The Obligatory ‘Madonna Did It First’ Rant Starts Right Here

Katy Perry

Little Monsters the world over are up in arms over a photo Katy Perry posted to her Twitter that features the “Firework” singer as a mermaid. Why so serious? Well, we’ll let gagamonster96 explain it for us: “Lady Gaga announces that she’s going to be Yüyi the Mermaid in her next video. Katy Perry goes on, and copies her.”

Gaga performed “The Edge of Glory” in mermaid attire on Le Grand Journal in late June and has alluded to being a mermaid in the video for her next single. “I will also say that Yuyi is in incubation, for anyone who knows what that means. Yuyi may just be born in the next video,” Gaga said recently on a Taiwanese talk show. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise! It’s very unexpected. Working on the video now.”

Interestingly, there were rumors she would appear as a mermaid in her “Edge of Glory” video but that the concept was scrapped – along with whatever footage director Joseph Kahn shot – in favor of the pared-down, Gaga-directed video that was released in June. Gaga still hasn’t announced what her next single will be nor when the video will be released.

Laurieann Gibson, Gaga’s creative director, took to her favorite platform, Twitter, to deliver a sly dig at Perry, saying, “even though they try to steal a tail theres only 1 Mermaid, Swim On!”

The tension is what it is and we’re not going to say too much about it. Except this: Getting upset when one pop star “rips off” another is silly for a number of reasons but mostly because Madonna always did it first. Madonna filed her mermaid trademark in ’89 when she shot her “Cherish” music video.

Well, mermen. Presented without comment:

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When this little brouhaha first ignited, we were all set to write a post titled “Madonna Did It First: A Definitive Guide” but quickly realized that it was an impossible task … because modern pop music is, by nature, derivative and Madonna is sourced by almost every mainstream female singer. (And she has appropriated the visuals and musical stylings of other artists, who were themselves inspired by other performers and so on.)

After recently announcing Lady Gaga as the current Queen of Pop (based on a pretty quantitative formula of record sales, tour grosses and social network prominence), Rolling Stone got so much negative feedback it ran a poll asking readers who they thought was the real first lady of the medium.

The results were not surprising. Madonna won by a landslide, receiving five times as many votes as Lady Gaga, who herself came in second by a “comfortable margin.” The mag hit the nail on the head when it addressed the oft-discussed rip-off accusations Gaga sometimes faces. “The only persistent criticism that Gaga has dealt with in recent years is that she’s too much like Madonna. It’s a hard shadow to escape,” Rolling Stone writes. “Madonna is a musical icon without peer. Her run of hits over the past 30 years is simply astounding, and when she hits the road, tickets sell like it’s a Led Zeppelin reunion tour.”

Madonna, for the most part, created the template for the modern pop concert spectacle we all know with her 1990 Blonde Ambition World Tour trek. Before that, massive Broadway-like set pieces and thematic structure were not the concert norm they are today. So does that mean Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Rihanna should be stripped of their sets and pyro and LED screens? Of course not.

In the late-80s and early-90s, Madonna pushed hard against societal boundaries when it came to use of religious iconography and sexual imagery. Was she the first person to do so? No. Was she the most mainstream and subsequently had the most impact? Arguably yes.

But she didn’t do it so 20 years later we could stand around and point figures and say she did it first and that no one else should ever do that again. Ever. She did it to be provocative and make people think about social mores (and make herself extravagantly rich and famous in the process – to “rule the world” – this was always a goal).

Of course, there’s a difference between taking inspiration from something and outright plagiarism. But the point is this: It’s kind of silly to blindly assert ownership over something (mermaids, pointed bustiers, cowboy hats, exaggerated ponytails, etc.) that is fair use in a medium that is viewed through the scope of everything that came before it.

So just because Lady Gaga wore a mermaid outfit once doesn’t mean Katy Perry can never wear one. But if you don’t believe that’s the case, let Gaga know she should have ditched her rosary beads yesterday.