“All You Need is Your Own Imagination”: Madonna and Lady Gaga Create Culture

For many in the United States, there has often been a fierce pride in the home country and its traditions while at the same time recognizing that the transitional generation of the emigrants’ children, those who were the first not to be born in Italy, has loomed large in the sense of creating an Italian culture in America. This in-between-ness, what Edvige Guinta has called in another context a “space/spazio”[1], in effect, opened some breathing room for the cultural transition from emigration to immigration (always in flux, of course) to occur at any given time: created and lived via individuals, within families, in neighborhood little Italy enclaves, places of worship, in social clubs, etc., and enacted in front of the popular public imagination. One such avenue of Italian American cultural creation has been music.

In this case, I am speaking of the long and storied legacy of Italian American popular singers and their songs. In my household, growing up, there were Mario Lanza and Annette Funicello; Al Martino and Connie Stevens; Louis Prima and Connie Francis; and, of course, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Our next-door neighbor had gone to school with a young man named Anthony Benedetto – Tony Bennett. Over the mid-to-later 20th-century, they helped to give voice and visibility to conceptions of second-generation Italian Americans. For many working-class folk, in particular, absorbing bi-culturality and easing the pain of assimilation took the form of listening to waves of music specifically from artists such as these who were recognizably Italian American, successful on the public stage, and who often sang in a mixture of English, standardized Italian, Sicilian, and other regional dialects, notably canzone napoletana.

Much attention has been paid to the legacy of the male crooners, by musicologists and historians of popular culture, but the women have more than held their own.  From the 1950s through the 1980s, such female artists such as Connie Francis, Liza Minelli, and Cyndi Lauper (whose mother is Sicilian American) have paved the way for more current artists like Gwen Stefani and Ani Di Franco to thrive from the 1990s to today.  In the history of popular song, four of the most influential and iconic vocal artists of all time have been Connie Francis, Liza Minnelli, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. All have enjoyed enormous popularity in the U.S., as well as in Italy, and worldwide.  In my essay, I would briefly like to discuss Madonna and Lady Gaga, daughters of the first generation to be born in the United States, as both creators and interpreters of Italian American female identity through their music and popular culture personae.

According to Billboard’s latest count,  Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone is the greatest solo artist of all time,  female or male, with 75 million CDs sold in the United States, and 200 million across the globe[2]. She emerged on the United States music scene with the release of her first album entitled Madonna in 1983. Throughout her career, she has had 12 chart topping singles in the U.S. as well as 39 number one hits on the U.S. dance charts. In Italy, she has scored 24 number one singles[3].  Her popularity as a musical artist is undeniable. But what about the impact that she and her music have had in terms of cultural identity formation for notions of Italian America?

I would like to cast our minds back to early in her career and revisit Papa Don’t Preach. The young woman in Madonna’s song is pregnant, unwed, and keeping her baby. In the video of Papa Don’t Preach – winner of the MTV Best Female Video Award in 1987 – the young woman as played by Madonna is wearing an “ITALIANS DO IT BETTER” t-shirt and sporting a haircut very similar to the one that Liza Minelli had throughout the 1970s. She is shown as being Italian in America – pregnant, unwed, keeping her baby and defying her father as played by Italian American actor Danny Aiello[4]. From the beginning, Madonna set out to define herself as Italian American and to re-define what was considered acceptable for women across ethnicity, class, and sexuality.

In a memorable scene from Alex Keshishian’s rockumentary Madonna: truth or dare (1991), Madonna is shown in Italy responding to the late Pope John Paul II’s attempt to censor her. While the cameras are rolling and paparazzi are translating her English into Italian, Madonna defiantly asserts, “I am an Italian American and proud of it”, and claims that the country she grew up in believes in “freedom of expression and freedom of thought”[5]. She is not wearing an Italian t-shirt anymore; instead, she more fully asserts a dual, assimilated identity. Not atypical of the generational position that she occupies, she does not speak the language of the homeland and also rejects its socially conservative mores. In simple terms, Madonna tells us, the new adopted land is more progressive than the “old country” and she speaks its new language.

However,  Madonna has never stopped with just criticizing “la vita vecchia”. Across three decades, she has maintained her place as a cultural siren warning against the small mindedness of the mainstream United States. In How Madonna Liberated America, written in anticipation of her half-time performance at the Super Bowl last year, cultural critic Sara Marcus writes of Madonna:

Her visionary assault on American prudery, her revelatory spreading of sexual liberation to Middle America, changed this country for the better. And that’s not old news; we’re still living it. If this sounds elementary to speak of now, it’s only because we’ve spent so long in the world Madonna made that we can hardly imagine it any other way. But throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, her protean personae and erotic gambits were consistently a step ahead of what Middle America was ready for. She dared us to catch up with her[6].

