Are Lady Gaga and Rihanna Stealing Other Artists' Work?

The overwhelming reaction to Lady Gaga's new single, "Born This Way," is that it's a rip-off of Madonna's "Express Yourself." Rihanna has just been sued by photographer David LaChapelle for using images inspired by his own in her video for "S&M." Where is the fine line between inspiration and theft?

http://youtu.be/SXauHPWba For Gaga, the thieving hullabaloo started before anyone had even heard her single. The early reception to the song's artwork was that it was a copy of an old Kylie Minogue record. When the song hit the airwaves (and the internet) on Friday, many people's first reaction was that it sounded just like Madonna's anthem, "Express Yourself." Pretty quickly, YouTube videos putting the two side by side started popping up. Supposedly the two are so similar that Gaga's core fan base, the homosexuals, are pissed off at her.

Rihanna is going to have to defend her video for "S&M" in court thanks to a lawsuit filed by fashion photographer David LaChapelle. He claims that Rihanna and director Melina Matsoukas appropriated eight of his iconic images for the video.

But how much of this is the regular sort of inspiration that happens all the time and how much of it is theft? In Gaga's case, at least with the song, the failure seems to be more artistic. While still a pop artist, she became known for her innovation. When she wasn't making outfits out of things usually found in your grocer's freezer, she was changing around melodies and creating whole new languages to sing in. When she debuted her first new offering in quite some time, everyone was pissed that it sounded just like so many songs that came before.

While the Twitter crowd decided it was "Express Yourself," the song sounds like many '90s gay dance anthems. There is nothing illegal or necessarily wrong with that. The problem for fans is that this innovator is wearing her influence a bit too much on the surface. If Gags wanted to make a gay anthem, that's great, but she should take all those hits that came before and synthesize them into something new and original. Instead, she gave us something that sounded dated and otherwise rehashed. Yes, it's a failure, but not a theft.

Are Lady Gaga and Rihanna Stealing Other Artists' Work?S

Rihanna, on the other hand, has a harder case to prove. Sure, music videos are often inspired by a designer, a movie, a director, or, yes, a photographer. But styling something in the vein of several different people is one thing. Taking several scenarios from one source without barely changing them is another. Some of the side-by-side images of the videos and past LaChapelle shoots do bear a strong resemblance and if the photog can prove that the director had photos of his on set for "inspiration" (as one tabloid alleges), it could spell a whole heap of trouble. And if it's not illegal, it is at least very disingenuous. If you want a video to look like David LaChapelle, then you should hire David LaChapelle.

But artists have been influenced by their forebears as long as there has been art. Why is all this happening now? With the proliferation of media—especially platforms like Twitter and Facebook that are controlled by users—the fanatics who notice such similarities first have a much louder voice than ever before, and also the ears of people with equally loud voices. They holler and holler that "this thing is like that thing" until that becomes the reigning sentiment.

As the speed of media spins out of control, the shelf-life of the influencers gets shorter. While Madonna's "True Blue" was copying '50s tunes that were 40 years old, Gaga is rewriting '90s anthems that are only 20 years old. While Madonna's "Express Yourself" obviously referenced the work of long-dead director Fritz Lang, Rihanna is co-opting the style of photographer who is still working and popular right now. It's not that Gaga or RiRi are engaging in novel behavior, it's just getting more and more blatant. It will continue to do so, until our "new" cultural products aren't new at all, but just pastiches of familiar things and just-passed trends—and even that is ripping a page right out the Warhol playbook.

[Top images via Getty]