funny feelings I’m having” look of confusion on Justin Bieber’s face in reaction.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Exactly! LG clearly has a number of influences, both in music and fashion, and does what good artists do — combines them and modifies them to form something new and original. What I like about her the most is that she’s not afraid to be ugly.

    • Matt says:

      Plus, that was a genuinely brilliant way of undercutting Katy Perry et al, who have been demonstrably attempting to go through the motions of Gaga-esque public appearance: “I’m wearing a cube on my head! I’m wacky! I’m creative! LOOK AT ME!”

  5. Art Edwards says:

    I like how Team Gaga has usurped the necessity of being #1 in the U.S. and instead seems focused on the international market. When I see 365,000,000 YouTube views for “Bad Romance,” I know this goes well beyond what the kids in the suburbs are doing.

  6. jmblaine says:

    At the Warhol exhibit
    Friday night
    I thought how much
    Andy would have loved Gaga.
    Then I tried to think of
    another artist since his death
    that he would have loved.

    Madonna, Warhol, Gaga
    All good Catholics.

    Saturday I realized
    that Gaga’s “Edge of Glory”
    is very very twin to Vixen’s
    “Edge of A Broken Heart”

    That’s my thoughts.
    & this: Whenever I read your stuff
    I think
    Olear is the smartest
    writer here

    • Greg Olear says:

      You flatter me, JMB. Thanks. I recall you commenting about her once that you were “a fan from the gate,” which is an excellent phrase I have since appropriated.

      Good call on Warhol. You’re right; he’d have ADORED Gaga.

      Her voice sounds pretty great on that “Edge” track, huh?

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Phenomenal. Well-said, Mr. O.

    Excellent point about the sex angle- if anything, Gaga tilts towards a more Bowie-esque androgyny than a hungry sexuality.

    Also agree with your comments re: talent. I love that Gaga takes such an active role in her music (that such a point needs to be made speaks somberly of the state of the industry), driving the creative processes from songwriting to production.

    Gaga’s not my bag, but she gets my props.

    Madonna’s a one-of-a-kind. She seized on trends early and marketed her middle-of-the-road musical talents into a cultural and commercial juggernaut. But for me, the thing about Madonna is that I’ve never got the impression that she likes music. I think she likes fame and music was the fastest way for her to achieve it.

  8. God, I need you as my culture guru. I read this–

    -“I’m old enough to have seen the first MTV Music Awards, when Madonna writhed on the floor in white lingerie, dry-humping her way through “Like A Virgin.” And I also watched the videos: “Borderline”, she makes out with that greasy guy on the roof; “Material Girl”, a phalanx of tuxedo’d dudes do her bidding; “Open Your Heart”, she works a peep show in a now-iconic conical brassiere. ”

    –and was with you! I was there! I remember it like yesterday. But then, I’ve only heard my first Lady GaGa song this summer. I might need you more than culturally obtuse late grandmother, who thought Michael Jackson was white (at least he fooled someone, even if it was an eighty-something Polish woman).

    • Greg Olear says:

      That was the same broadcast that saw Eddie Murphy drop f-bombs until the production crew threw up their collective hands and stopped bleeping them. MTV has been on a steady decline ever since.

      I’m happy to be your pop cultural guru, although you might be better off with Mssrs. Haney, Beaudoin, or Daly, who have forgotten more about music than I’ll even know.

      As for Jacko, it doesn’t matter if he was black or white. ; )

  9. pixy says:

    greg,

    you are the only one who could write something that i would read that concerns gaga and madge. for reals.
    and it was totally worth it.

    my thoughts on the whole gaga thing is that she is the chinese magician and christian bale’s character in “the prestige” – she LIVES gaga, whereas madge is the hugh jackman – he just wants to be famous mainly to show his family up and he’ll do what he thinks is “anything” to do it, which is really not that much. in the same vein, since gaga lives it, you don’t seem to see her bitching about the paps or taking measures to protect herself from them as you do with madge. another sign of living it – embracing it – rather than wanting it or using it for a personal agenda.

    hugs and bugs!

    p

    • Greg Olear says:

      Great, now I have to go rent The Prestige. ; ) But seriously, you make a good point: Madonna is a bit of a poseur (why, for example, does she speak like Uma Thurman in Dangerous Liaisons when she’s from Michigan?).

      I’m glad I enticed you to read!

  10. “Aguilerian”

    I shall attempt to slip this into conversation one of these days.

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    I once read a dialogue between Susan Sontag and Richard Hell — the latter wanted to meet the former, and a mutual writer friend arranged for them to meet and he recorded the conversation — and at one point, after Richard Hell unfavorably compared Churchill to Hitler, Sontag said, “I never thought I would defend Churchill, but if I must, I will.”

    So I somewhat feel here, he said jocularly, about Madonna. She’s given a lot of her own money to AIDS charities and other causes, and she forthrightly championed gay rights from almost the start of her career; her brazenly open flirtation with Sandra Bernhard was, I think, a way of doing exactly that, and if it happened to generate record-selling publicity, well, why not? Lady Gaga generated publicity with her refusal to take the Target deal — or I assume she did, since you, and therefore presumably others, know about it.

