Born This Way
by Lady Gaga
"'Born This Way' is a thumping, almost disco anthem that stomps along until the chorus crashes in with the weight of a discarded meat dress," the Guardian wrote. Another review didn't think it was almost disco, calling it "an uplifting disco smash with a driving beat and a gospelly chorus." But plenty in the music world think "Born This Way" has a serious originality problem: "Basically it is a reworking of Madonna's 'Express Yourself' with a touch of Madonna's 'Vogue,' which is a bit too much Madonna for someone who is trying to establish her own identity as the, er, new Madonna," wrote the Telegraph.
Madonna's celebrated 1989 track "Express Yourself" certainly does have a lot in common with Gaga's anthem, most notably the chord progression. And Lady Gaga's flat rap-chanting is a definite imitation of Madonna in "Vogue." Although the instrumentation is pretty different from Madonna, the mood and parts of the tune feel similar.
Is there anything wrong with that, though? Imitation is in many ways a mainstay of pop music, as the goal in pop has always been to create danceable crowd pleasers and not necessarily to advance new ideas. In fact, oftentimes pop musicians are focused less on brand-new styles than on beating others at their own game. Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone called the single "much better than 'Express Yourself'"—and we're quoting here—"because it's faster." But he did elaborate the point: "You can complain all you want about the tip of the leather cap to 'Express Yourself,' which was just Madonna's knock-off of the Staple Singers' 'Respect Yourself.' But 'Born This Way' is steeped in decades of gay disco tradition, with a heavy Seventies-style thump-thump from Patrick Hernandez' 1979 classic 'Born to Be Alive.' (Fun fact: one of Madonna's first professional gigs was as a back-up dancer on a Patrick Hernandez tour, and you can believe Gaga knows it.)" In other words, some people will tell you to complain all you want about Gaga imitating others, but at the end of the day, she will still be the master imitator.
Lady Gaga certainly does not shy away from claiming her musical roots, crediting Madonna, Prince, and David Bowie as some of her greatest inspirations. Although Gaga called the accusations of plagiarism "retarded" (ouch), her music director responded with a little more grace, saying he was "honored" by the comparison to Madonna. Madonna's camp didn't comment publicly on the question, and the case was basically closed. It might be imitation, but it's not copyright infringement.
So the question that remains is: does Gaga do anything on this track worth talking about? Some critics thought so: "Though nowhere near as compelling as the work Gaga has done with RedOne," wrote the L.A. Times, "'Born This Way' throws a lot into its four minutes: a clacking hint of dubstep, the thump of Hi-NRG disco, a breakdown that borrows from the Latin dance floor that Garibay has previously visited with Enrique Iglesias." The song is punctuated by a driving club beat (that's the Hi-NRG disco), a synthed out clack-clacking noise (the connection to dubstep, a type of dance music created by DJs in England), and smashing drums more reminiscent of rock n' roll than disco (a touch that is common for a lot of female pop singers of the late 2000s). None of it is exclusively original, but little in pop music is. What do you think? Perfect catchy anthem for 2011, or copy-catting let-down?