Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's Old Is New Again (or Why Does Born This Way Sound Like Express Yourself?)

I wouldn't call myself a Lady Gaga fan but when Born This Way was released, I did something which I haven't done since I started buying music on iTunes; I actually bought the entire album.

After listening to Born This Way, I got a nagging sense of familiarity whenever I heard its eponymous single, especially since I thought the country road version was catchy and I played it a lot on my drives to and from work. One day, it dawned on me just where this feeling of familiarity originated: Lady Gaga's Born This Way sounded a lot like Madonna's Express Yourself. At first, I thought I was going crazy but a Google search confirmed that I wasn't the only one who thought this.

I began asking myself how this could have happened. After all, Express Yourself is a pretty iconic song and despite its age of more than twenty years, it hasn't faded into obscurity.

I suppose it's possible that Lady Gaga had either never heard the song or didn't know it very well. After all, she was all of three years of age when it was released, and even if she had heard it, she may not have been familiar with it compared to someone, like me, who was an adult when it debuted and heard it played on the radio and seen its video countless times.

It is the conceit of every artist that what they create is original but the truth of the matter is that everyone is influenced by what has come before them and there aren't many artists who takes measures as extreme as Reiner Knizia to isolate themselves from the works of their contemporaries.

But even if Lady Gaga was familiar enough with Express Yourself to have been influenced by it, at least subconsciously, given the finite number of non-discordant combinations of notes possible, one has to accept the possibility that, eventually, musical artists will begin to recycle motifs from the past, especially ones as catchy at Madonna's anthem of female empowerment.

If this is what happened, we are on the cusp of the end of days. I'm not referring to the apocalypse heralded by Harold Camping and his ilk, but the coming of a time when we will have heard and seen it all.

What would become of humanity if and when such a day comes? Will we stagnate and whither away, as prophesied by James T. Kirk in every episode of Star Trek where the Enterprise and its crew encounters a seemingly utopic society?

Of course, Lady Gaga's channeling of Madonna may have had less perturbing origins. After all, at the end of the day, Lady Gaga, like every artist, is selling a product and in so doing, she has to walk the fine line between giving her customers what they want, which is a product familiar enough to remind them of what drew them to her in the first place, and something new, lest she (and they) grow bored of the familiar, but at the risk of alienating them a la Bob Dylan if she goes too far off her own beaten track.

After all, we all crave familiarity and very rarely do we embrace the new. I got a glimpse into that aspect of my own personality during the recent U2 concert in Oakland. I had stopped following U2's music in college so I was pretty psyched whenever Bono sang songs from Boy to Achtung Baby as these songs formed a soundtrack of sorts of my years in high-school and university. Whenever a song with which I was not familiar was performed, I basically zoned out.

So maybe the fact that Born This Way sounds like Express Yourself owes less to the possible coming of the end of days or a lack of creativity on Lady Gaga's part but is more due to song writing driven by marketing taking into account the tendency of the consumer (us) to gravitate towards the familiar and eschew anything truly original.

If that is the case, Lady Gaga's sin is that she chose to mine the works of another artist for the source of something familiar rather than delving into her own portfolio of songs.

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