Lady Gaga is one of those artists you wish wasn’t such a crowd-pleaser, because her crowd is often wrong. And maybe we’d play it safe too if our most sonically adventurous album garnered the nickname Artflop. But ever since 2013’s absurd, problematic, and musically astonishing Artpop didn’t meet commercial expectations (despite reaching no. 1 and selling more than 2 million copies), her first taste of failure spooked pop’s most self-conscious weirdo into a conservative streak marred by stripped-down productions and respectability politics. Joanne didn’t make much of splash artistically or commercially in 2016, but her co-starring role in 2018’s A Star Is Born was a pretty big comeback and a cultural phenomenon. You don’t need to listen to its songs. In fact, the most rewarding music from this period might have been Gaga’s saucy Tony Bennett collabs; try witnessing their chemistry in the “Lady Is a Tramp” video without experiencing something like awe. But it doesn’t get more buttoned-down than the standards circuit.
So normal is not the norm for Lady Gaga; bestsellers like 2009’s The Fame Monster and 2011’s massive but somewhat undervalued Born This Way showcased an astonishing breadth of pop history emulation. The former had a classic Elton John-style ballad (“Speechless”), a note-perfect Ace of Base rip (“Alejandro”) and Beyoncé (“Telephone”). The latter brought in Clarence Clemons to squawk on “Hair” and “The Edge of Glory,” and somehow managed to combine “Mutt” Lange’s Def Leppard work and Shania Twain work on “Yoü and I” for a rodeo power ballad that may be her greatest tune. Two of the album’s best songs aren’t in English; another pair borrow wonderful things with heavy metal (“Heavy Metal Lover” the subject, “Bad Kids” the guitar). All of this by an electropop singer.
Her latest album, Chromatica, may be her most crowd-pleasing album yet simply by virtue of its aims. By now, Gaga’s aware that people miss her dance-pop, and almost every song on the record is driven by a retro 4/4 beat, more Crystal Waters and RuPaul than EDM. It’s her least sonically diverse album ever; she bets the house (ahem) on this one thing. And she won big: the second single and Ariana Grande duet “Rain on Me” hit number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, only the second time she’s done so since “Born This Way,” the other being the signature A Star Is Born ballad “Shallow.” And before that, the first single upgraded her signature “Bad Romance” to the muscular “Stupid Love,” one of the year’s best songs. But Chromatica as a whole eats their dust.
The Alice in Wonderland and plastic doll metaphors are sadly not far enough from the shallow, and the intriguing orchestral interludes only lead into more unnecessarily disciplined dance music. Which would be fine if all the hooks were slam dunks like “Stupid Love” and “Rain on Me.” The duets with K-Pop stars Blackpink (“Sour Candy”) and Elton himself (“Sine From Above”) sound fine but struggle to break out of their rigid palettes, with “Sine” in particular tacking on a 20-second drum’n’bass ending as almost as an apology for not being weirder. The stomping “911” is one of many half-arresting shots that suffers from being so breathlessly wordy you can’t remember (or even find) the hook. And while Gaga’s always been able to turn a clunky lyric like “Talk it out, babble on / Battle for your life, Babylon” into a camp classic, “Babylon” isn’t the “Vogue” it wants to be; the lack of imagination here is crippling. The still-perfectly-fine “Free Woman” in particular, which evokes cheap DJ fare from Alphaville to Real McCoy, is like a rock band using the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” chords again. Even the gorgeous “Rain on Me” has an overly familiar in-case-of-emergency-reheat-this-beat feel to it.
To wax theoretical, Artpop suffered from similar career positioning to Madonna’s Erotica: Both women produced their most sexual music ever just as the public was getting tired of their overexposure. And Gaga’s album took liberties with race (“Aura” and “Gypsy” literally, to say nothing of the nonsensical rapper showcase “Jewels ‘N Drugs” or the since-excised R. Kelly duet) that overshadowed the sheer banger quotient of “MANiCURE,” “Sexxx Dreams,” “Swine” and “G.U.Y.” (nor did it help that her own producers on “Aura,” Infected Mushroom, have dissed the track). On Chromatica, she seems too afraid or to removed from the Koons-loving side of herself to get too bizarre or to let the production dominate, two of Artpop’s best qualities. It sounded like Skrillex carpet-bombing a Madonna album — the slap-bass runs in “Sexxx Dreams” are straight out of Michael Jackson’s “Speed Demon.” Gaga ought to return to it just to reignite her vocabulary for sound design.
Erotica is now considered Madonna’s best album in diehard circles and Artpop deserves the same; just switch the cone bra for a meat dress. Chromatica is being rather warmly embraced, so we can only hope it encourages her to weird us out again. And there’s something poetic in the week’s reigning number-one artist not knowing what her own normal is at the same time the entire nation is struggling to reject new norms that are completely regressive and socially tantamount to the utter fascism of a militarized police state, even if these are completely incomparable. But it’s no coincidence her “at least I’m alive” hook is topping the charts this particular week.
Chromatica functions as both stopgap escapism and yet another portrait of someone among us who’s trying to patch together her identity again. That’s plenty of reason to root for Gaga. Here’s hoping we all find our way back to our best lives.