Since Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” made its debut last month, critics have alleged that the song is “derivative” or even a “rip off” of Madonna songs like “Express Yourself.” And, of course it is. But that also doesn’t matter in the least. All pop music is derivative. “Express Yourself” (1989) borrows from the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” (1971). This fact eludes those who allege thievery on behalf of Lady Gaga — presumably because people like to believe that pop music is original. Great pop is not original. It just sounds original.
UPDATE: Added Spotify playlist because links below are long since defunct
Respect Yourself, The Staple Singers (1971)
Express Yourself, Madonna (1989)
Born This Way, Lady Gaga (2011)
Ain’t That Just Like a Woman, Louis Jordan (1946)
Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry (1957)
More Than a Feeling, Boston (1976)
Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana (1991)
The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes” (2006) borrows its baseline from Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” (1979), a song which takes its title from the opening line of the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” (1964). It’s possible, too, that Jackson’s song also bears some influence from the Damned’s “New Rose” (1977), which begins by quoting that same opening line from the Shangri-Las. Did listening to the Damned inspire him to use that Shangri-Las line? I’m not sure, but it strikes me as a possibility.
Leader of the Pack, The Shangri-Las (1964)
New Rose, The Damned (1977)
Is She Really Going Out With Him?, Joe Jackson (1979)
Steady, As She Goes, The Raconteurs (2006)
When one artist sues another, these sorts of borrowings make the news, and thus we learn how the Chiffons’ “She’s So Fine” (1963) may have unconsciously influenced George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (1970) — a song from which Wilco’s “You Never Know” (2009) quotes (and quotes directly, at the 3-minute mark). Or how the Knack’s “My Sharona” (1979) turns up in RUN-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” (1986), or Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly” (2004) seems to emerge in Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” (2008). I say “seems to” because I suspect that a lot of these borrowings happen unconsciously.
He’s So Fine, The Chiffons (1963)
My Sweet Lord, George Harrison (1970)
You Never Know, Wilco (2009)
My Sharona, The Knack (1979)
It’s Tricky, RUN-DMC (1986)
If I Could Fly, Joe Satriani (2004)
Viva la Vida, Coldplay (2008)
Whatever the reason, a lot of pop music sounds like a lot of other pop music. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974) becomes Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (1978), the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” (1964) turns into the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” (1968), and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (1982) re-emerges as Cee-Lo’s “Bright Lights, Big City” (2010).
Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)
Werewolves of London, Warren Zevon (1978)
All Day and All of the Night, The Kinks (1964)
Hello, I Love You, The Doors (1968)
Billie Jean, Michael Jackson (1982)
Bright Lights Bigger City, Cee-Lo (2010)
So, yes, Lady Gaga bears Madonna’s influence. But pop music is born this way.