The question of originality in popular music is a vexed one. To choose a convenient and current example, when Justin Bieber sings about his "baby," listeners are not meant to hear any kind of deliberate allusion to the Supremes' "Baby Love" or any other previous songs which include "Baby" as part of their lyrical hook: Bieber's charming faux-naivete cannot be mistaken for anything other than a rhetorical willingness to utilize the regular tropes and language of a standard love song. But with some performers, the matter of originality -- together with the question of influence -- is one that must be addressed. I would like to look, in this context, at the work of Stefani Germanotta, the twenty-four-year-old singer and composer better known by her stage name "Lady Gaga." I would like to examine Lady Gaga's oeuvre with three separate areas of inquiry kept in mind -- first, the question of influence and originality; second, the issue of her constructed persona (as distinct from her actual songs, but considered as a form of Warhol-inspired performance art); and finally the question of whether Lady Gaga's music can be considered as a repertoire of work which does not necessarily require Lady Gaga herself to perform it to be successful. I hope to demonstrate that Lady Gaga's originality is, in fact, a skillful marshalling of previous influences to create a real and artistically distinguished body of work.
Lady Gaga's ubiquity in the American music scene was achieved rapidly and without a long apprenticeship. Her first studio album, The Fame, was released in 2008: she has not yet released a second full-length studio album, but the massive success of her 2009 EP follow-up to The Fame, entitled The Fame Monster and therefore considered as a kind of expansion of, and companion to, the initial album. Her second studio album is presently scheduled for release in May of 2011, although the first single from the second album -- "Born This Way" -- has been released as of this writing. But in those short three years in which Lady Gaga has been on the stage for our consideration, she has achieved remarkable success, including five Grammy awards and twelve nominations. Gaga was considered the top-selling music artist of 2010 by Billboard magazine, and was even declared number seven on a list of the "world's most powerful women" published by Forbes magazine. But we may very well ask is Gaga's success merited? Is her songwriting any good?
To some degree Gaga's success has hinged upon a mastery first not of composition (although I do think her achievements in that regard have become considerable) but of the new means of music distribution driven by the internet. With a 2008 debut date, Lady Gaga managed to sidestep the awkward period of transition, around a decade ago, where bands would make mp3's available on a MySpace page (a method that actually panned out for Lily Allen among other songwriters). By 2008, Lady Gaga -- like Justin Bieber -- had realized that the key to music distribution was through YouTube. Therefore her first song was a relatively simple synth-pop number whose title, "Just Dance," signposted its affinities to unapologetic dance music and club music, the Manhattan milieu from which Madonna had herself emerged a quarter-century before Lady Gaga. But the raffish clubs of Madonna's early 80s Lower East Side -- memorably depicted in Madonna's first major film vehicle, the Susan Seidman comedy-thriller Desperately Seeking Susan -- are a far cry from the jaded scene-kids to whom Gaga appeals, adopting in the lyrics a kind of tongue-and-cheek ironic ventriloquism of the interior monologue (such as it is) of those same scene-kids:
I've had a little bit too much
All of the people start to rush
How does he twist the dance
Can't find a drink, oh man
Where are my keys?
I lost my phone
What's going on the floor?
I love this record but I can't see straight anymore:
Keep it cool
What's the name of this club?
I can't remember but it's all right, all right
Gonna be okay (da-da-doo-doo-mm)
Spin that record babe (da-da-doo-doo-mm) (Germanotta 2008).
Because "Just Dance" is a relatively unironic and musically simplistic entry into this genre of song -- and its success was helped along by the video, which is filmed in a low-key and grotty Brooklyn mumblecore aesthetic that leaps out on YouTube as though it were found footage posted by Harmony Korine -- it is easy to underestimate Gaga herself from the rather basic and "meh" aesthetic qualities of this initial single. When Gaga's fame would hit Britain the following year, television comic and parodist Katy Brand would film a rather wicked parody of Gaga's song and video for her comedy sketch show on Britain's ITV: it's worth looking at Brand's lyrics to get a sense of what the basic objections to Lady Gaga might be (from the standpoint of a plus-sized British comedienne).
I'm in the papers far too much
You're wondering why there's all this fuss
An underdressed little blonde
Singing this dumb little song
Haven't we seen all this before?
I'm number one
In the download charts
You bought this record but you can't remember why anymore:
Keep asking how
This lady's so big
And you remember it's because I'm wearing
When I'm on the bus (da-da-da-dumb)
It creates a fuss (da-da-da-dumb) (Brand 2009).
The reference to "download charts" indicates a sort of sneering at the changing face of music delivery (in which an artist should be concentrating not on how they will look on a television screen, but in a miniaturized YouTube window). Brand's parody will later accuse Gaga's single of being nothing more than standard European club and dance music written in an American idiom but with heavily different production values (like the notorious YouTube-propelled earworm of Romanian boyband O-Zone's single "Dragostea din Tea") -- as Brand puts it, "This song is just Euro-pop / Think I'm trendy but I'm not / I'd better wear less clothes tonight…." But this is to confuse Lady Gaga with her costumes -- certainly the heavily sexualized girlishness of the "Just Dance" video is well worth Brand's ire, but Gaga's iconography has merely leapt along like Madonna's in the 1990s. "Bad Romance" would feature a Helmut-Ritts-seeming S&M aesthetic -- not unlike that of Madonna's Sex and Erotica phase -- but "Alejandro" would swap this for a bizarre Spanish Civil War-era fascist gangrape aesthetic, in which it is not clear whether Gaga is imagining herself to be Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Federico Garcia Lorca, or both, if necessary. But from the standpoint of Gaga's influences it is worth noting that the video for Alejandro includes motifs which repeat, and even expand, some of Madonna's more notorious ventures in the 1990s: the PVC Roman Catholic vestments Gaga wears at one point seem explicitly to invoke the cross-burning blasphemy of Madonna's Like a Prayer video, while the Gatling-gun brassiere that Gaga sports throughout Alejandro seems nothing more like a violent retread of Madonna's 1990 Blonde Ambition cone-bra. Yet Vanessa Grigoriadis' summary of Gaga's rise to stardom in New York magazine makes it perfectly clear that Germanotta knows exactly what game she is playing -- she cites Warhol as an explicit influence, and makes it clear that her act is quite deliberately a form of performance art, and that complaints about its borrowings from earlier artistic acts (like Madonna's) are as misplaced as it would be to complain that Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup paintings weren't "original" because they plagiarized the design and layout of a Campbell's Soup can. To some extent, conceptualism allows the audience to forgive a certain level of pastiche in composition: this is true of Gaga's own career.
Lady Gaga's career almost perfectly illustrates what the academic and essayist Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker a little over a decade ago, termed "The Iron Law of Stardom." Menand's essay is a sort of Emersonian musing upon Warhol's own inclusion of media celebrity within the realm of aesthetic creation, but for Menand there is a disconnect between being a star and what he terms "stardom": "Once a star, always a star, of course - and that's the problem. For stardom is not to be confused with being a star . . . Stardom is the period of inevitability, the time when everything works in a way that makes you think it will work that way for ever." And for Menand, stardom in America is subject to what he calls "the law of the three-year limit": "This law dictates that stardom cannot extend for a period greater than three years. There is no penalty for breaking this law, for the simple reason that it is unbreakable" (Menand 1997). Menand in 1997 of course explicitly invokes Madonna, noting that she is a rare instance of a celebrity who has been permitted to experience stardom twice -- once…