Look it Up, Madonna; Look it Up

Post Date: January 18th, 2012

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.

Image found here

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.

It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
‘Cause you were born this way

Come on girls
Do you believe in love?
‘Cause I got something to say about it
And it goes something like this

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.

Writing Prompts:

  • Were you born to create? How do you know?
  • What art form is your best form of expressing yourself? Why?
  • Has anyone accused your work of being a copy or pale imitation of another artist’s? What do you think? Is your work less than good and mere flattery? If not, has anyone recommended that you study a particular artist because you might learn from that form of expression? 
  • Which artists do you try to emulate, and why?
  • What is reductive in the world of art you value? What is its opposite? 
  • Is Gaga’s work “reductive” or is it “additive”? Is it mere flattery or is it something more?
  • Is your story, novel, or essay trying to simplify something complex? Is that a good or bad thing?
  • Is there nothing new under the sun? Are all works reiterations and reinventions of others come before?


  1. Well said. We live in an era in which attaining one’s attention is much trickier than before the internet. I believe remarks like these from artists such as Madonna are attempts to attract more publicity.

    And when she said, “Look it up,” with that snide smile, it felt more like an escape from revealing that she doesn’t quite understand the word herself.

    I don’t know. It feels as if too many people, not just celebrities, feel the need to one-up each other in today’s competition for exposure. I like Madonna’s music and I like Lady Gaga’s too. But what I like about Lady Gaga as a person is that while she has an ego, she doesn’t ever feel the need to protect it by making snide remarks about other artists.

  2. Hi, Victoria,

    Yes, Gaga keeps herself above the fray by messaging her “monsters” about their inner beauty rather than getting in the gutter with other artists.

    And you’re exactly right: Madonna’s response was probably inspired by insecurity more than any clear argument about art!


  3. Anonymous says:

    You’re clearly a CaCa stan! Only one would defend an unoriginal artist who plagiarizes the work of others!

  4. Hi, Anon,

    Your point is an interesting one, though not defended. You call Gaga a plagiarist and me a “stan” (an obsessed maniacal fan). I wonder what in my post communicated unreasonable obsession with Gaga. The main point I was trying to convey was Madonna’s poor use of language. I think Madonna meant “derivative”–different than plagiarizing. If she felt Gaga were plagiarizing, she would do well to bring a lawsuit. I, a big Madonna fan, support M’s right to do so.

    Plagiarism is not only directly-copied lyrics but tags, riffs, and melody. I asked my husband the musician to explain this and he said, “The whole British invasion (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin) stole from the Chess records collection.” You’ll find note-for-note stealing from say, a blues artist or a Chuck Berry song in Zeppelin or Beatles, respectively.

    I hear echoes and derivations in Gaga’s work but not direct copies or steals. The lyrics are dramatically different. Sure, “Alejandro” and “La Isla Bonita” sound similar but they’re not identical melodies nor are the lyrics.

    Most artists go through a period of imitation and admiration of artists they emulate and then branch out further. I think Gaga is branching out with songs like “You and I” and “Edge of Glory.”


  5. Andrew says:

    Your Madonna vs. Gaga analysis ignores the big picture. The Gaga persona is a knock off of Madonna. No need to compare lyrics line by line to see that.

    “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.”

    Exactly. Sadly, many people are under the delusion of being informed by consuming this “news.”

  6. Hi, Andrew,

    I agree with you that Gaga’s look and dance moves do derive from the Madonna persona. I don’t know if you saw Madonna’s latest video, but it reminds me of how she was the first to take on Catholic religious images (she uses the crown of thorns and stigmata)…and what’s funny is a kid under the age of 18 today might say, “Madonna’s imitating Gaga!”

    But Gaga is quite the musician, and her “Nebraska” ballad (for its melody/musicality) along with some of her lyrics in “Bad Romance,” “Poker Face,” and “Paparazzi” are on a very different level than any of Madonna’s pop songs. Gaga is pretty much the whole package, doing homage to Madonna, without whom Gaga couldn’t exist.

    Not sure that this is news, but the analysis always fascinates me. I can’t swallow pop culture without picking it apart on my plate first.


  7. Anonymous says:

    GaGa, is a copy cat. Period.

  8. Hi, Anon1 or Anon2,

    Don’t go Madonna on us with reductive generalizations. Back up the abstract (“copy cat”) with the concrete (examples?). Match each Madonna hit with a Gaga hit, lyric by lyric, melody by melody, and you might convince me. But “Gaga is a copy cat. Period” is no argument.