Lady Gaga Finds Catharsis On ‘Chromatica’, But The Dancefloor Can’t Heal Everything
The quietly bizarre and jagged 'Chromatica' sees Gaga working through her wounds - but by now, she knows some will never be completely healed.
Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP could mean anything, but Chromatica is a planet of her own making. And citizenship is just a stream away — 16 tracks signaling Gaga’s return to large-scale pop music.
In the lead up to releasing Chromatica in the last week of May — a delay from its original April launch, postponed due to COVID-19 — Gaga teased her sixth album as the spiritual successor to her early works. Ignore the maligned, scrambled ARTPOP, or the raw and real songstress of Joanne or A Star Is Born: Gaga is back to make you dance.
Lead single ‘Stupid Love’ was our first trip to Chromatica. Gaga’s first work with superproducer Max Martin, it was neither out-of-this-world futuristic, nor a sad chasing of current chart trends. Instead, Gaga went into herself by revisiting the electro-pop of The Fame Monster, albeit replacing the dark histrionics for frivolity — ‘Bad Romance’ has been detoxed to ‘Stupid Love’.
The video, partially filmed on an iPhone, isn’t exactly the cinematic pop moment you’d imagine Gaga would introduce a whole new world with. In an empty desert, tribes of warring monochromatically-clad dancers collide: it’s more ‘Burning Man meets West Side Story‘ than Mad Max, where Gaga arrives to unite them into one through the power of pop.
Compared to the visual lavishness of her past work (not just her biggest videos like ‘Bad Romance’, either), it’s almost bare-bones and considering the Apple product placement, it wasn’t necessarily a question of budget. Whether intentional or not, it made a statement: Lady Gaga is not trying to break the internet. She already did that.
Before Chromatica, There Was Darkness
Gaga has a tendency to push through a misdirect as a lead-single (‘Applause’, ‘Perfect Illusion’), either under label pressure or her own creative impulses. ‘Stupid Love’ is one of Chromatica‘s lightest songs, both in terms of production and tone: it is a red herring for just how weird and dramatic things are going to get, as Gaga dives deep into ’90s house to sweat out deep traumas expressed in confusing, intriguing ways.
Chromatica‘s most essential world-building was a comment Gaga gave around the time of ‘Stupid Love’s release to Zane Lowe on the squiggly line featured across artworks — a sine wave.
“And, for me, sound is what healed me in my life period, and it healed me again making this record, and that is really what Chromatica is all about.”
“[It’s] the mathematical symbol for sound. And, for me, sound is what healed me in my life period, and it healed me again making this record, and that is really what Chromatica is all about,” she said.
Little Monsters know that Joanne was also a healing record, a ballad-filled dive into family trauma named after her aunt, who died at age 20 to Lupus, long before Gaga could meet her. In 2017 documentary Five Foot Two, Joanne‘s limits are clear — in one painful scene, Gaga plays the title ballad to her grandmother, seemingly goading her into crying. Her grandmother doesn’t offer the release: instead, she shrugs it off and says it “was a long time ago”.
Talking again to Lowe, Gaga said that she realised while working on Chromatica that Joanne was an attempt to heal her father and family’s pain, which she now recognises as futile. There’s no forced catharsis on Chromatica: suitably, as producer Bloodpop tweeted, ballads are illegal on Gaga’s imagined planet.
Ballads are illegal on Chromatica.
— BloodPop® (@bloodpop) May 30, 2020
It’s a 180 from the A Star Is Born era, where Gaga’s raw talent was centred again and again through the performance art press circuit.
When Gaga repeated stories about Bradley Cooper believing in her or wiping off her makeup during a screen test to remove the artifice, we were repeatedly being told that this was the real Gaga. It’s a narrative that fell apart upon its repetition, no doubt intentionally, a wonderful mirroring of the film’s flawed obsession with authentic artfulness and pop.
What shut down critics who couldn’t get past Gaga’s Gaganess was ‘Shallow’, a song whose title alone spits in the face of those who think it’s her rawest work.
The film’s trailer alone made the song immortal, thanks to its use of Gaga’s bridge — a pure belting of ‘huhh’, ‘ahhhs’ and ‘woaahhahhs’, stretching towards some release so essential it needed to revert back to pre-language gargle. It’s so near-impossible to emulate we made a London tube karaoke singer a star when she gave it a good crack.
But it’s not the vocal prowess that makes ‘Shallow’ one of Gaga’s biggest songs. It’s the secret weirdness, hidden in the delivery. It’s not just the bridge, but the sudden jolt in the pre-chorus, the pronunciation of ‘Sha-la-la-la-low’ — a jarring choice that pulls us right out of the song. We suspend our disbelief in the film, but there’s no way this is written or even performed by Ally Maine: this song curbs itself around Gaga, bending to her creative whims.
‘Shallow’ is an exorcism of emotion in the clearest sense, as was Joanne. But Gaga has always been an artist who creates from trauma in a scattershot way, not immediately apparent for the casual listener who hears the high-octane pop or stared in awe at a wild look.
Over the past decade, Gaga’s detailed her many traumas, including mental health issues, eating disorders, sexual assault and chronic pain.
Over the past decade, Gaga’s detailed her many traumas, including mental health issues, eating disorders, sexual assault and chronic pain. It bubbles under her music, occasionally bursting through for a direct reference — but never quite as the ballad you might imagine.
