Last week, the arrival of “Born This Way,” the first single off Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album, was met with bated breath. And when that thumping club banger finally dropped, just one word exhaled out of baffled mouths: Madonna.
Gaga was just three years old when Madonna released “Express Yourself,” to which “Born This Way” owes a no-duh debt. Unlike Madge’s pop-cultural scions such as Britney and Christina who’ve aped her use of sexuality to shock and awe, the 24-year-old Gaga has regarded her progenitor’s career like a conservative business plan waiting to be fleshed out. And she did this without the benefit of svengalis to propel her. True, she’s crassly reaping the benefits of controversies of yore that Madonna so deftly navigated. But didn’t Madonna start out as a tacky pop star who cribbed from Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol?
To be fair (or at least all-inclusive), Gaga has, in fact, stolen from many. That eccentric, pop-cabaret piano thing? That’s Elton John. Her hyperbolic, label-conscious style? That’s Isabella Blow. The gleeful morbidity? Marilyn Manson. The peculiar alienness? David Bowie. The menacing theatrics? Nina Hagen. (Incidentally, the latter, an influential German art-punk performer, reportedly referred to Gaga as a “pop prostitute.”)
But it’s Madonna who is, hands down, Gaga’s patron saint. They’re both a little pretentious: Madonna has been known to name-drop everyone from German auteur Fritz Lang to modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham, while Gaga refers to herself as a performance artist. Both are sexual without being sexy. And they are masterful at rearing, controlling, and morphing their images. When they hit the stage respectively, the singers are spectacles: Madonna becomes a grandiose version of herself, while Gaga transforms into a lugubrious curiosity.
The biggest distinction between Madge and Gaga is the latter’s freewheeling image and deadpanned sense of humor. Madonna embodies control, be it her technical dancing, her overt image changes, her disciplined lifestyle, her clipped accent, her tightly clenched singing voice…. Gaga—whose croon is considerable despite her confessed appetite for whiskey and weed—affects self-destructiveness that, by her own admission, plays into our TMZ-eraschadenfreude for falling stars. Not only is she not afraid to get ugly for attention, she invents new ways to do it, like pouring blood down her chest while hanging from the ceiling like a slab of meat, or fashioning a dress out of actual slabs of meat (with matching purse!). Amazingly, her stunts work: Although teetering on the brink of fashion victimhood, Gaga—whose lasting sartorial contribution seems to be in pioneering the absence of pants—can currently be found on the cover of Vogue. Tweeted Gaga: “They used to call me rabbit teeth in school, and now I’m a real live VOGUE BEAUTY QUEEN!”
Her fanbase, like Madonna’s, is rabid and loyal—perhaps more than Madge’s because she oscillates between exotic diva and emergent underdog who glistens with the veneer of approachability, punctuated by her affectionate Tweets (in which she calls fans “little monsters”) and in at least one instance, by crying on stage. She’s also created a secret handshake of sorts for this Gospel of Gaga with her claw gesture. The once-cult club she’s cultivated thusly is now vast: According to Famecount, Gaga is the most popular social-network attraction overall. In your face, Bieber.
Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” capitalizes off that appeal. It’s a ready-made queer-pride hit that leaves no child left behind: “No matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life…No matter black, white or beige/Chola or Orient made/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born to be brave.”
As Gaga told Anderson Cooper, “I’m a master of the art of fame.” And she may very well be: Rip off or not, her single is already breaking worldwide records, which has even earned Madonna’s approval.