Shocker! Meta-Pop Star Lady Gaga Is Derivative.

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 19 2013 7:16 PM

Shocker! Meta-Pop Star Lady Gaga Is Derivative.

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The official video for Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” the first single from her forthcoming album ARTPOP, premiered on Good Morning America today, and already some people on the Internet are remarking (generally through lips pursed in knowing disapproval) on the fact that it looks like other things they saw somewhere else one time. This follows on last week’s orgy of finger-wagging about how “Applause” is supposedly omg the same song you guys! as Madonna’s 2012 album opener “Girl Gone Wild.” Imagine, an electropop star who fancies herself a post-modern, Warhol-school performance artist creating a video that’s not paradigm-quake original. You’ll have to forgive me while I grasp for my smelling salts.

Look, Gaga’s deal has been clear since before The Fame was even famous: a bricolage of various scraps from the queer/downtown artsy club-kid scene paired with some seriously danceable pop hooks. Sometimes it felt like a brilliant synthesis, other times like bootleg Grace Jones—it was all pretty fun though, so no big deal. Following her performances and videos felt a lot like watching the subgenre of drag in which the queen makes a show out of gay-famous monologues from Mommie Dearest or Designing Women—you chuckle through the mediocre examples in anticipation of those rare moments of gag-worthy transcendence. What I’m saying is that Gaga always was and continues to be a serviceable imitation-style drag queen with a larger-than-typical platform. (That’s a compliment.)

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So why is everyone suddenly up in arms? Some critics, most recently Larry Womack in HuffPo, have been latching onto developments like her album title and recent powwow with Marina Abramović to complain that she bills herself as a serious artist, and therefore she should not “copy” Madonna or David Bowie. While I can’t claim to know how seriously Stefani Germanotta takes her little pop project, I’d argue that it doesn’t really matter. I’m firmly of the belief that a reader or viewer or listener’s reception matters far, far more than an artist’s intent, which means that I typically find an artist’s musings on the nature or importance of her own work completely useless. If Gaga’s (possibly faux) self-seriousness is getting under your skin, stop reading interviews—just dance.

As for the issue of originality or “copying,” I’ll again direct your attention to those movie-mimicking drag queens: Some of the best art I’ve ever experienced involved nothing new but the context. And if that’s all Gaga’s doing—recontextualizing previously existing gay-inflected pop tropes—so what?

Older queens and seasoned pop watchers alike have a bad habit of condescending to younger people who “haven’t done the reading,” their snobbishness premised on the assumption that if you can’t recognize a possible oblique reference to a Janet Jackson Rolling Stone cover from 1993, your opinion isn’t valid, nor is there much hope for improvement. It’s an attitude that’s supremely annoying, not to mention short-sighted and self-defeating—if you actually care about preserving historical awareness, you shouldn’t be shutting down those eager to carry it forward. Because for every young queer or pop fan who, as Womack somewhat hysterically worries, develops a “powerful aversion to the betters that preceded [Gaga]” due to her “combination of cult-like indoctrination and reliance on rote regurgitation forms,” there are others—like yours truly—for whom Gaga will merely act as an introduction to the wonderful world of camp, divas, underground queer art, and all the rest. (In fact, a few of them may even become obsessed.)

Anyway, I see now that I’ve neglected to really write about the video. It’s good! And as long as we’re playing the reference point game, very reminiscent of Annie Lennox’s 1992 meta-image commentary “Little Bird”—pleasingly so.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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