Bowie and Gaga: The Shoulders of Giants

by Bob Schwartz

Bowie Gaga
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Isaac Newton

Scroll below today’s news about Egypt or the NSA or dozens of other significant stories and you will come to the contest between the new singles from Katy Perry (Roar) and Lady Gaga (Applause). Which is Number 1? Which is better? Listen if you want, or don’t. Life goes on either way. But music and excellence matter, so a related note.

Depending on whether you want to go back centuries or decades, we are now in the nth generation of popular music. Individual songs or entire genres, music and the styles that go with it are invented, perfected, synthesized, inspired by, borrowed; there is some balance between the entirely new and the entirely old.

The question is whether a listener can take a current artist at face value, without reference to what came before, without knowing (in Newtonian terms) what giant shoulders are stood on, or whether a listener should be aware of the influences, precursors, originators. This becomes particularly important when the earlier or original version was, once it is experienced by comparison, simply better art.

David Bowie’s extraordinary artistry can be summed up in two points.

He has six albums among the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And each of these is created in a different style than the others.

Which brings us to the second point. Aside from creating superb music, Bowie devised the process of total artistic reinvention in pop—not only in musical style, but in performing personality. Up to that time, the assumption was that fans wanted a degree of continuity in their stars. The Beatles had broken through this assumption with a few changes during their short career, but Bowie smashed artistic continuity entirely: Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, etc. A review of his album covers is a roster of these personas.

Above is an image of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. Next to it is an image of Lady Gaga from her current ARTPOP album period (all caps from her; it’s that important).

All artistically painted faces are not related, of course. But Gaga acknowledges David Bowie as an artistic influence. This presumably explains the various Gagas during her brief career: the artist dressed in meat, the artist emerging from a plastic womb, etc. Change all the clothes and makeup you want, and say all the right things that make you seem like an artist (Bowie, by the way, let his style do his talking), and it still comes down to music.

So, Gaga fans, if you are reading this, listen up, literally. While she may be copying only his approach to style and not his music, nothing she has done measures up artistically to Bowie. This isn’t a song-by-song, style-by-style comparison. It is a reminder, not just about Gaga but about music new and old, that tastes vary, but excellence doesn’t. With the release of the rest of ARTPOP, maybe there will be some artistic gems. Gaga is actually a talented singer and performer, so it is possible.

But for the moment, and pending further developments: Gaga, we’ve seen David Bowie, we’ve heard David Bowie, and you are no David Bowie. Or Isaac Newton.

(For fans of Isaac Newton, who may be wondering why his picture isn’t included, below is something from his CALCULUS period.)