Quick Compare| Artistic License, Lady Gaga vs. Rihanna

While I was watching this past Sunday’s Grammy awards and marvelling at the stamina of Mick Jagger and his tribute performance to Solomon Burke, and the surprise appearance of Bob Dylan providing a growly rendition of “Maggie’s Farm,” not to mention the many wonderful performances by the younger generation bringing renewed attention to the artists that came before them—i.e. John Mayer, Norah Jones, and Keith Urban’s version of “Jolene” to honour Dolly Parton was incredible— I was reminded again how much the music industry operates within the context of artistic license.

Lady Gaga and Madonna made an appearance together in 2009
on NBC's Saturday Night Live, only fueling the persistent comparisons
Take for example the much awaited appearance of Lady Gaga and her new single “Born This Way.” Aside from the now expected provocative costumes and conceptually based performance of the song itself, I was immediately struck along with many others of my *ahem* generation, that the general vibe of the lyrics and melody was almost identical to Madonna’s now classic 80’s hit “Express Yourself.” Within days, the mash-ups appearing on YouTube drove home these undeniable comparisons (see clip below for an example). 

Lady Gaga was quick to respond to allegations of artistic copyright by announcing that Madonna had provided her blessing for “Born This Way.” In fact, during the award ceremony itself, Gaga made a point of acknowledging her admiration for the powerful superstars of the 1980’s in one of her acceptance speeches, declaring that she had written her latest song imagining Whitney Houston as the lead vocalist:  "I wanted to thank Whitney because when I wrote 'Born This Way,' I imagined she was singing it because I wasn't secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar. So Whitney, I imagined you were singing 'Born This Way' when I wrote it." In this sense, much of Lady Gaga’s fame has been calculated to draw on specific references to the artists and movements that she admires the most. Her admission of this approach is also strategic in that she is able to operate much closer to the workings of a visual and performance artist who respectfully pays homage to the “masters” of the past. It is a very thin line, but she has managed not to cross it so far.

The comparisons between the visual stylings of  David LaChappelle's iconic photographs
and Rihanna's video and  are pretty undeniable. Image courtesy of  Meets Obsession
Perhaps not the same could be said of Rihanna, another pop musician who recently debuted a new single “S&M” with an accompanying video (see below) that has likewise been accused of appropriating a well known artist’s style. In this case, Rihanna has denied allegations that her new video copies the now iconic visual style of artist, photographer, and director David LaChappelle. A simple glance however at the comparative screen shots of the video and the photographer’s work tells us a different story. LaChappelle, who was reportedly discovered by pop artist Andy Warhol and invited to work for Interview Magazine in the 1980's, is known for his very strong and recognizable photographic style relying on the use of humour, surrealism, and celebrity. After the Twitterverse blew up with talk of the uncanny comparisons and Rihanna’s denials, LaChappelle filed suit against Rihanna claiming, as reported by the New York Times, a “willful, wanton and deliberate” infringement of his copyright protections.  One wonders if the suit would have been filed had Rihanna simply admitted the similarities. Was the difference more blatant because she took visual artistic license versus a musical one? It is a very compelling question to raise and one that likely comes down to the perceived respect that has (or has not) been offered to the artists that have come before.