As a member of the media, it's my job to accuse Stefani Germanotta of things so she can respond to them. (Born which way? She doesn't have to specify because it's a hot topic -- and the length of Gaga's beloved fame largely depends on juggling those.) So it shouldn't shake this proud piece of plastic if I point out which influences are starting to eat away at the raw-meat sleeves she wears them on. Here, an exploration:
Song: "Telephone" (2009)
What She Stole: The "Pussy Wagon" from Kill Bill
Offense Level: 4/10
Ripoff or Homage?: Homage, easy. Maybe Gaga had a friend in the prop department that snagged the psychedelic yellow relic, but Tarantino's a key parallel to the pop star's unique brand of thievery. Just like B-movie-crazy QT, Gaga is a synthesizer who steals from pop culture like her own personal prop room, and brands it a celebration no matter how trivial or chintzy the detail she filched. Likewise, her videos are interiors she decorates from the hippest catalogs. And like Tarantino, her savvy taste in pilfered material has made her immensely popular.
Song: "Alejandro" (2009)
What She Stole: Synth-reggae from Ace of Base, plus religious imagery from Madonna's "Like a Prayer"
Offense Level: 6/10
Ripoff or Homage?: Homage, with cocked eyebrow. The juxtaposed lagging riddim with glacial Europop vocals is Weird Al-quality mastery of Ace of Base's old hits, particularly "Don't Turn Around." Meanwhile, the accompanying video echoes "Like a Prayer" down to the racial makeup of her choreographed co-stars and stark church backdrop -- even the Catholic League huffed over it. She throws in a little of "Justify My Love"'s S&M too. The song and video are as good as any of Gaga's hits, but she knew full well she intended both as memory exercises.
Song: "So Happy I Could Die" (2009)
What She Stole: The wholesale melody from Natasha Bedingfield's "Pocketful of Sunshine"
Offense Level: 9/10
Ripoff or Homage?: Ripoff. Bedingfield's a peer and small-time competitor who Germanotta could've written songs for herself. And this is pretty self-explanatory.
Song: "Born This Way" (2011)
What She Stole: Everything down to the artwork
Offense Level: 10/10
Ripoff or Homage?: Ripoff, big time. Even Jay Leno couldn't refrain from quizzing her on the similarities between Madonna's "Express Yourself" and Gaga's otherwise faster, digitized update. Besides sharing the same key, chorus, and inspirational-dance-track inspiration, both tunes even feature classic ad-libbed intros. Then there's the even weirder matter of the single's cover photo, cribbed from Kylie Minogue's "2 Hearts" artwork down to the dripping-paint typeface. Ironically, the highly derivative tune is one of Gaga's best singles so far: the "Don't be a drag/ Just be a queen" rap is her first clever moment devoid of arch Warhol-isms, and the singing's her most soulful and least robotic yet, a neat match for the hyper-techno backing. The moral? Um...keep on copycatting?