From Madonna to Beyoncé, the Pop Material Girls Draw on a Rich Influence
Much of the early fallout surrounding the release of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” – in the sense that there may be real fallout from a militarily precise deployment that moves stealthily and is made up of armies of writers, producers, of marketers, lawyers and social media savvy — boiled down to questions of recognition and credit.
These are concerns that are, in essence, legal, but really more philosophical and moral. Acknowledging a source of inspiration, direct or indirect, is good business practice but also, in the age of internet-centric hyperresponsibility, something akin to playing offense as well as defense.
That’s perhaps unusually true when it comes to “Renaissance,” a meticulous album that’s a rich and thoughtful exploration and interpretation of the last decades of American dance music, particularly its black and queer, disco-touching roots. , house, ballroom and more. The credits and list of collaborators are scrupulous – Beyoncé has worked with producers and writers from these worlds and sampled fundamental bits from these scenes.
But there were still squabbles, or quirks, when the album arrived. First there were the ping pong writing credits on his debut single, “Break My Soul”, which originally included the writers of the club classic Robin S. “Show Me Love”, then deleted them, then reinstated them. (The credits, however, do not recognize StoneBridge, the remixer who popularized the original song.)
A few days before the album’s release, its full credits surfaced online, suggesting that the song “Energy” had interpolated a Kelis song produced by the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo). Kelis, the alt-soul innovator of the early 2000s, posted a series of Instagram videos expressing her frustration at not being told about the borrowing, even though she is not a publishing rights holder. (Kelis was not a credited writer or producer on most of the early albums she made with the Neptunes, due to a deal she signed with the duo when she “was too young and too dumb to check it out,” she said. The Guardian.) This opened up conversations about legal versus spiritual obligations and Williams’ potential double-face. Without comment, Beyoncé updated the song, removing Kelis’ “Milkshake” tween.
When these kinds of dissatisfactions spill over to the public (or in the worst case, to the courts), the text is often about money, but the subtext is about power. And it’s worth noting that even the normally flawless Beyoncé couldn’t safely browse the modern internet without incident.
Conversations about who has the right to borrow from whom — and whether it’s acceptable — are intensified when the person borrowing is among the most powerful figures in pop music. But on “Renaissance,” Beyoncé largely deploys her loans cleverly — working with longtime house music DJ and producer Honey Dijon, sampling drag queen and hugely influential musician Kevin Aviance — offering a huge platform to artists who are often relegated to the margins.
A few days after “Renaissance” officially dropped, Beyoncé released a series of remixes of her single, including “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix),” which mixed her track with Madonna’s “Vogue.” This 1990 song, of course, represented an early incorporation of queer New York club culture. But Beyoncé brought a new cultural politics to this release, turning Madonna’s roll call of white big-screen idols into a catalog of crucial black female musicians: Aaliyah, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Santigold, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and more. (The idea of the remix apparently was born with a DJ named frooty treblez on TikTok, which received miscellaneous production credit.)
The remix is electric, both philosophically and musically – it displays a clear continuum of how pop stars are voracious consumers themselves and have been given some leeway when their borrowings are seen as respectful. (Understandably, Beyoncé and Madonna have received flak from queer critics who find their work appropriate.)
Three decades after “Vogue,” however, Madonna still demonstrates her deep and ongoing engagement with queer culture. She recently published “Gworrllllllll Material!” a collaboration with rapper Saucy Santana remixing his own song, “Material Girl” (named, naturally, for his 1984 hit). It’s a bit of a messy collision — Madonna’s vocals sound like she’s passed through some sort of hyperpop vocal filter, and her segments of the song sound more aspirated than hers. It’s sparkling but it lacks flair.
Saucy Santana, a gay rapper who first rose to fame on reality TV after working as a makeup artist for hip-hop duo City Girls, started reaching TikTok virality a few years ago. Of her snippets of songs that gained traction online, “Material Girl” was the liveliest, an ode to transactional luxury every bit as raw as Madonna’s original.
But the wink of the title was his most effective bet, a way of linking his carelessness to that of Madonna. This strategy spilled over into “Booty,” her most recent single, which is based on the same ecstatic horn sample as Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” Even in a year where countless pop stars plundered the past for obvious samples, this was a particularly bold move. Especially since the borrowing is not, in fact, from “Crazy in Love”, but rather from the song that “Crazy in Love” samples, “Are you my wife? (Tell me) “ by the Chi-Lites.
Again, the link with the past is a sleight of hand. For the uninitiated, “Booty” sounds like an official co-sign by Beyoncé herself. For those in the know, it might seem like Beyoncé’s approval was implied, the result of some behind-the-scenes understanding. Or maybe Saucy Santana just boldly overtook her.
Either way, these borrowings mark Saucy Santana as a pop star who understands fame is a pastiche. He builds a character out of parts that are there to be taken, risking asking for forgiveness rather than caring about permission. Or more succinctly, doing exactly what the divas before him did.