Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Lady Gaga's Alejandro: The Fun & Folly of Appropriation

Madonna was once both adored and reviled as "The Great Appropriator" so I suppose it's only fair that Lady Gaga borrows from her. When I first heard "Alejandro" I kept thinking 'Oh, Ok. Gaga has to have her own "La Isla Bonita," too.' And then she went and collaborated with frequent Madonna iconographer Steven Klein for the music video.

So even though Klein is shamelessly borrowing from his own past work here, the wonderful thing about Gaga is that, like her spiritual pop empress predecessor, she's her own artist, too. This makes the appropriation palatable as well as fun... until crazed fans start giving her credit for everything. [But that's another funny subject matter entirely.] I mean even Madonna didn't invent the chameleon approach to pop stardom, though her fans, like Gagas, also tried to give her credit for it at the time.

Doesn't that "what on earth will they wear/look like next?" thing go directly back to Bowie? Or is it earlier than that. Paging pop historians???

Blond helmet bobs and flare pants forevah!

So mark my words. Someday soon -- let's say within the next 3 years -- Gaga is going to have her Madonna "Live to Tell" moment wherein she totally shocks the world, not with a new provocative look but by showing up with a demure, classic one. It'll get everyone talking as much as any diet coke can hair rollers ever did.

The Madonna / Steven Klein collaboration from 2003
One might call the stylings Gaga-esque but for the year in question

So, my point is this: Clumsy homage/ripoff like the kind that Christina Aguilera does in "Not Myself Tonight" when she plagiarizes both Madonna and Gaga *shudder* is not fun at all and should be looked down upon. But riffing on the work of others in a new context or with a fresh twist is totally fun and what many great artists do.

We see this in feature films all the time, too. Both of the best shots in Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces are arguably inspired by other work: There's that white sheet shrouded sex scene (Margritte) and that moving emotional climax with the hands caressing the static image (which I'm hearing is a Godard reference... but it totally works in the Almodóvarian context). A couple weeks ago we chatted briefly about the various A grade riffs on Ingmar Bergman's Persona (Lynch's Mulholland Dr and Altman's Three Women). And everyone knows that the wildly popular Quentin Tarantino is all about referencing other movies. But whether or not we recognize the references --I often don't with Tarantino since the genres he loves most are weak spots for me -- great artists reference past work only in the service of making their own fresh visions.

The only real issue with doing this is when the new artist acts as if it's completely and 100% their invention. Which is why it was a shame that Beyonce's otherwise awesome and awesomely ubiquitous "Single Ladies" video didn't have a "thank you Bob Fosse" attached to it, for example.

Madonna & Gaga. They're both "tops"

So, I can't help but think about Madonna the entire way through"Alejandro" maybe because of the Catholic imagery. I see "Alejandro" like so: Madonna's men in cone bras helping hot blond divas masturbate (Like a Virgin, Blonde Ambition Tour), women topping men suggestively in dance choreography (Express Yourself, Blonde Ambition Tour) and catholic girls obsessing over funerals and death in snowy black and white ("Oh Father") plus a couple choreographed bits from "Human Nature" and "Express Yourself" all get tossed into the Gaga/Klein blender and come out the other end as an angry military puree. Here the woman isn't topping men with a flirtatious feminism but actually appears to be penetrating them rather more subversively like a man would. And instead of just obsessing at the coffin and weeping for her dead loved one, the girl is actually leading the funereal procession. And the cone bras become guns. Bang Bang.

I'm not sure I've ever fully registered the sheer amount of aggression in Gaga's art before. But after the mass murder of "Telephone", the crispy end-gag in "Bad Romance" and the poisoned Skarsgaard in "Paparazzi," and this, it's abundantly clear. Suddenly those silly rumors about Tarantino wanting to work with her that sprung up when she used Kill Bill imagery for "Telephone" make more popcultural sense. Gaga is out for blood!

Unfortunately this new video is too effortfully mounted and grave to be half as fun as her previous outings and it also feels more derivative. Will she ever top the exquisite aesthetic control, hilarious sight gags and awesome choreography of "Bad Romance"? That said, even though I'm unmoved by this new work, I really love Lady Gaga and remain thrilled that someone is taking the music video format so very seriously again and has the fanbase to back up that particular passion. It had been a long while since each music video premiere felt so "NEW SHORT FILM!" headline worthy.

Three final errant thoughts...

On a shallow film referencing note, can I just say that I absolutely hate beautiful men with perfect bodies. It's entirely unfair that anyone can stay "hot like Mexico" while sporting Moe's Three Stooges 'do. Entirely unfair.

How much do you love that lyric "you know that I love you, boy | hot like Mexico"? Well, I love it more than you do. Genius.

