A lot has been written about how Lady Gaga is the new Madonna. On the surface, this comparison works: both women are ambitious, talented, Italian-Catholics who cut their teeth in New York and used striking and controversial imagery to carve out a pop career. Both Madonna and Lady Gaga have sung about religion (“Like a Prayer” for Madonna; “Judas” for Lady Gaga), sex (“Justify My Love“; “Lovegame“) and fame (“Drowned World/Substitute For Love“; “Paparazzi”). And both are beloved gay icons.
With so many similarities between the two, one would be forgiven for assuming that Lady Gaga will follow Madonna’s career trajectory. But in actuality, Lady Gaga is going to follow Cyndi Lauper’s career arc. And what’s more, this has happened before.
Let’s start at the beginning…
When Madonna first burst onto the scene in the early ’80s, she was initially written off as a flash-in-the-pan. While her videos were sexy and fun, the common consensus was that she’d have a few hits about sex and dancing, and then fade into obscurity. Indeed, as Madonna writhed around in a wedding dress at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, the safe bet at the time was on her chart rival, Cyndi Lauper.
Like Madonna, Lauper made great music videos. But while Madonna used sex to sell her songs, Lauper was noted for her great singing voice. Despite her eccentric clothing and outrageous hairstyles (including her red hair in the “Time After Time” video), Lauper’s vocal abilities helped her stand out from the pack in MTV’s early days.
But another more important difference distinguished Madonna and Cyndi Lauper beyond their voices; Madonna, because of her over-reliance on style over substance, was seen as an entertainer, while Lauper, with her impressive vocal chops, was seen as an artist. The distinction seems trivial as pop stars are often both entertainers and artists at the same time.
However, in this case, this crucial difference cemented each artists’ long-term fates. Madonna’s job was merely to entertain us. It didn’t matter how she did that, so long as she held our attention. She has obviously been able to do that exceptionally well through a mix of button-pushing, over-the-top antics, innovative music videos and a constant reinvention of her style and look. Accordingly, her biggest hits have become some of the most beloved pop songs of all time.
Lauper, meanwhile, had to carry the burden of being an artist. It’s not enough for an artist to make music: they need to wow us with their brilliance on each outing. The bar of expectation is higher for them, and when they do not deliver, their failure is amplified in a way that “regular” entertainers are shielded from.
Lauper’s noteworthy vocal range landed her an enviable career in the ’80s, but it paled in comparison to Madonna’s. The most damning evidence of this came in 1989, when both artists released albums. By this point, Madonna was an icon and her Like a Prayer album hit #1. Meanwhile, Lauper’s career was starting to fade and her A Night to Remember album barely scraped the top 40.
Lauper had the odds stacked against her from the very beginning, and in a world where there was only room for one Queen of Pop, the entertainer had beat the artist.
This same scenario played out again in the early ’00s when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera hit the scene. Both Spears and Aguilera worshipped at the altar of Madonna (even going so far as to infamously share the stage with their idol at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards).
But it was clear from the very beginning that Spears was the Madonna/entertainer figure, and that Aguilera was the Lauper/artist figure. Spears was cute, could dance, and was both hyper-driven and acutely aware of her own sexual allure, even at 16. It was no coincidence that the video concept for “…Baby One More Time” relied on Catholic school-girl imagery; Spears had emerged onto the scene as the perfect protégé to fill Madonna’s pointy cone-bra. Aguilera, meanwhile, could sing like nobody’s business. Despite the fact that her first album was an assemblage of teen-pop numbers, commenters largely assumed that her now-legendary vocal range would set her up for a lifetime of pop superstardom.
But over the years, Spears has managed to stay at the top of the pop pack, while Aguilera has always been a rung below. This is due to the same paradox that damned Lauper — Aguilera is expected to wow us at every turn, while Spears is merely expected to keep the hits coming. Spears does not write most of her own songs; indeed, only four of her U.S. singles have been co-written by her (“Me Against the Music,” “Everytime,” “Work Bitch,” and “Perfume“). But that works perfectly for her. Unencumbered by a need to prove her worth, she lets other songwriters do the heavy lifting, while all she merely sings the words in a passable voice and infuses the song with her trademark “Britney-ness.”
