The Art Of Stealing: Pop Stars And The Tricky Music Video Homage

One of the complaints I've seen surrounding Christina Aguilera's extremely NSFW video "Not Myself Tonight" is that Aguilera is blatantly ripping off Lady Gaga, which I guess is a good argument, if you think pop culture is 6 months old.

Click to viewEveryone steals from everyone in pop culture: if you look solely at the work of music's platinum blondes over the past 30 years or so, you can easily find style similarities between Christina and Gaga and Gwen Stefani and Madonna and Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons and Debbie Harry of Blondie and Cherie Currie of the Runaways and Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics, not to mention the influences each of these women brought to their own style via hundreds of years of icons that came before them. Aguilera's "Not Myself Tonight" (again, NSFW) may have similarities to many of Gaga's videos, but the major influence is clearly Madonna, who also pops up as a major influence in Gaga's work, most notably her recent "Telephone" video.

It's not entirely surprising that two women who grew up watching Madonna videos, particularly the era between 1990's Blonde Ambition tour and 1993's Girlie Show tour, which encompass an era where Madonna was the cone-bra wearing, whip wielding, sexually unapologetic role model who shocked MTV's censors and delighted audiences by continually coming up with new (and high-fashion, it should be noted) ways of getting her messages across. Madonna videos were events when I was growing up: you never knew what she'd look like, or what kind of dance she'd do, but you knew it would be different from the Madonna you'd seen before (though you could also see whom she was influenced by, or "stealing" from, at the time). She was a massive influence on many of us who grew up during those years, not only because of how she dressed, but because of how she carried herself, and how she challenged society's expectations. Hence, the fact that both Gaga and Aguilera, both children of the 80s, wanted to pay tribute/recreate those videos is totally understandable.

The problem with both videos, however, is that they both feel tired, as if the impact of the original Madonna imagery has been watered down to make way for product placement. One got the sense that Madonna was selling sex and strength (and, of course, records)...today, however, you also need to slip on the cat suit to push your mayonnaise or cell phone or vanity perfume. Aguilera wants to remind the audience at home that she's still the girl from the "Dirrty" video, and Gaga wants to position herself as the Madonna of the 21st century, but there's something a bit...off about both clips, as if the costume is there, but the attitude that once filled it isn't. Perhaps it's because the homages don't go far enough: they don't exactly add anything or improve upon Madonna's old videos, and even weaken them to a point, as Aguilera goes through the motions from Madonna's "Express Yourself" (based on Metropolis, mind you) and "Human Nature" videos (as well as George Michael's "Freedom '90" video, it should be noted) and Gaga writhes around in Madge's old cone-bra (in jail, for some reason) with a kind of technical perfection that is all style over substance.

Maybe both singers should reconsider their takes on Madonna, at least until they figure out how to pay tribute to her without looking like poor imitations. As Ms. Ciccone herself says, "Second best is never enough. You'll do much better baby, on your own."