    If musical ability is Madonna’s liability, sex appeal is Lady Gaga’s, and both, as performance artists, have shrewdly compensated for their shortcomings. While I’ve barely paid any attention to LG, I have to think Madonna is every bit her equal as a performance artist, though she’s definitely not LG’s equal musically. But a pop star without sex appeal is, to me, like a car without an engine, which is why I don’t find LG even remotely interesting; and while I don’t have time to make a case, I think her enormous popularity has something to do with the ongoing erosion of traditional gender roles, as well as with America’s never-ending discomfort with sex, so that many find LG’s lack of sensuality comforting. The best thing about Madonna, I always thought, was that she pushed sex on the conflicted public, and that was by no means a surefire strategy, business-wise. In addition to born-again types, feminists were horrified by Madonna when she first appeared; I remember very well reading a cover story in Newsweek about emerging female musical artists, with the article taking Madonna to task for encouraging male fantasy, which Cyndi Lauper, whom the article hailed as an artist truly worthy of admiration, did not. But Madonna’s brand of “slut feminism” ultimately won out, although she was attacked for it again and again, significantly so around the time she released her Sex book, which I don’t think she published cynically, no more than I think Hugh Hefner published Playboy cynically. Rather, like Hefner, I think Madonna was of the view that America’s attitude toward sex needed serious revamping, and where Playboy was aimed at men (though many women responded to it also), Madonna’s act was aimed at — whomever, across the sexual spectrum. Madonna even said, about her “masturbating” on a bed onstage while performing “Like a Virgin” during her Blonde Ambition tour, that it was an inversion of the Hugh Hefner fantasy: a powerful woman attended by male “bunnies.”

    I have no doubt that Lady Gaga will stick around. I’ve seen just enough of her to know, as I said already, that she has undeniable musical chops. But I’ve also seen enough of her to know that she and her army of stylists, marketing reps, and so on, have borrowed quite a bit from the Madonna playbook. There’s no such thing, in the pop world, as a complete original; Madonna borrowed heavily, at the beginning of her career anyway, from the Broadway/Hollywood/Vegas musical-theater tradition, with her chorus-boy line and synchronized dance routines. There was less of that as time went on, and I think LG will similarly become more “herself” with time.

    Oh, and the meat-dress thing? Interestingly, in the Madonna-enamored Camille Paglia’s Vamps and Tramps, mention is made that a feminist protestor wore a meat dress at the Miss America pageant in the late sixties or the early seventies. But of course no one in LG’s camp would ever have read that.

    Bottom line: I don’t think LG is a “cheap” Madonna ripoff, and I don’t think she’s a ripoff at all, insofar as all artists take inspiration from others. But, again, she does nothing for me.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Half the reason I wrote this was to goad you into writing a full-fledged piece on your American-discomfort-with-sex observation, which I’ve heard several times now, and find no less interesting. Get to work, Duke! You know, with your ample free time. ; )

    • Quenby Moone says:

      The wily and elusive Haney? Holy crap!

      I’m excited that you’re here, waxing on (wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off) about the negative/positive sex conflict in America, seen through the lens of two pop stars. THIS is fabulous.

      Lovely to see you, sir!

  12. Jessica Blau says:

    First of all, I just love that you’re thinking about this! Secondly, I agree.
    Must point out my favorite Madonna video, however. Love this song, love the outfit, and love this dance. I want to learn this dance:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRLHro9EPD0&ob=av2e

  13. Matt says:

    Great analysis, Greg. While I’m not really a fan of either, I’m more kindly disposed towards Gaga, albeit begrudgingly. I’m not a terribly huge fan of pop/dance music to begin with, or at least not anything that’s really trended in the last fifteen years or so.

    The comparison I keep expecting to see is one between Gaga and Annie Lennox, and I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened yet. Both have great musical chops, are excellent singers/songwriters, and can easily vary between styles ranging from simple to so-ornate-a-crew-of-designers-must-sew-me-into-it. Both view/have viewed their careers not just as music, but as performance. And turning up dressed as man to an awards show? Total Annie move.

    My problem with Gaga – and I think I’ve said this on the comment boards before – is that her music, though quality, tends to be the least interesting thing about her. She suffers from that same problem any sensationalist provocateur risks: the medium can overwhelm the message. Her meat dress might have been a critique of consumer culture’s attitude towards animals (or whatever) but much of that was lost is the collective exclamations of “It’s Gaga! In a dress! Made of meat! What’ll she do next?!” She’s built herself a platform to speak out on a number of issues (many of which I agree with) but it’s difficult to pay attention to the speaker when the platform they’re standing on has all the madcap energy of the set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse after a massive dose of amphetamines.

    The constant shapeshifting and image reinterpretation coupled with the resultant media attention can cause with Gaga fatigue….which I for one have.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Matt. Yes, there’s a lot more Annie Lennox influence on our Lady of Gaga than appears at first blush. That’s a better comparison than Madonna for sure.

      It will be interesting, now that she has a platform, what she chooses to do with it, how she continues to evolve. My inkling is that we’ll get to see more of the “real” her as she gets older. Will be fun to find out.

  14. Siri Zernand Müller says:

    I so agree with your performance artist/trend seeker comparison, and the use of sex by both. I’m more a Gaga fan (though I don’t like either of their music) but I do find it impressive that Madonna is always able to scrape the bottom of the barrel even when you think there is absolutely nothing at all left. Even though she’s scraping it with herself, and she is also the barrel… still that kind of self martyrdom of the self for the self in the public eye DOES take effort.

    Even the Hydrangea video was so overly self-loving, so careful; and it was SUCH an amazing idea, and started off so strongly. I wish she would hate herself once in a while; that might be really exciting, and then her life really could be art.

    • Greg Olear says:

      “She is also the barrel.” Ha!

      Excellent point about her hating herself. I wonder if she does, and that’s what the constant change is about. We’ll probably never know. I hope she writes a Gloria Swanson-esque memoir when she’s older…that would be a fun read.

  15. Sarah says:

    You’re a douche. The comparisons don’t reflect the decades between the two. Both innovating, amazing and jaw dropping women. Madonna paved the way for Lady Gaga. To compare them at all is a compliment to Gaga. I have more Lady Gaga on my Ipod then Madonna, but still, show some respect.

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