January 24, 2013

Not Every Song Sounds Like Madonna, Mom

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What is the issue?

To the surprise of absolutely no one, my mom and I don’t see eye-to-eye on all music. Of course, like all kids, she and my dad’s musical taste has had a huge influence on me and we share an appreciation for certain things: The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson (duh), the first Alanis Morissette album and oddly enough, Ol Dirty Bastard (or as she lovingly refers to him, “rap’s James Brown”). We used to dance around our living room to “Ice Ice Baby” and she and my dad took me to my first rock concert at age 7 (Alanis, again). And I really have to give her credit: this lady really does, unlike many of her contemporaries, stay current. She keeps up with new stuff and listens to everything I recommend to her (on Kendrick Lamar: “He’s good, but I don’t necessarily want to hear about him fucking the world with his giant penis”). She introduced me to Fun. before “We Are Young” blew up and she featured Theophilus London on her online magazine, StyleLikeU, long before I had fully caught on to his music.

One area where we do not share a meeting of the minds, though, is pop music. Her most common critique of any contemporary pop song she hears? “She’s just copying Madonna.” Literally every single female-led pop song. Doesn’t matter if it’s Britney or Robyn, Marina, Icona Pop, Gwen Stefani, La Roux, MNDR, Rihanna, whatever. And it’s not that she’s wrong, per se, but it’s always bugged me to no end for a number of a reasons, which I will explore further momentarily.

However, it was her most recent accusation of Madonna-aping that pushed me over the edge and onto Microsoft Word to pen this little write-up. A couple weeks ago, I sent her a video of Solange performing her absolutely stunning new single “Losing You” on Jimmy Fallon. I forwarded this to her thinking she was totally gonna go for it: Here was an artist singing a extraordinarily well-written, true, honest and gimmick-free song about love and love-lost, complete with a funky, organic beat that manages the rare feat of sounding simultaneously vintage and forward-thinking (courtesy of Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes). Furthermore, Solange writes her own lyrics, something my mom as a child of 60s and 70s (“real music with real soul”) values highly, and, the crown jewel, she also doesn’t insist on wearing a leotard and “dressing for men,” something my mom also despises about our current batch of pop divas.

Ed Van West
Ed Van West

But low and behold, after much anticipation, all I got was the same old appraisal: “I like it, but the song is just copying Madonna.” GRRRRRR. OK: Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. First-off, in the words of Madonna’s most shameless spawn, Lady Gaga, there is no more adoring Madonna fan than me. I own every album, appreciate the deep tracks as much as the singles (“Keep It Together,” anyone?) and even stuck by her through many of her more recent missteps (Though I’ll admit I recently hopped off the blind-faith tour with Madge after her last album, which I think was pretty much an unqualified disaster). But Madonna’s main talent, as has been well-documented and perhaps bares little repeating, is her ability to copy and copy well. Madonna made her name not as a virtuoso singing or dancing talent, not as a beauty, not even as a talented musician or songwriter. No. Madonna’s talent was always her ability to cull influences and bring them forward into the mainstream. Sometimes, they were underground influences like “vogueing” and early house music at the beginning of the 90s, and other times she straight-up ripped off the work of mega pop stars before her: The beat of “Like a Virgin” is a famously blatant replica of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

Secondly, all art, whether we’re talking about the work of Vincent Van Gogh or Bob Dylan, is merely a play off of what came before it (duh, again). Many art scholars believe the former spent his career attempting to emulate the essence of Rembrandt’s work, and the latter openly admits that his entire early catalogue consists of song structures and themes aped directly from the folk songs of his childhood, with lyrics mimicking the the spirit and cadence of poet Dylan Thomas. Why should pop music, an art form which doesn’t necessarily aim to be nearly as high-minded as the work of either of these aforementioned masters, be any different? Is Quentin Tarantino an “original” because he pairs so many disparate influences — B-movies, Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation films — into one form, or is he a copy-cat for that exact reason?

And lastly, and pardon my French, but who the fuck cares? Fun is fun, and good music is good music, especially when it comes to pop. Whether we’re talking about the Beatles singing “She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah,” Michael Jackson wanting to rock with us *clap* all night, or Rihanna being bad, but perfectly good at it, these songs all share a certain familiar verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure, a lightness, a universal zeal, and are all great pop jams in their own right, despite the aspects they share with one another. If we spend our whole lives trying to deem how much of the art we consume is “original” and how much is not, doesn’t that take all the pleasure out of the sheer immediate enjoyment out of that art? It’s pop, Mom. Familiarity and accessibility is half the point.

So look, there is no question that Madonna was an original. But so is Solange. And I love you, Mom, but criticizing a pop song for “sounding like Madonna” is about as airless a judgement as saying you don’t like Baked Ziti because it “tastes like Lasagna.” Besides, “Losing You” gives me way more Neneh Cherry than Madonna, anyway. TC Mark

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