Aguilera, on the other hand, is obsessed with being taken seriously as a “real” artist. Not content to stick with the bubblegum sound that brought her so much success, she infamously went over-the-top in her “Dirrty” video in an attempt to distance herself from her teeny-bopper contemporaries.
Aguilera then switched to big-band, and then electro, with declining levels of success. She is able to switch her sound around, and she is allowed to take more creative risks than Spears, which has resulted in a much more diverse career for Aguilera. However, fifteen years later, despite her success, Aguilera is not as enduringly popular as Spears.
Which brings us to today. As previously mentioned, when Lady Gaga burst onto the scene, she was instantly seen as the new Madonna. But she quickly fell into the Cyndi Lauper role. Not content to merely be an entertainer, Lady Gaga has consistently affirmed herself as someone who writes songs for reasons other than peddling product; in short, she’s branded herself as an artist. Accordingly, her career has followed suit: while songs like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” turned her into an instant star, her third album, Artpop, was a relative failure, selling less than a quarter of what her smash debut, The Fame, sold in the U.S.
So who is in the new Madonna, then?
Katy Perry. Just like with Madonna and Spears, Perry debuted with a sexy urgency, in “I Kissed a Girl”, that made her seem like a clever novelty act.
But like Madonna and Spears, Perry has somehow transformed her fifteen minutes of fame into a career, churning out hit after hit. As such, expect Perry to continue to be relevant, as she fills the entertainer role. Critical acclaim will initially elude her, just like it did with Madonna and Spears (all three of these artists had surprisingly long waits before they won Grammys or even MTV Video Music Awards, and Perry is still waiting for her first Grammy win). But sales don’t lie: Madonna is the best selling female artist of all time, Spears was the best selling female albums artist of the 00s, and Perry is the best selling digital artist of all time. And neither do chart positions: In each case, the entertainer has scored more top 10 radio-promoted singles than the artist (Madonna’s 38 to Lauper’s 8; Spears’ 13 to Aguilera’s 11; Perry’s 13 to Lady Gaga’s 12). Furthermore, the entertainers are the ones who are asked to play play the Super Bowl: Spears in 2001, Madonna in 2012, and Perry in 2015. As a result, the entertainers are the ones whose songs ultimately come to define a generation.
Don’t cry too hard for the artists, though: For one, they’re usually Grammy magnets: Lauper and Aguilera both won the Grammy for Best New Artist, and Lady Gaga almost certainly would have won had she been eligible. Secondly, all three artists’ debut albums were huge sellers and housed their biggest hits. And of course, all three artists are noted fashion icons, as their outrageous outfits and hairstyles have become a part of their persona.
Additionally, following the decline in their initial chart success, all three artists found success in other ways: Lauper expanded to dance music and Broadway. Aguilera returned to prominence thanks to her role as a judge on hit TV show The Voice and as a guest vocalist on songs from everyone from Maroon 5 to Pitbull to A Great Big World. And Lady Gaga released a successful jazz album with Tony Bennett, and wowed the world with her medley of The Sound of Music at the 2015 Oscars.
(As an aside, there is also usually a strong, R&B singer whose career runs parallel to, but separate from, these entertainer/artist divisions: there was Janet Jackson in the Madonna/Lauper era, Beyonce in the Spears/Aguilera era, and Rihanna in the Lady Gaga/Perry era.)
This cycle tends to repeat itself every ten years, and with Lady Gaga and Perry having debuted in 2008, we’re getting close to a new batch of contenders. When they come out, look for the one who comes across as a naughty sex kitten; she’s the one who becomes the entertainer and subsequent pop legend. And look for the one who is supremely talented: she’ll end up with the acclaim, but will never be as popular. And that’s how it is for the queens and princesses of pop music.
(Previously published June 5, 2015.)