Lady Gaga: Chromatica review – A star is reborn in this return to fully fledged pop
The last time I mentioned Lady Gaga in The Irish Times I experienced an onslaught of online abuse, including death threats, ableist slurs and suggestions to kill myself, from her fans, her Little Monsters.
I had mentioned the singer in a review of Dua Lipa’s album Future Nostalgia, because the same week that Lipa brought her album release forward because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gaga announced she was pushing her sixth album, Chromatica, back.
Fan culture – or Stan culture, as it is known, in reference to Eminem’s 2000 single where an obsessive fan kills his girlfriend because Eminem didn’t respond to his letters – is an impassioned one: to Stan is to fight and defend your pop star against all haters and critics online. So, having experienced the effects of slighting Gaga – whom I am actually a fan of – do I play it safe and give in to the Stans or do I give an honest review? Let’s see.
When you’re as big as Lady Gaga you can be expected to reinvent pop music with every release, making it a battle between who you are as an artist and what’s expected of you as a pop star.
After her debut single, Just Dance, from 2008, became a global smash, the hits kept on coming. From the album that Just Dance appeared on, The Fame – which was reissued a year later as The Fame Monster, with the added pop-noir masterpiece Bad Romance – to Born This Way, in 2011, Gaga was an unstoppable force. If you weren’t already familiar with Grace Jones or Róisín Murphy, you could see her club-kid style and theatrical flair rubbing off on other chart music, stage performances, music videos and runways.
After those came the superbly ego-tripping Artpop, from 2013, her most daring piece of work, and – skipping over Cheek to Cheek, her jazz album with Tony Bennett – her country-rock outing, Joanne, from 2016, named after her aunt who died, and her most personal release yet. Both are considered commercial flops, and they mark the point in Gaga’s career where casual fans dropped off and superfans intensified. Shallow, her Oscar-winning duet with Bradley Cooper from the 2018 film A Star Is Born, was her first number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2011.
So what do you do when your most artistically challenging and your most personal album fail to reach the heights you’d previously set for yourself? You give the fans what they want, and what they want is clear-cut pop songs... with zero jazz trimmings.
Chromatica is not just a return to fully fledged pop music for the brilliant New Yorker, with sleek production by Gaga and the EDM-pop producers BloodPop, Burns, Axwell and Tchami; it is also the establishment of a dystopian planet where all people, sounds and colours mix. That concept, reminiscent of The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi wonder from 2010, fails to properly materialise here, with the musical interludes sounding as if they belong on a different album. Instead Gaga works through a lifetime of woes to find the light in the disco ball at the end of the tunnel.
On Rain on Me, her duet with Ariana Grande, she celebrates the freedom in crying (“I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”) through droplets of French house, and on the robotically snippy 911, a song about her relationship with antipsychotic medication, she addresses her inner critic while providing an exquisitely trippy chorus. Sour Candy, her collaboration with the K-pop superstars Blackpink, is the perfect mix of weirded-out pop and euphoria thanks to the palpitating bassline, which doesn’t sound unlike Maya Jane Coles’s What They Say, Katy Perry’s Swish Swish and Azealia Banks’s Anna Wintour.
Inspired by songs such as Touch Me, by Rui Da Silva, and Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless), by Crystal Waters, and by acts such as Leftfield, Skream and Underworld, Chromatica takes the familiar club music of the 1990s and puts it into an intergalactic setting, her voice cranking from deliberately disengaged to Viking roar to match the mood or persona.
The rare lows come in the shape of Free Woman and Fun Tonight, which is more Love Island theme song than Leftfield, but Sine from Above, her song with Elton John, is a surprising clatter of redemption and electronica. It’s Creamfields with sequins and studded boots.
That pressure on Gaga to “save pop” – a hyperbolic responsibility that most women in pop are landed with – in each new era is monumental. In a cut-throat world you are only as good as your last release, so in a critical, commercial and cult sense, what do you lose as an artist in order to maintain success? Do you make creative decisions based on your fans, your critics or yourself?
“The scars on my mind are on replay, the monster inside you is torturing me,” she confesses over warbling disco synths on Replay, a song that evokes waking up from a blackout at a party without knowing how you got there. “Who was it that pulled the trigger, was it you or I?” she asks, “I won’t blame myself ’cause we both know you were the one.”
With Chromatica, Gaga has certainly given her fans the record they want. Let’s just hope she didn’t sacrifice too much for their pop salvation.