This final image is thrilling and for some reason it makes me desperate to shove Lady Gaga into a time machine and make her do a video with James Bidgood or Ken Russell in the 70s, Almodóvar in the 80s or maybe Pierre et Gilles or Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the 90s.


MattyD. said...

I'm so glad that you adore this video and its "appropriation" as much as I did when I first caught it this morning. Love this post!

Comentator said...

I saw the gun-bra and I thought immediately of The Linguini Incident... and Bowie starred there... :-p

Lucas Dantas said...

i totally agree with you! this is gaga's most obscure production and i love the "la isla bonita" dilemma in it. the song brings a cheerfulness but the lyrics is so full of tears-on-the-dancefloor poetry. and the video goes that direction as well, but as you noted gaga's mark is there all the time, opposite to tha ridiculous xtina aguilera video in which she tries to be everyone and ends up being nothing.

gaga said alejandro's video would be a testament of love to all her gay friends, and she did it by emulating one of the most profusive gay icons of all eras, madonna. and that's a sign of love as well, so silly madge fans must stop bickering and appreciate the references.

Seeking Amy said...

I just watched this video like 10 minutes ago, and it left me largely indifferent. Save for the final image. The reservations I had with some parts of the Telephone video (IE: She tries too hard with the things like the leopard outfit near the end, and her randomly getting her flower child on with American flag outfits felt like overkill) felt blown-up here. And dare I say it, she looked a little bored in some parts. Along with that, even with the whole onslaught of the bowl cuts, the ridiculous shorts, the heels, the bra guns, it's lacking energy. Granted, Alejandro is a slower song, but that doesn't mean it can't have a pulse to it in video. It just all feels like a half-baked mess, which is a shame because the stomping near the beginning gave it a sense of promise. If she makes a video for Dance in the Dark (My favorite from The Fame Monster) I hope she goes back to that tightly wound, alive and organic feel she had in Bad Romance.

John T said...

Really-that final shot makes me wish that Andy Warhol was here to obsess over her.


seeking amy -- i think she tries too hard sometimes too (and for me TELEPHONE... which has a few gobsmackingly brilliant moment... is the worst offender in this way). As much as i love her Paparazzi and Bad Romance are pretty unbeatable as her videos go. Mainly because they feel more controlled and less worried about "how do i top myself?"

if she's going to steal from Madonna, steal Madonna's insane confidence.(Madonna always struts into new situations like she has nothing to prove and then keeps proving... though i really hope Gaga's rise will inspire Madonna to care abotu this artform again). That's the #1 factor if you want to last for three decades in the disposable world of pop music.

Deus Ex Machina said...

Not quite known for being so gimmicky and "chamaleonic" , but much is owed to Kate Bush (I mean, we owe HER for ht e invention of the headset mic). Her music videos remain energetic and maddening in a good way. How weird is that "Sat in your lap" video?. Bush came without pretensions; her weirdness wasn't prefabricated and she didn't have to rape the objects around her to make her divalicious. Perhaps every time gaga and Madonna are performing, they should thank our iconic Kate for their good fortunes.

Chris Na Taraja said...

Wow, after all these years, i never how much Madonna was not the creator of her own image. Looking at this video with out reading, i would have said it's a Homage to madonna, but apparently it's Klien's homage to himself.

They say behind every successful man is a good woman, but behind every fabulously dressed diva is a gay man!!

Chris Na Taraja said...

Dare I also say, that even though Ga Ga has it, what ever it is, she's clearly not Madonna. Madge is a bit more provocative, evocative and powerful. GaGa feels more fun and weird, where as Madonna felt like she was pushing the edges of society.

Volvagia said...

To me, she's just one of the myriad of annoying "musicians" on pop radio. But, what do I know? I've got a Devil's Haircut/In my Mind.

Dame James said...

So Xtina rips off Madonna and it's cheap and clumsy. GaGa rips off Madonna and she gets respect because she's "adding something new" (I must have missed that in between the Voguing and the Like a Prayer references). I'm not a fan of the 'Not Myself Tonight' video, but just because GaGa's video is "artsy" when Xtina's was pure smut doesn't mean it's any better.


Dame James -- well i didn't say i though it was GREAT. This is my least favortie Gaga video in a while. I just think that riffing on other people's work is very normal and fine if you have something to add. the tone of her work, for all the comparisons, is definitely different than Madonna's.

But honestly Christina's, if it was meant as homage was a total fail, and as a ripoff it just felt like hack work to me. If it's straight up "here's me as Madonna" it needs more humor. And if it's straight up stealing it needs more nuance and subtlety.

i dunno. there's a good take on the situation at the blog i linked up to there which is why i didn't go into it in great detail.that blog said it well about "Not Myself Tonight"

Chris -- Madonna was definitely pushing the world, yes. and I agree that it doesn't get more powerful than Madonna. But I'm enjoying what Gaga brings to the pop world. I just want it to be a little closer to Bad Romance and Telephone which feel more like Gaga than Gaga acknowledging her connection to Madonna in a more straightforward way than she usually does.