Feminist critics such as Marcus may locate Madonna’s personae as “protean” – a consummate shape shifter and anticipator of trends – but she has never shifted away from asserting her beginnings as being Italian descended. She has done so, not so much with song lyrics about “Mama” and singing in the Italian language (as Connie Francis did) but rather in rendering her embodied self as an accessible Italian American tableau. In her most recent MDNA concert tour (2012), she takes off her shirt (while wearing pinstripes pants, suspenders, and a fedora) to reveal scrawled words of social protest written across her back[7]. The message is about her certainly: she reminds the audience that she is still pointing out injustices when she sees them. In moments such as these, however, it is more important to understand that Madonna is performing Italian America. She moves beyond just herself and her singing; in essence, she is giving up her body to voice a collective ethnic consciousness that says this is what it means to be Italian American.

The next incarnation of Madonna seems to have emerged in the form of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, after the release of her two albums The Fame (2008) and Fame Monster (2009). Arguably more vocally and musically gifted than Madonna, Lady Gaga is the Internet generation’s Italian American diva. Mathieu Deflem, who teaches a course entitled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” at the University of South Carolina, tracks her Facebook likes as 43 million and her Twitter followers at 13 million and counting[8]. Within this enormous popularity, Lady Gaga has asserted that hers is a precise ethnic identity with an accompanying history. In the documentary, Lady Gaga: Inside and Out, there is a compelling scene where she explains, presumably to her mainstream critics, “You don’t know what my grandmother went through; you don’t know what my mother has been through, my father…. My grandparents came here from nothing”. She situates herself generationally and says quite proudly, “I’m Italian”[9].

Lady Gaga’s tribute to the struggles of earlier generations can be found in her homage to that famous popular song Mambo Italiano (1954) and her “Americano” released in 2011. If you listen to the opening of the songs back to back, you can easily recognize that the melodies overlap:


A girl went back to Napoli

Because she missed the scenery

The native dances and the charming songs

But wait a minute, something’s wrong![10]

. . .

I met a girl in East LA

In floral shorts – as sweet as May

She sang in eighths and two Barrio chords

We fell in love, but not in court[11]


The music may be the same; notably, the lyrical content is not. Lady Gaga has taken a traditional Italian American favorite parlor song and transformed it into a love song to a woman as an intended anthem in support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights. For Italian Americans who might be listening, this type of musical sampling situates Lady Gaga as the latest Italian American pop icon to look toward envisioning a better future: in this case political and sexual liberation for the LGBT community.

To summarize the impact of Italian American performers on ideas of what it is to be Italian in America is, of course, impossible. What Madonna and Lady Gaga have given us are contemporary incarnations of the song of Italian America as a vibrant, radical one.  In her most acclaimed dance single, Vogue, Madonna sings hopefully, as a starting point, “All you need is your own imagination” in order to begin to create and then realize the dream of social harmony[12]. That dream has not been an unfettered one in America. To their credit, Madonna and Gaga continue to be voices for positive social change on these shores while honoring an Italian familial past that lives on through their lives and music.

[1]           Edvige Guinta, Editorial, “Voices in Italian Americana”, Special Issue: Italian/American Women Authors, 7,1 (1996), pp. I-IX.


[2]           Billboard, Madonna, “Chart History”, (2013), http.www.billboard.com/artist/308786/Madonna.


[3]           Wikia, Madonna, “List of all Madonna’s Singles”, 2013, http.www.madonna.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_all_Madonna’s_Singles.


[4]           James Foley, Papa Don’t Preach, 1986, United States, Sire, Warner Brothers Studio.


[5]           Alex Keshishian, Madonna: truth or dare, 1991, United States, Miramax.


[6]           Sara Marcus, How Madonna Liberated America, “Salon.com”, February 3, 2012, http:// www.salon.com/2012/02/04/how_madonna_changed_america/


[7]           Madonna,  MDNA World Tour, Live Nation, October 2, 2012, HP Pavilion, San José CA.


[8]           Mathieu Deflem, Marketing Monster: Selling the Fame of Lady Gaga, in The Wicked Twins: Fame & Notoriety, January 17 – April 19, 2012, Exhibition Catalogue, Paul Robeson Galleries, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, pp. 26-34.


[9]           Davi Russo, Lady Gaga: Inside the Outside, May 26, 2011, MTV.


[10]          Bob Merrill, Mambo Italiano, 1954, New York, Columbia Records.


[11]          Stefani Germanotta, Fernando Garibay, Brian, Lee, Paul Blair, and Cheche Alara, Americano, 2010, Studio Bus, New York, Interscope Records.


[12]          Madonna and Shep Pettibone, Vogue, 1990, New York, Sire, Warner Brothers Records.