Wandering the Aisles: Going Gaga for Madonna

When I set out to chronicle the musical offerings of America’s supermarkets, pharmacies and other not-quite-cutout bins in this column, I expected to find a lot of silly junk or wildly overstocked albums. I did not expect to find a trio of albums from one of the most successful pop performers of the 20th century, which collectively sold more than 22 million units over the course of 28 years. And yet here I am, with a grocery store receipt for Madonna’s first three LPs. Did I miss something?

Sure, Madonna’s career has been relatively quiet in the past few years – I couldn’t warm up to anything she put out after the theme to the worst James Bond film ever, and her supposedly-groundbreaking, all-encompassing deal with Live Nation has yet to bear much fruit on the recorded front – but I guess I missed the part where Madonna (1983), Like a Virgin (1984) and True Blue (1986) were destined for discount status. It happens, I guess. People move on to new idols, who have new influences to draw from and new trends to set. And that new generation…

Wait, what? Well, shit.

Of course Madonna Louise Ciccone’s spirit lives on through one Stefani Germanotta, best known as Lady Gaga, who recently did the near-impossible (in this broken industry, at least) by selling more than 1 million copies of her sophomore album Born This Way in its first week. It’s become the mantra of lazy journalists to succinctly lump Gaga and Madonna in the same category: blonde, ambitious, Italian, highly sexualized, stars of Dick Tracy. (Alright, I made one of those up.) But Gaga clearly draws from a wide palette of musical mavericks; a few spins through Born This Way yield shades of not only Madonna but Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Def Leppard, Bruce Springsteen, CHIC, Cher and others.

But like Madonna, Gaga is a city-dwelling club kid with an outsize career for someone so young (she’s about a year and change older than me; what am I doing with my life?). So while Madonna is clearly not Gaga’s only influence, it’s worth looking at those early albums of Madonna’s and think about their impact on her career.

The early years of both Madonna and Lady Gaga are strikingly similar in their formation: before earning record deals, both singers were dabbling in genres wildly different to what they would become famous for. Madonna drummed in a hard-edged New Wave band, The Breakfast Club, while Gaga was a student at NYU with an armload of Alicia Keys-esque piano ballads. Within a few years, both of them would lock onto a future-forward electronic dance sound – and in both cases, each debut album – Madonna (1983) and The Fame (2009) – would be a work in progress where their distinctive sound was concerned.

Madonna’s debut, released weeks before her 25th birthday, is somehow both breezy and brittle. The album’s eight tracks, five of which Madge co-wrote, are full of the kind of upbeat, sugary, innocent-with-a-dash-of-risque vibes you want out of your ‘80s dance-pop. But caked in their CHIC-lite production techniques – heavy on the chunky Linn beats and Oberheim synths – they’re only a hint of what’s to come.  That said, there are some treasures on Madonna. Singles like “Holiday,” “Lucky Star” and particularly “Borderline” and the underrated “Burning Up” are interesting listens in the context of the original album; radio programming and subsequent Madonna compilations (particularly 1990’s The Immaculate Collection) toyed around with the mixing and editing of some of these tracks, so hearing them here is bound to be a surprise.

Much like Gaga’s sophomore effort, the sort-of-EP The Fame Monster (2009), smartly expanded on what she was capable of, 1984’s Like a Virgin was a watershed in Madonna-dom. Take away the promo clips on MTV and the stage-humping performance at the network’s inaugural Video Music Awards and you still have another solid record, thanks in no small part to Madonna’s trading up, production-wise. Whereas she had a semi-CHIC sound with producer Reggie Lucas on Madonna, Virgin benefitted from knob-twiddling by Nile Rodgers himself, and enviable rhythm section Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson join Rodgers on guitar as the house band for two-thirds of the record.

While one can make an argument for Like a Virgin as an expansion of her talents – she certainly delivers more, vocally speaking, than Time’s initial dismissal of her as “Minnie Mouse on helium” – the real victory lies in the singer’s ability to collaborate with the right people. In addition to the CHIC brain trust, Virgin benefitted from saxophone work by Lenny Pickett and both songwriting and production assistance by Stephen Bray (Madonna’s replacement in The Breakfast Club and longtime collaborator throughout the decade), not to mention two of the most ubiquitous tunesmiths of the ‘80s – Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly – behind the throbbing title track. That’s a hidden talent for both Madonna and Gaga alike; while the likes of Steve Bray and Patrick Leonard or RedOne and Fernando Garibay will never have the massive name recognition Madonna or Lady Gaga enjoy, both artists’ trust in their producers’ ability to provide quality rather than star power is a massive credit to each of them.

