It must be tough to be a lady-identified pop star these days. You can’t writhe in your underpants for more than a minute before someone is popping up to let you know that you’re stealing from Madonna.
Immediately after Lady Gaga premiered “Born This Way” at the 2011 Grammys, all I heard for days was people accusing her of ripping off Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Lady Gaga is no stranger to such comments; her predilection for turning up at events half-naked has long drawn Madonna comparisons. They approached critical mass with last year’s release of the single and video for “Alejandro,” which some argued sounds too much like “La Isla Bonita” to be an accident. (Alejandro actually sounds exactly like Ace of Base's "Don't Turn Around," but WHATEVER.)
But I really got to thinking about all this with the release of the first video off Beth Ditto’s solo EP, for the irresistibly catchy “I Wrote the Book.” The video for “I Wrote the Book” is shot in noisy black and white, and opens with Ditto carrying a suitcase down what appears to be a hotel hallway, to which I responded, “Oh, ‘Justify My Love’!”
In a recent interview with Spinner, Beth acknowledges the Madonna connection, and says of her video for “I Wrote the Book”: “It's... funny to see a little short fat girl do Madonna. I think that's hilarious. And there's a lot of criticism for Lady Gaga, but I don't understand it -- welcome to pop music. What do you expect? Guess what -- Madonna didn't think of 'Vogue' on her own. That was a movement long before she came onto the scene. If you see 'Paris Is Burning,' you'll be a lot more forgiving of Lady Gaga.”
Beth Ditto is right: Madonna’s strength as a style icon was never her ability to be original, because she wasn’t original. Her strength was her impeccable taste, which assisted her in knowing where to “borrow” and where to “steal.”
But while Madonna gets credited with lots of imagery and ideas that she didn’t actually invent, her cultural impact as an artist goes beyond cone bras, high ponytails, and crotch-grabbing. In fact, her willingness to own her sexuality is arguably Madonna’s greatest legacy, not to mention her predilection for expressing said sexuality in ways that were straight-up shocking, regardless of the public response.
It’s sad to me that being a sexy lady in control of her sexuality is unusual enough that we need to mark it as Madonna-like, and it’s also sad to me that, as a culture, we only have the one reference - "Madonna" -- by which to identify it such that everyone knows what we mean. The infamous kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears at the 2003 VMAs was heralded by some as a public passing of the Madonna torch, as though Madonna owns the exclusive copyright to aggressive sexy-ladyness.
I ain’t saying “Born This Way” and “Express Yourself” don’t sound similar. They do. But in the way that all pop music sounds similar, in the way that all pop music rides a line between theft and homage. Beth Ditto reimagines the notorious sex-symbol Madonna as a short little fat girl; Lady Gaga reimagines “Express Yourself” as a socially-conscious anthem (problematic lyrical choices aside) instead of a personal one.
But when we insist on giving Madonna the exclusive rights to aggressive and astonishing lady-fronted pop stardom, we’re basically saying that no one else gets to push the same envelope Madonna did; that she did all the work of being an unapologetically confident, radically sexual, and unabashedly shocking female icon, and we’re done with that now.
It all just serves to reinforce the common notion that being a woman who controls her own presentation and sexuality with self-assurance is a rare creature. And she isn’t. Or at least, she shouldn’t be.