BeRightBack said...

Am I the only one who hears "The Sign" by Ace of Base when the chorus of this song starts?

Glenn said...

These are my exact thoughts about the video. It's still better than the majority of garbage out there claiming to be a "music video", but I just don't think I "get" it enough. Like, okay... what's the point?

Clearly the biggest pop release of the last day or so is the Kylie Minogue "Aphrodite" Megamix. It's amazing in every single way.

NoNo said...

I guess I'm the only one who thinks the quality of music videos hasn't gone down. There are plenty of artists right now that are doing consistently good videos: Pink, Kanye West, M.I.A., Erykah Badu, Rihanna etc.

I think it's just that Gaga's getting the same fan fare as Michael Jackson and Madonna that's setting her apart.

Klemen said...

The difference, for me, between Gaga 'copying' Madonna and Christina copying Madonna and Gaga is that Alejandro made me think hmmm, there are some Madonna references in here. NMT made me go-this is that video, this is that outfit, this is what Gaga dit etc. i consider Alejandro more of an homage and NMT more of a, well, rip-off.

Alejandro and BR are fighting for number 1 with me, and Paparazzi and Telephone for the third position.
What I loved about Alejandro is that it is just as gorgeous, weird (in a good sense) and hot(or hotter) as her previous videos, but also darker and more serious, which I liked-but that's purely personal taste.I loved that it was more poignant/thought-provoking than anything she's ever done, it has a theme and a message-and a great one.But maybe i'm biased cuz I'm gay:)
On the final note, the thing she wears on the head is one of her very coolest and craziest WTF fashion moments imo.Seriously, WHAT is that and where can I buy it?:)

James T said...

While reading the piece I thought of Bowie.. and there he was :) I'm proud of myself for having the same thought as you.

I agree that both this and "Telephone" are just too much although I really liked seeing Gaga and Beyonce together.

I'm with Glenn on "I don't get it" and, call me stupid, I don't even get the lyrics. Is "she" and "I" the same person? Why are there three names but Alejandro gets more mentions? Is it all sumbolic?

I think that the "topping the men" might also be a reference to the "penis" rumour.

PS: Gaga rules :)

BeRightBack said...

James T.: The upside-down cross on her crotch, which looks like a geometric erection, certainly supports your thesis.

Iggy said...

I think Lady Gaga is here to stay. To me, she's the only one who has understood there's life after Madonna, and the only one that has managed to figure out what direction to take in these times: sense of humour.
When I see her videos, I see a woman who grew up worshipping pop culture and its icons (including Madonna) and that's not afraid to show them and incorporate them to her style. It's like she had decided, ok this is what's been done up to now, let's make something different with the same material and let's laugh about it a bit while we're at it. That's the only way I can understand her outfits, her choreographies or some of her lyrics. Some sort of self-parody, not exactly of herself, but of the pop divas culture.

That said, I think Ale(h)andro, the song, is a step back. What's wrong with English speaking singers when they try something in Spanish? Case in point: Madonna (La isla bonita), Geri Halliwell( Mi chico latino) though there was nothing right with that one to begin with. Even Jennnifer Lopez who's also Spanish speaking (Qué hiciste?) That's what I wonder, ¿qué hiciste, Jennifer?.
But to be fair, the same thing happens the other way around, when Spanish speaking singers try English. I'm most amazed Enrique Iglesias has some sort of career (I can be yor (j)ero beibi)

Clarence said...

Love love love Lady Gaga. I love her. This song is fab-o regardless of what other people think of her. I swear I want to have a Lady Gaga themed party like in Glee. That'll be so amazing.

Despite being called a rip-off, I think Christina Aguilera has one advantage or ability that can kick Lady Gaga and Madonna's asses: her voice. Ya sure she may look like a ripoff but I'll fight someone if anyone thinks that Lady Gaga or Madonna is a better singer than Christina.

Unknown said...