But the Madonna-Gaga comparison starts to veer around this point. While Born This Way is a spectacle from front to back, spinning the performer into the center of a high-concept universe of the individualistic, Madonna’s True Blue (1986) is – dare I say it? – far subtler. Sure, controversy is courted with the young-love, bass-popping drama of “Papa Don’t Preach,” but that’s as edgy as it gets. Madonna isn’t in love with Judas, but more curious as to where the party is; her heaven isn’t on the edge of glory but shimmying on the coast of “La Isla Bonita.”

It of course remains to be seen if Gaga will parlay her influence into a Like a Prayer moment, where she can rein in all of her excesses and create one great, singular, personal work of art. But as it was with Madonna more than 25 years ago, it’ll probably be fun enough seeing her try – even if we’ll end up saying, “Madonna did it first.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ACNQHINABNBQ44S7NIACK7YIYE M Rosin

    Born This Way is a noisy, preachy mess. The record has too much going on production wise — none of it all that interesting. Plus, did I mention, preachy? I like my pop to pop. My vote goes to Madonna’s Like a Virgin. It. was. fun.

  • http://genxsingalong.wordpress.com Gigi

    Very pleased to see not everyone is jumping on the “Gaga sucks” bandwagon…and I’m always glad when “Burning Up” gets a shout-out. It’s my 2nd favorite track on M’s debut album (the even more obscure “Everybody” is my #1).

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I’m not going to comment specifically on Born This Way for it’s content, but I’m wondering aloud how much all this “million-selling debut” nonsense means in light of Amazon.com offering the album for two consecutive days at the 99 cent price. Would it have sold those numbers without the price hack? Are we to hold these numbers to the same value as those million-debuts of old that did it for full price?

    This isn’t to say that Gaga doesn’t deserve a victory lap, but Amazon’s wrinkle gave her a HUGE headstart, and to not take that into account just ain’t right. This isn’t a knock on you, Mike. Trust me. This is on Interscope, Amazon, and Billboard.

  • Chloe Canacalon

    Come on… The beginning of Madonna’s and Gaga’s careers are NOTHING alike.

    Madonna was a real club artist. She was part of the downtown scene – at a time when there was such thing in NYC. Today, people go every where and they ARE everywhere – just like Gaga. Not Madonna. Madonna was a part of a genuine artistic group of people: Jean Michel Basquiat (Madonna’s ex-boyfriend), Martin Burgoyne (Madonna’s old roommate) and Keith Haring and Andy Warhol (Madonna’s close friends) form the group of creative minds Madonna came from. She was a regular “downtown clubs” type of girl, along with actress (and now Italian cuisine chef) Debi Mazar. She was a known figure in the NY club scene before her first record came out, she was a “local celebrity”. And her career really started in clubs, playing with her bands the Breakfast Club and Emmy at  CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City Club and moving over to Danceteria and other places like that with her solo career.

    Lady Gaga didn’t start in clubs as an artist. In fact, the very few “pre-fame” videos of Gaga in clubs are all “open mic” type of thing. There you see a graceless girl, playing with a faux rock band in a sort of “talent” competition. Then she met Lady Starlight, a group of people transformed her into Lady gaga and they started DJing (Starlight and Gaga) together at the Knitting factory. The fact that she played in a club on an “open mic” night and played the keyboards alongside a DJ (Lady Starlight) doesn’t mean she started her career as a “club” artist. 

    Unlike Madonna, Gaga did not come out of the NY club scene. It is about time people stop saying that. Gaga came out of the corporate scene. It’s easy to check (videos are all over the place) how she was transformed into a pop star by a group of people. Before money invested in her, before a record deal, before Lady Starlight, Lady Gaga was Stefani Germanotta, an Alanis Morissette wannabe playing on open mic nights or a Norah Jones wannabe performing for her classmates at NYU.

    Before a record deal, before money invested in her, Madonna was Madonna. Playing the drums for the Breakfast Club band at CBGB’s or as the lead singer and guitar player of Emmy and the Emmies. Or simply a dance diva with a simple “single” deal singing Everybody at any club in NYC.