Gaga, Rihanna, and Kanye: Homages or rip-offs?

Three of the biggest names in pop music have recently caught flak for releasing work that borrows heavily from other sources. Also known as homage, reference, or to anyone familiar with Vanilla Ice’s “dun dun dun, dun-dun-dun duh,” sampling. But instead of appraising the value of these cultural nods, the artists are being vilified (or sued) as rip-off artists.

Lady Gaga’s record-breaking single “Born This Way,” Rihanna’s video for “S&M,” and Kanye West’s video for “All of the Lights” all borrow heavily from other sources, way past the point of accidental, spontaneous creation. So what’s the big deal?

“Born This Way” is an update of Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself,” both musically and lyrically. Lady Gaga admitted the similarity, and claimed support from Madge, in an interview with Jay Leno (which I won’t link to, because it’s Leno). It’s not surprising in the least: Madonna is Gaga’s inspiration, from her confrontational sexuality to her dance pop sensibilities. Refreshing “Express Yourself,” for an audience born after the original was released, in the age of It Gets Better, harms no one. Pop music is nothing if not cyclical; this is just a little on the nose. From the woman who gave us “Disco Stick,” we have come to expect nothing less: guilty pleasure that flaunts the obvious.

Obvious in a different way is Rihanna’s “S&M” video, which has been banned in 11 countries (and counting!) for its sexually suggestive content.

The case for rip-off is presented by photographer David LaChapelle in the form of a lawsuit. Oh No They Didn’t provides the case visually. Whatever happened to fair use? Clearly, Rihanna (or more specifically, the team behind the video) were inspired by LaChapelle’s work. Much like LaChapelle borrowed from Maplethorpe, ad infinitum. It’s not like Rihanna commissioned LaChapelle for video concepts, dismissed him, and used his work anyway. She borrowed imagery, set it to her music, and released it as video. Copyright law is supposed to encourage creativity, not stifle it. If anything, get on Rihanna’s case about the songs lyrics – but leave the video alone.

Kanye’s case is the latest to cause an uproar. The cultural curator of our time is being accused of stealing the style of credits used in Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. Yes, it’s come to this: stolen credit sequences! Once again, the appropriation is obvious. But where is the harm? Kanye’s latest record received perfect scores from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Enter the Void was an art-house thriller crafted by an indie provocateur. At the very least, the (online) furor will result in a few more Netflix hits for Enter the Void and a few more fans for Noe.

In all of these examples, the work is clearly intended as homage: reverence to a respected artist. Yet most of the coverage of these cases takes the tone of “gotcha” journalism, as if Gaga, Rihanna, and Kanye were trying to pull a fast one over an unwitting public, building a profit on the backs of unknown artists. From the artists that referenced “Don’t Turn Around,” Numa Numa, and Daft Punk, respectively and notably, this seems unlikely. As the last three decades of hip hop infused culture have proven, sampling furthers the creative conversation. It doesn’t end it. And with that, I’m off to listen to “Under Pressure.”

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