Lady Gaga’s new album is a joyous return to the dancefloor, even if we can’t be in the club ourselves
“Take me home, take me to Wonderland,” Lady Gaga beseeches the universe on “Alice”, the opening song of Chromatica. Gaga’s sixth studio album begins with an orchestral prologue that evokes the classical music used to score many of the greatest sci-fi cinema epics set in space. We are leaving Earth behind – and Gaga wants us to know that this record is a return to the conceptual grandiosity that has defined her contribution to pop.
In 2013’s ARTPOP, Gaga’s use of concept – her invocations of Greek gods, Donatella Versace, and Jeff Koons – was muddled, a tad humourless, and distracted from the music. Chromatica keeps it simple, and succeeds. It’s definitely over the top, but it’s also a tight and controlled 45-minute ride of wall-to-wall bangers.
And what can be said about the planet ‘Chromatica’, the album’s imaginary setting? If I were summarising it for an intergalactic tourist board, I would probably suggest the alternative name, ‘PLANET FAGGOT’. (And yes, I can say ‘faggot’ here – the last time Gaga released an album this good, I was one!) This record is for the gays. If, like me, you became a Gaga fan on the mephedrone-fuelled dancefloor of a provincial club called Flamingos in 2009, then this album’s house and techno-infused tracks will come as a relief. There may well be intelligent life on Chromatica, but we wouldn’t know, because the planet’s rivers flow with Amyl Nitrate, and it’s hard to hear anything over the relentless bass (where the hell is my m-cat?).
When the sweaty pulsation of the queer club has disappeared, with no possibility for its return for years to come, Gaga’s Chromatica has brought the club to you. The run-down venues where I first pledged allegiance to Mother Monster closed down one-by-one in the past decade, to be replaced by classy wine bars, primarily for straight people. At times, it has felt like Gaga, too, underwent this heterosexual gentrification in her crossover to television and with 2014’s jazz album collaboration with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek.
Gaga has always represented something deeper for her queer fan base: nostalgia for the bittersweet times in our youth when she showed us a way to thrive outside the shadows, with Diet Coke cans in our hair. For us, though, the past few years of stanning her have at times required forbearance. 2016’s Joanne, with a titular track about Gaga’s tragedy-stricken aunt, who died in 1974 (over a decade before Gaga’s birth), was clearly important for her, creatively, exploring themes of pain and loss that Gaga experienced as she struggled behind the scenes with agonising fibromyalgia, which plagued her love of live performance. But memorably, in her Netflix film Five Foot Two, Gaga’s own grandmother (the mother of the eponymous Joanne) warned her granddaughter about becoming too “maudlin”. In essence, Grandma Germanotta listened to a eulogy for her dead daughter and said: “Great, but where are the bops?”
“I’m thrilled to say I’m no longer spending this gloomy summer indoors; if you need me: I’m on Chromatica”
By the time she hit the red carpet as the lead actress in A Star is Born, retelling ad nauseum how Bradley Cooper was the only person in a room of a hundred who had believed in her, the stage name ‘Lady Gaga’ itself began to seem incongruous with the earnest luvvie Stefani Germanotta had become. The pining for new pure pop from Gaga was so desperate that “Hair Body Face”, a song from the A Star is Born soundtrack that was supposed to represent the way in which Gaga’s character had ‘sold out’ her artistry for empty commercial hits, was unironically played in gay bars.
Chromatica, then, is a welcome return to dance music and electro-pop, one without even a ballad in sight. It has all the signature Gaga flourishes: teutonic synths and chanted spoken-word vocals are here in abundance. The album’s final track, “Babylon”, one of my favourites on the album, was pretty much designed to be choreographed by a troupe of drag queens. But let’s not get it twisted: it may be joyous, but it isn’t vapid. This is an album about healing, power, and escape. The album’s fourth song, “Free Woman”, is about liberation from trauma and Gaga has revealed it is about her own experience of surviving a sexual assault.
One thing Gaga has never got enough credit for, in my opinion, is her enthusiastic embrace of collaboration with other female artists who, in a parallel universe, she could have feared as rivals. From Beyoncé to Florence Welch to Christina Aguilera (to whom she was relentlessly compared early in her career) to Ariana Grande, Gaga’s shown great self-assurance in choosing to share space with women whose careers stand as tall as her own. “Rain on Me”, released last weekend, is fun musically, but its video – which shows great affection and mutual respect between the Italian-American woman who dominated the pop charts in the early 2010s and the other Italian-American woman who dominates the charts now – is powerful in an industry that still relies on misogyny and antipathy among women.
There are campy moments, whether intentional or not: Elton John’s vocals on the trashy “Sine from Above” are hilarious (not to mention its drum & bass ending), and at some points the production on tracks like “1000 Doves” seems a bit Eurovision. But I’m splitting hair extensions. Throughout her career, Gaga has been both uplifted and saddled by the expectation of being a ‘pop saviour’, who creates new visuals and adjusts tastes. It’s meant that nothing she’s done since 2011 has ever been quite good enough for those with impossible expectations of a new release. I hope at least she’s having more fun now. This era of her career is an explosive and triumphant rebirth for Gaga and for her fans again as we queen out and stan her once more. I’m thrilled to say I’m no longer spending this gloomy summer indoors; if you need me: I’m on Chromatica.