“Originality” in Pop Music vs. Plays: Madonna, Gaga, & Ludlam

If my blog were a plant (especially in this summer heat), it would be dead by now. So here’s a diluted, but not deluded, post to end the drought.

This morning while searching youtube for footage of Madonna singing “Like it or not,” I came across the clip below in which someone has juxtaposed clips from Madonna videos with clips from Lady Gaga videos in order to point out of the resemblance, suggest the latter artist has imitated the former.  (Not all that novel a youtube endeavor, I realize, but, eh.)

A few weeks back I read Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam (insightful and highly entertaining, totally recommend it).  Ludlam was the highly innovative actor/director/playwright behind the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a company Ludlam formed in 1967 after parting ways with John Vaccaro of Play-House of the Ridiculous.

Ludlam’s work, no doubt, falls under the generic classification of Avant-Garde, but it is of the distinctly post-modern variety–allusive, layered, parodic (though he preferred to think of what he did as ‘recycling’ rather than ‘parodying’).  He found inspiration in everything from Thomas Kyd, Shakespeare, Moliere, and Wilde to film and opera.  In short, for Ludlam, more = more.  He strongly objected to the Avant-Garde art of the Modern period–he loathed its minimalism, its rejection of past, of precedence, and its selective abandonment of core components of drama, such as characterization and plot.  So much of Ludlam’s writings on this subject (and others) warrants quoting for its boldness and pithiness alone. For example: “I hate minimal art…I am for maximal art. Minimal art is inflationary art: less for your money” (p221).

So what does Ludlam have to do with Madonna and Lady Gaga?  Well, maybe, nothing. But I’m more inclined to think that his thoughts on how theatre history can be recycled to create something ‘original’ and compelling do have a bearing on how ‘art’ is created in the pop music world (and, of course, the theatre world still, too).  For both Madonna and Gaga, more seems to equal more also–and not in the sense of mere over-the-topness or pedaling what can be perceived as provocative.

What do you think–do the clips in the above video indicate to you that Gaga has drawn on Madonna’s work to create something ‘new,’ and if so, how does Gaga use Madonna moments (poses, costuming, tableaus) to tell a different story, to achieve something artistically different?  I think Gaga is very much working within a tradition, one that Madonna has honed for decades.  Madonna has had her own share of influences–the femme fatale, Dietrich, Garbo, etc.  And all of it strikes me as being in the spirit of Ludlam’s ‘cultural recycling program.’

For your viewing pleasure (or pain), here’s tour footage of Madge singing “Like it or not.”  She appears very cautious, too cautious, as if she’s afraid she’s going…to…fall…over…in it. But I still the love the song. And, okay, her, too.

And here’s footage with great clips from the 2007 Map Cap production of Ludlam’s Mystery of Irma Vep at Urban Stages. (P.S. The play is hysterical! Read it!)

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