“For every shiny, poppy song like ‘Telephone’ or ‘Hair,’ “, wrote Katherine St. Asaph in her Pitchfork review of Chromatica, “Gaga’s recorded three more with wounds at the core: the personified fears of The Fame, the parts of Born This Way that are more darkwave or Warcraft than bubblegum; the bitter mess of 2013’s Artpop.”
Take ‘Swine’, an ARTPOP EDM rape-revenge track with dubstep breakdown filled with more bloodlust than a B-grade horror. Or ‘911’, a stand-out from Chromatica, where Gaga details her need for anti-psychosis medication to a sensual ’90s house beat. Suitably, the song captures the tantalising highs of mania, but reigning them in before the damage as the chorus’ clockwork synth lines come while she pops her ‘911’, preventing an emergency.
Chromatica, then, is the newest way to work through her pains.
Welcome To Chromatica
Where Gaga often spoke of her aunt’s spirit as a leading creative influence on Joanne, Chromatica is built around the music as healing itself. As a result, she and her production team (Bloodpop, Tchami, Axwell, Burns, et al.) leaned into ’90s house and disco, genres which aim for euphoria but often leave their audiences in the struggle to get there, dancing for hours on end to feel nothing.
One of 2020’s other best pop records, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, plays with similar references, but the results are day and night. Future Nostalgia is blueprint pop: a polished, sugary package that will be ripped off for years to come. Chromatica, on the other hand, is quietly bizarre, botched with snagging lines, orchestral interludes and short-lived circuit breakdowns. Take ‘Alice’, the album’s first non-interlude track.
The pulsating house beat and refrain (“Set Me Free!”) set up pure euphoria, but the Eurovision-esque lyrics in the chorus say it’s delayed as Gaga sings, “My name isn’t Alice, but I’ll keep looking for wonderland”. It’s a peak example of Gaga’s trademark clunker lyrics (and there are many on Chromatica, such as ‘I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling I’m feeling with you” on ‘Fun Tonight’).
But the convoluted imagery only underlines Gaga’s disappointment as she keeps trying to squeeze into a dream-world. The problem is clear in the second verse — as a heavily vocoded Gaga sings about wanting to wake from depression. Lines like “Maestro, play me your symphony/I will listen to anything” become, upon a few listens, cold and desperate.
The freedom of the beat is false, but Gaga invites us to pretend otherwise as we head into ‘Stupid Love’ before ‘Rain On Me’ opens the flood-gates. No more falsities: with Ariana Grande to commiserate with, it’s a true release come euphoric breakdown.
Where ‘Stupid Love’s video was a little low-stakes, ‘Rain On Me’ is all-out: a dystopian cityscape with knives pelting down from the sky.
Grande, too, has healed from her own traumas in the public eye (the overdose of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, the Manchester bombings at her concert, her short-lived engagement to Pete Davidson). Together, the two direct their power and pain into the dance-break, offering ecstatic vocal-runs all-over, as if struck by lightning. And where ‘Stupid Love’s video was a little low-stakes, ‘Rain On Me’ is all-out: a dystopian cityscape with knives pelting down from the sky, complete with huge dance numbers and metres of free-flowing CGI’d hair. It’s an absolute rush.
Some of Chromatica‘s jagged edges make for a little too rough of a landing. Tracks like ‘Free Woman’ and ‘Plastic Doll’ keep up sonically, but their dated topics — female empowerment without a man; being a product of fame — leave them limp, like The Fame-era discards reanimated by Chromatica’s producers, years too late.
‘Sour Candy’ doesn’t necessarily fit the album, either. It’s one of the few songs that doesn’t feel very Gaga, and not just because she’s barely on it — she gives over most of the song to K-pop group BLACKPINK. Where Chromatica mostly feels outside current pop trends, ‘Sour Candy’ is built around the same sample as Katy Perry’s ‘Swish Swish’ from 2017. It’s a generic sugar high.
Thankfully, Chromatica is delightfully oddball overall. Gaga elevates mid-album tracks like ‘Enigma’ and ‘Fun Tonight’ with her theatre-kid enunciation, and the end run might hold some of her best work yet.
Calling a track ‘Replay’ is a bold move, but thankfully, it’s irresistible. Gaga mines through Fame Monster imagery to sing about being haunted by the past, and the song folds in on itself with its reversed-tape vocals underneath — a frenetic, wonderfully smart-dumb conceptual move that, most importantly, sounds huge.
‘Babylon’ is an absolute ‘Vogue’ rip-off, but its nonsensical concept about gossip, aka ‘babble-on’, instantly rips out the Madonna of it, but Chromatica‘s best song, surprisingly, is her duet with Elton John.
Gaga wrote Chromatica around a need to receive healing, and ‘Sine From Above’ throws everything to get there. It contains both the album’s most airy and hard-hitting moments, including a drum and bass outro that comes and goes before you can adjust. And then there’s Elton.
At 73, his voice is unmistakably gruffer. Straight away, Elton sounds like a mismatch for Gaga’s Euro-pop. Or, at the very least, decidedly off. Then comes in Gaga to duet with him, and it connects him to the track. His voice immediately strengthens as they sing about their lost youth, and losing nights to dancing — when he gets to the line “when I was young, I felt immortal”, he approaches it with thunder in the lungs. But still, there’s a terrible distance between what was felt and what is the feeling.
Chromatica is a planet filled with these hidden discomforts as Gaga strives for healing but knows, by now, that some things just hurt.
Lady Gaga’s Chromatica is available now, via Interscope Records.
Jared Richards is Junkee’s Night Editor and a freelance writer. He’s on Twitter.