As soon as Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” came out last February, comparisons (and accusations of plagiarism) began to be made with respect to Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself.” Along with discussions of controversy, the Internet was flooded with mash-ups of the two songs, generally attempting to prove their similarity — and admittedly there are some striking similarities between the two pieces (Gaga has gone on record saying that she is heavily influenced and inspired by Madonna). But neither the accusations nor the mash-ups have extended beyond the singles themselves to their music videos, which leaves, for the sound studies scholar interested in such, an alluring lacuna.
As a final project for one of courses this term, Sound Studies, I delved into a lot of really fascinating music video theory, and ended up creating the piece “Express Yourself This Way” (above). It plays with this opportunity for both visual and aural mash-up in order to interrogate, empirically, how sound and image in music-video map onto one another in a such a way that “the inherent qualities found in the sound and the moving images are interchangeable, so that the audio resounds the moving image, and the moving image visualises the audio”(18, Strand) — namely, to test ideas around the concept of aural visuality.
As Carol Vernallis says, “music video editing is strongly responsive to music”(xi, Vernallis), and Andrew Goodwin, Strand, and Vernallis all agree (as do I) that unlike film, sound comes first in music video as the song precedes the the creation of the clip. Each of them makes similar but slightly differently-nuanced arguments for how it occurs, but the general consensus is that the sound of the music (not necessarily lyrics) inspires the image, finding aural-visual corollaries in things like color, visual microrhythms (as termed so by Michel Chion), form/flow, and contour that bring the image and sound together a particular ‘joins’ — almost reminiscent of Walter Murch’s metaphor of the dance of the edited lines of a film. Thus, according to Strand, “by using the song and the aural qualities inherent within its audio space as a starting point, visuals are created that correlate to the phenomenological qualities of the sound in such a way that the images become the sound, undulating and streaming around the viewers, pulsing and reverberating through them”(39, Strand).
Thus, one of the primary questions asked by the video I have crafted: if arguments about aural visuality and the expression of image through music from the starting point of sound, hold true, should the images of the songs resonate similarly if “Express Yourself” and “Born This Way” sound so much alike? My methodology in exploring was therefore to match the audio of each song with video from the other’s music video (they were both, minus the expository ‘para-song’ section at the beginning of Gaga’s video) almost exactly five minutes. Even at this stage it was a bit uncanny how well the new image/sound pairings seemed to ‘work’. In music video, Carol Vernallis has identified “the fundamental unit [as] the musical section, rather the scene or the shot”(170, Vernallis), as it would be in film. Thus, “treating the form of the song as the analytical ground for the video better reflects its semantic and formal structure”(171, Vernallis), so I proceeded to segment each of the new aduio/visual pairings into their segments (intros, verses, choruses, bridges), and then created a hybrid ‘standard song form’ which I used as a framework to reconstruct a total music video by alternating sections from each in order through the framework, which is textually highlighted at the beginning of each major cut in the piece.
As I mentioned, there is an uncanny workability to the overlaid image/sound pairings that suggests that there are indeed aural similarities, and that because the theories of aural visuality seem to hold true, this creates a similar intertextual reversibillity between music videos themselves, over and above the intratextual reversibility (in the Sobchack sense) of image and sound.
Although my experiment doesn’t yet address what can be determined culturally from this more formal, critical aural-visual interrogation of a widespread accusation of ‘plagiarism’, it does also allude to the question of whether there is perhaps an inherent synchronicity of cultural concern between the two artists and their intended meanings in the songs that supports their ultimate similarity, in both sound and music video. I am certainly not passing judgment as to whether Gaga has paid an extended homage or has completely ripped off Madonna — both artists operate within highly post-modern practices and discourses, where traces abound and ‘true originality’ is impossible. Borrowing, both deliberate and inadvertent, is bound to happen. But while the songs seem clearly intended (on Gaga’s part) to have some similarities, the interchangeabillity — the similar aural translational qualities — of the two music-videos suggest that an inadvertent similarity has emerged in the flow of images, precisely because Strand, Vernallis, and Goodwin are right: sound is always the impetus for the music-video, and aural visuality (and cinesthetic montage) entails that images that “work” for one song will “work” for a song that has been almost objectively determined as sounding the same.
Goodwin, Andrew. Dancing in the Distraction Factory. Taylor & Francis, 1993.
Lady Gaga. Music video. “Born This Way.” dir. Nick Knight. 2011.
Madonna. Music video. “Express Yourself.” dir. David Fincher. 1989.
Strand, Joachim Wichman. Thesis, MCA in Screen Arts. The Cinesthetic
Montage of Music-video: hearing the image and seeing the sound.
Submitted to the Department of Media and Information Faculty of Media,
Society and Culture, Curtin University of Technology July 2006.
Vernallis, Carol. Experiencing Music Video. New York: Columbia University
Vernallis, Carol. “The Aesthetics of Music-video: an analysis of Madonna’s
‘Cherish’.” Popular Music (1998) Volume 17/2. United Kingdon: Cambridge
University Press, 1998. p. 153-85.