In a recent interview, Madonna told an ABC News reporter that Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” was “reductive.”
“How so?” the reporter asked.
“Look it up,” said Madonna, with a superior air.
The reporter and I both did. We had to, as Madonna’s response had little to do with the question. The reporter was asking for specifics, not a definition.
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Something else rang odd and untrue in the comment. I’m a big fan of using words well. It’s not because I boast perfect diction or teach English. It’s because if you claim to be an authority or an expert, or if you happen to speak condescendingly while refusing to explain yourself, then I want to call you on it.
So, let’s define reductive. It means “tending to present a subject or problem in a simplified form, especially one viewed as crude.”
Madonna said this in response to the claim of some (who? Fans? Twitter folk? The reporter did not say) that “Born This Way” is Gaga’s copy of Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
I’m not a lyricist, but having dragged many reluctant 10th graders through poetry analysis, let me give this a shot. If Gaga’s work is reductive, then surely we’ll see this in the lyrics.
So Gaga is addressing an audience–an individual who loves man or God, an individual with animal-like qualities (paws), who is born or oriented a particular way.
Meanwhile, Madonna is addressing an audience–girls–who may or may not believe in love–and who ought to listen to Madonna who has something to say on the subject.
I’m not quite following how Gaga’s work is “reductive.” It appears that both artists have written an anthem.
Last time I checked, anthems were pep talks and chants. Gaga’s song rouses the people to be proud of their sexual orientation while Madonna’s uplifts women to be self-reliant and self-loving when it comes to men. Neither song is Shakespearean or literary or full of incredible depth; the songs are simple and direct rallying cries. Gaga has more opaque, intriguing lines (references to “subway kid” and religion of the insecure”) but overall, she’s met the same criteria as Madonna’s anthem.
Everyone who feels the spirit has license to pen a few lines like a motivational speaker. How well it comes out depends on the artist’s skill. Madonna’s critique seems to get at Gaga’s skill level. Is “Born This Way” simplifying the problem of being yourself? Does Gaga’s commentary on the difficulty of honoring your sexual orientation make it sound all too easy? Does Gaga make coming out of the closet as simple as Madonna does when she offers advice as to how a girl can leave a second-best man: “If the time isn’t right then move on”?
Just what is Gaga’s work reducing, simplifying, coarsening?
Could you express yourself better, Madonna? For I am confused.
If anything Gaga has songs that do homage to Madonna, and “Express Yourself” isn’t the only song honored; I see strains of “Vogue” in this song, too. As a young artist, Gaga probably will do more echoing of others as she continues to develop her own unique voice. That said, many people see her as her own complete person already.
I’ll tell you what’s reductive: ABC News, CNN, and so many other media outlets that purport to do journalism and instead hand us infotainment. The interview with Madonna was a limp attempt to learn about her directorial debut for a film, W.E., about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Instead of learning how Madonna likes directing, what her directorial vision is, or why she’s worth 40 million dollars’ worth of investment for a new album, we got a fake controversy and Madonna got a chance to act like a condescending, rude poseur.
But what really irritates me is reductive thinking by an artist. Madonna’s living by the scarcity model, in her own narcissistic world where there’s no room for a young artist to create her own works that echo and parallel past artists. Past is the operative word, one Madonna won’t accept. She strives to stay relevant and young forever.
I understand that urge, I really do. I grew up with Madonna, she shaped my musical tastes well into the nineties, and like her, I’m no spring chicken. But I hope I never turn on a fellow artist and declare comparative works as “reductive” that are actually works worth considering. I hope my mind stays open and my spirit, fresh. Welcoming, expansive, and accommodating of all our rights to speak.
We were born to express ourselves. Let’s get to it.