It Doesn’t Matter That Lady Gaga’s “Applause” Is Derivative; It Matters That It’s Awful

Does it matter if Lady Gaga’s derivative? This debate has been going on ever since La Gaga first arrived on the scene, complete with an image carefully constructed from the detritus of performance art and queer culture, and the promotional budget to sell gazillions of records. It’s started up again after the release of the video for new single “Applause,” which, as with all of Gaga’s work, lifted imagery and aesthetics from a variety of sources. This morning saw the arrival of the “So what if Gaga is derivative?!” pieces, like this one in Slate. I submit that they’re answering the wrong question.

The thing with this argument is that it doesn’t really matter whether you think Gaga is ripping off other artists, or “paying homage” to their work, or whatever else — this is ultimately semantics, because the fundamental point is that her work borrows plentifully and unabashedly from various sources. And really, who cares? As plenty of people have pointed out, artists have been doing this since art has existed — nothing is without precedent or inspiration, and indeed, I’ve written in defense of other artists who’ve been accused of the same thing. (It’s also worth noting that Madonna, who Gaga is so often accused of aping, is also not above lifting others’ ideas.)

In this respect, Gaga is a quintessentially postmodern artist — her work has always existed in a sort of border zone between intertexutality and pastiche, full of in-jokes and knowing references to the work of others. You either find this approach compelling or you don’t, but the question isn’t so much whether artists should be borrowing other artists’ ideas — it’s what they do with those ideas. Do they add up to anything greater than the sum of their parts? Do they serve any purpose? Or are they just there to demonstrate how clever/informed/postmodern the person borrowing them is?

It’s here that “Applause” falls down, because it’s postmodernism without purpose. Sure, it’s fun playing “look at all these references” — we did so (with pursed lips, apparently) yesterday. But really, it’s only interesting if you happen to have studied and/or enjoyed the work of the same people Gaga’s clearly been swotting up on: German expressionist cinema, fallow-era David Bowie, and, of course, pop art. Beyond that, there’s nothing there. Even if you understand what it’s referring to, the imagery is just imagery; it adds up to nothing more than a series of costume changes.

You could argue that it’s ever been thus with Gaga, of course — that her entire aesthetic has always been a sort of edifice constructed on a victory of style over substance. Certainly, there’s been plenty of justified criticism of some of her more vapid aesthetic decisions. You might also argue that the only difference between “Applause” and, say, “Paparazzi” is that the latter is better. You may or may not have a point, but at least in the case of the latter, there was some sort of narrative and the sense that the video’s sensory bombardment served the purpose of some greater idea.

“Applause,” by contrast, is empty self-referentialism, both in its visual aesthetic and its lyrics: “I live for the applause.” But we’ve always known that — Gaga’s entire career has revolved around being that girl in drama class who stands up on stage and demands that everyone look at her. This isn’t in and of itself interesting, and “Applause” just creates a sort of empty feedback loop — it’s saying nothing about nothing, so much so that, as The Atlantic‘s Spencer Kornhaber pointed out this morning, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Weird Al Yankovic’s dead-on Gaga parody “Perform This Way.”

And the thing is that Gaga appears to know it. It’s perhaps instructive that she references Jeff Koons in this song, given that along with latter-period Damien Hirst he’s perhaps the greatest contemporary example of the artist as unclad emperor. All the “ignore the critics” stuff… the tiresome meta-ness of the ARTPOP trailer… They’re basically ways of saying “It doesn’t matter if this sucks.” It’s the same sort of preemptive defense as saying, “Oh, it’s ironic,” and just like that strategy, it’s fundamentally pusillanimous. Because it does matter.

If, as MTV’s James Montgomery argued yesterday, “[Gaga is] willing to do anything to please the public,” maybe she should stop justifying not having any new ideas and, y’know, come up with some new ideas. Because even if her derivative style has worked in the past, “Applause” is, to quote an avatar of modernism, “a heap of broken images.” What branches grow out of this stony rubbish? So far, none at all.