Tag Archives: lady gaga

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.”

Dear M.I.A: Knock it off.

Ed. note: This was written before the whole NY Times controversy!

Less than a decade on the scene, and two months before her eagerly awaited third album, M.I.A. is in a class alone. Maya Arulpragasam is a singular artistic force, pushing against musical boundaries and political sensitivities with equal aplomb. She is followed by a public that yearns to extract meaning from her every note, word, or Tweet.

So why the fuck is she attacking Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber?

Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a plea to leave Gaga and Bieber alone. As much as I enjoy the music that the two put out, it’s just pop. Neither is re-inventing the wheel; they’re following in the footsteps of pop stars before them. And that’s okay! Pop music can be iconic, especially with charismatic, interesting stars like these two. But it isn’t high art. Lyrically, Bieber uses the word “baby” 9 times in the chorus of his number one hit. Gaga sings about disco sticks and fame monsters. Musically, they put out well-crafted, hook-filled R&B and dance music, respectively. Nothing groundbreaking.

M.I.A. is different. Her music is a true melting pot of influences and genres, her lyrics bombastic poetry. She is definitely not a pop star, but has had no trouble getting press, be it critical fawning or political commentary. Her personal connection to and pointed views on the Sri Lankan Civil War, discussed with greater depth elsewhere, are a defining part of her public image. Her dedication to Third World issues and subjugated peoples worldwide is admirable; she definitely isn’t some Bono-come-lately. Her politics are personal; she has as much at stake as the political musicians of the 60s and 70s. So what happened?

A turning point here is the infamous video for “Born Free,” a bit of cinematic ultraviolence that depicts genocide in very graphic terms. With classic shock rock tactics, M.I.A. made a video “so violent” and “so controversial” that it was banned from YouTube… promptly buying her another few news cycles, all about a clip that is not particularly novel or creative. The video for “Born Free” manages to combine the worst parts of collegiate political discussion and overwrought film school productions. It’d be less smug if Michael Moore directed it.

M.I.A.’s release of the “Born Free” video is part is of the same cynical media strategy that includes running to NME every month to shit on pop stars. It’s not as if her album would have gone unnoticed, lost in Trending Topics to Justin Bieber’s haircut. It’s below her, and we should expect more from someone like M.I.A. She’s too important to music, culture, and art in 2010 to punch down like this.