The parallels between Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga are too tempting to ignore: Only four birthdays separate the starlets, both of whom spent the bulk of the last 10 years tumbling through the inner workings of the industry they've gone on to dominate.
Swift and Gaga tower over female contemporaries in their respective spheres, each responsible for a 2008 record that continues to lap the platinum line—Gaga's Fame has sold over three million, while Swift's Fearless is perched above the six mark. Outside of the Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood, Swift is peerless at the country music cash register. Muzzle Beyoncé, and Gaga can make a claim for outright ownership over the pop purse, especially if the math favors sellouts and singles sales.
Like any good rivalry, though, the diva and the daffodil are really two sides of the same coin: Gaga's Fame was a record about losing your cell phone, your mind and maybe even your lunch in the madness of a New York City dance club. It was a record about excess. Fearless was a record about learning life's lessons through grace and the prism of Nashville niceties. It was a record about innocence.
The layman's law of averages would suggest that a middling Frankenstein of the two would find real success, but the history of pop music has never borne out such melded identities. Americans prefer their pop stars to pick sides. Extremes polarize and captivate, and the numbers suggest we love as much. Even as the borderless world of social media erodes the partitions that once supported these dualisms—urban vs. rural, queer vs. quaint, high vs. low art—we choose caricature. That is, we want a stereotype that's simple and stock to complement, or counter, the mess of life.
The hackneyed adversarial setup of "virgin" vs. "whore" animates most of the debate about the two online. Is Taylor too "prissy"? Is Gaga too "flamboyant"? Turns out, they're both exactly as they need to be. While the way we view and talk about the world makes it tempting to extol the virtues of one over the other, it's more interesting and honest to acknowledge the fact that the two biggest-selling female acts today embody the warring sides of a dated dichotomy. The conversation, or shouting match, hasn't changed, even if the faces have.
In Taylor Swift's world, Romeo and Juliet never die. They simply hop on a double bike and ride to a sock hop on infinite loop. The Mean Girl in her videos? She always loses the guy in the end, because purity should be rewarded, right? Meanwhile, in Gagaland, the annoying creep Romeo won't stop blowing up her cell phone. The only thing anyone's riding is—earmuffs, Swift kid—a "disco stick." Another bad romance might be right around the corner, but it'll all be OK with a few libations and gyrations, right?
Yes to both, it seems: Sure, Swift is the highest selling digital artist ever—15 million track sales will get you that distinction. But Gaga's videos have been watched more than 1 billion times on YouTube. That's the most views for, uh, anything on that site. Sorry, Walter Cronkite, Michael Jordan and John Kennedy—a lady named Gaga wins.
This sun-and-shade showdown hasn't actually manifested itself yet publicly, and it likely never will. Swift and Gaga aren't attacking each other, and there's really no need for it, at least until one can overpower the other. But if our pop stars aren't going to occupy the gray area themselves, we might as well get a good seat in between them. Obviously, the implied imbroglio would sell just fine—or, hey, it already is.