One is a pop music sensation, fashion icon, friend of the gays and polarising figure of controversy. The other is Lady Gaga. The parallels between Gaga and her admitted musical influence, Madonna, are manifold. Both of American-Italian heritage, both emerging from the New York club scene, both international pop culture icons, it is easy to look at Gaga and assume that here is the pretender to Madonna's throne as Queen of Pop. I, however, am not so sure that Gaga's destiny is to emulate Madonna's seemingly impossible feat of remaining relevant and hugely successful in the ephemeral world of pop for three decades. Are the similarities and parallels between the two proof enough that Gaga is here to stay, or will she end up as roadkill on pop's highway like so many before her? Is Lady Gaga on the Edge of Glory or is this just another Bad Romance?
Madonna may not have been the first woman to use her sexuality and persona to sell records, but she was the first to do it from a position of power and control. She redefined forever the image of women in music, from passive objects of (usually) male pleasure to active and, crucially, equal partners in the mating dance of pop. If you were turned on by Madonna it was because she had given you permission to enter her seduction and when she wanted it to stop, it would stop. But it was not just this show of erotic force that made Madonna a star, she also made era-defining pop music.
Two of her earliest singles forged iconic images of Madonna that still resonate in her career today. To announce that she was Like A Virgin seemed astonishingly bold back in 1984 and the iconic video took the two female paradigms of madonna/whore and smashed them together with such force that they no longer became a binary choice for women artists. Material Girl then followed and removed the remaining male power of financial control. Madonna acknowledges money is central to male/female relationships, but instead of the man using it to control her, she is the one that determines who her benefactor will be. The double whammy of these two touchstone singles created an iconic image for Madonna based around these dual concepts of sexual and financial independence, which still define her in the public's mind today.
Gaga is now at the same point in her career that Madonna was when her icon was forged. Two albums in and it is not as easy to pinpoint what Lady Gaga's iconic brand is. She instead has played the chameleon, changing her look constantly and creating multiple personas, while playing with different musical styles. While this demonstrates her undoubted creativity, it makes it difficult to know Gaga: feeling connected and committed to our icons is a critical element of career longevity.
There is also the danger of diminishing returns. If we know that Gaga will always be attempting to shock or titillate us, then that very expectation undermines her ability to do so. This constant barrage of looks and sounds has also led to accusations of piracy from other artists, most notably when her single Born This Way was seen as a direct copy of Madonna's Express Yourself. The two songs are incredibly similar, from the talky intro to the identikit chorus. Let's be kind and say it's homage, though Madonna when asked said she thought it was "reductive".
In some ways Lady Gaga is the perfect post-modern popstar: fragmentary and disposable. My fear is that the music she produces is not strong enough to support her career long term, once the 20 million Little Monsters tire of her tweets and click "unfollow". She has had some interesting singles and has a knack for a catchy motif, I couldn't get the chant from Bad Romance out of my head for weeks, but I find it impossible to recall an entire Lady Gaga song. You remember the ear worm elements, but the verses with their scant melodies tend to fade quickly. Gaga has undoubted musical talent, but for me her compositions lack staying power, they are in one ear and mostly out the other. She also has a very ordinary voice.
Madonna is not a great singer, but she is a recognisable one. She has made the most of her limited vocal ability, working extremely hard on her technique, but critically she has an interesting and unique voice. You can identify Madonna's voice almost instantly you hear it; Gaga, not so much. The uniqueness of a singer's voice is fundamentally important in securing long term success; if you sound like everyone else, then why should I listen to you?
Madonna is on the verge of releasing her twelfth studio album, MDNA, and through an inspired half-time show at this year's Super Bowl has reaffirmed her position at the top of pop's monarchy. Whether Lady Gaga reaches a similar career milestone will depend on whether she has the energy and creativity to sustain an image built on constant revolution. She might be better advised to take a tip from her mentor and create an iconic brand that explains to the public what she stands for and look to evolve it over time. Oh, and she should also remember that when the image fades, it's the music that's going to last.
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