Supposedly this video is part "Vogue" part "Like A Prayer" part "Express Yourself":

seems pretty original, does that mean its true "team Gaga" profiles people then compiles a "montage" or assembles something to regurgitate back to brainwashed viewers who have a hard time chewing Ashlee Simpson visuals(?)- like a bird feeding her flock. What careful and obvious script writing here (in this article). Its almost as if Madonna directed the video herself "undra-covah" with that outsourced group of hired field investigators..... the re:invention concept is another skip away from authenticity and karaoke in contradiction. "No doubt" the "other" errr I mean Queen adores the favor of impersonation, as it will eventually rape consumers into memory backtracking to archive her sold product to the public, plus give an excuse to carry on with former business practices, amidst a myriad of infringement lawsuits-she does have the excuse of using poor people to feed. None the less what did "Stephanie Gaga" say in that interview? "she lies sometimes"..................shocking, and for the record most people from Stonewall and the "gay" revolution didn't charge activists and homosexuals to understand their actions and Madonna wasn't playing in those clubs as her product wasn't being sold nor had she recorded yet- AND CORRECTION; "Vogue" (this sentence is for the illustrious article writer searching for that industry "in") was concepted by Malcolm McLaren, not Madonna the single was called "Deep In Vogue" and like much of "Miss Ciconne's" (there's more than one of her, you know) career some of those singles and "Vogue" in particular are/is a knock off and assemblages of Malcolm's (McLaren) work which he didn't star in (the "Deep In Vogue" video)- the Voguer's did. Gaga wants Madonna's money, Madonna wanted Malcolm's idea's really they are parasites,with an incestuous "edge".Basically they want gay people to pay for their sins, and know exactly how to visually manipulate this situation to collect thus payment, homosexuals are easily controlled with a little love and eye candy. Get your facts and history "straight", that's after your done screaming like "Fans" or trying understand reality.

JP said...

@BeRightBack - I think it's actually "Don't Turn Around", another Ace of Base song. Either way, it's definitely reminiscent of Ace of Base (who were, of course, reminiscent of ABBA).


JP & BRB -- i can definitely hear ace of base now that they've been name checked. But oh so much lost in resolution when attempting to xerox the unsurpassable ABBA.

Chris Na Taraja said...

I agree, GaGa should stick to GaGa instead of doing Madonna, she really does herself so much better! It seems odd to me that after setting her tone and style with her other songs that she would do this complete bite. It falls flat, except when all those gay guys are gang banging her!!


yeah. but Madonna did that too (see Truth or Dare) ;)

Dorian said...

GaGa is the baddest bitch around ya'll! She put every "contemporary" on notice with this "Alejandro" video! Love it! It's way too serious for such a lightweight song, but I almost don't care when the final product is this strong. Dominate those hot guys and pay homage to your empress God, La Madonna! Great video!

James T said...

Did Gaga just break a record? Is she the first singer to have her video (I know the video is the director's but I don't care right now :p) graded by Nathaniel?

BeRightBack said...

JP: I just gave it a listen and you are totally right.

Volvagia said...

Michael: Do you lament that Coca-Cola no longer comes in Green glass bottles?


James T -- i think i graded a few of Madonna's some years back ;) grades i would totally reasses. Though of entire videographies I would say it goes like this:

GOLD x 10: Madonna
SILVER: Eurythmics/Annie Lennox

BRONZE: undecided! though one could make a case for Bjork, Michael Jackson, George Michael, The Beastie Boys, Kate Bush and several other peoples.

Lady Gaga's just getting started really. We'll see.

James T said...

Oh, I wasn't aware of that. Cool.

I do love the "Must Be Talking To An Angel" video and song.

And from Madonna I think "Human Nature" is my favorite though I love many videos of hers.

K said...

In terms of Gaga references Madonna and others... It makes much more sense to me considering that Gaga is a huge fan of Warhol (see her "The Fame Factory" reference from the Grammys). She's taking what exists and morphing and adapting it in her own originality.

I think it really works without coming off as a total rip off.

That's what I think.

Franco Marciano said...

"Am I the only one who hears "The Sign" by Ace of Base when the chorus of this song starts?"

I feel a mashup coming soon!

You pretty much got me all excited putting Almodovar and Tarantino next to Gaga. I hope they collaborate sometime in the future.

Bobby John said...

So when GaGa rips off Madonna it's OK but when Christina does it it's not anymore? Sorry Nathaniel, but you completly lack anything even remotely close to objectivism when it comes to Lady GaGa.

Nitcha said...

Lady Gaga gives new life to music videos and yes she adapts some thoughts from previous artists (but who hasnt, if you want to see the original lace bra outfit check out Kate Bush's The Wedding List http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ymxgS4XHRA - great concept video!)
By the way she was 21 years old in this video.

Many artists from previous centuries used sexy outfits on stage (Runnaways) so please as much as I adore Madonna - she was not a orginator she was a collaborator and added another dimension - case in point with Lady Gaga. What's refreshing though is Gaga's new videos are different, humourous but most importantly thought provoking. Is it just me but I am sick and tired of the mass produced videos that are blatantly selling sex and insulting our intellengence.

Hope Lady Gaga influences other new artists so we can get back to real music and art form (Remember Queen, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush to name a few - back then as video had not developed yet - they also had concept albums - Now we have concept videos thanks to Lady Gaga.

Bravo Lady Gaga!