Quite often there comes a particular period in an artist’s life when they become deeply fascinated with challenging both themselves and their loyal audience’s expectations. As the greedy, sometimes incredibly spoiled audience, we, too, are privy to this methodology – this impending switch, this “change of pace” – and, by all means, attempt to conclude the radical outcome of these experiments before the rules of the game have even been delivered. Failures, as one knows, can befall anyone – even the Greats – as much of the history of art (and especially Pop music) is littered with incredible works that were considered useless and worthless upon their debuts only to be congratulated decades later; we are a society forever in the state of retrospective.
At the same time, successes, as one also knows, will certainly not come to just any soul parading in costume, declaring newfound independence, and yet allowing those behind the scenes to fully achieve the magic. Such obvious mannerisms are carefully dissected and then harshly dismissed. In switching up in Pop, there can be no desperation, no tricks, no playful orchestration. One must embody, one must understand, one must feel what they are creating because even if it’s all fake – even if it is all smoke-and-mirrors and none of it has ever happened – the artifice must still come alive, the lie must become the truth. It is how we are touched by David Bowie’s intergalactic ballads, seduced by Madonna’s dominatrix fantasies, and entranced by Björk’s mind-bending installations; there is an obligation to stitch up any trace of doubt or disbelief from outside forces with a remarkable, unbreakable intimacy to their fantastical works. The package – as one calls it – must be air-tight.
And in a year terrifically gifted with major artists all committing to their package and all vying for that challenge to take we audience members on wild rides beyond our feeble comprehension, there had been one Great whom remained particularly silent on the Pop front: Lady Gaga. That elegantly fearsome and obscenely endearing goddess of drum machines and diva melancholy – that alien starchild who crash-landed onto the scene in 2008 and then changed it entirely – seemed, in a time of boundless commercial breakthroughs, to have faded in the back, committed to new endeavors and carefree relaxation, living a Southern Californian dream of which her neck-breaking 8 years of hustling across the globe in ten-inch spiked platforms had afforded her. But, of course, being the stealth, cunning, instinctive warrior of Pop that she has always been, it was clear that Lady Gaga was conjuring her own enchanted spell within a great bubbling cauldron, that she too would reveal a startling transformation masterfully crafted and entirely felt.
Well, this startling transformation, first hinted, as things often are, through the buzzing channels of social media, ignited full-speed less than 24 hours ago, in the form of the dazzingly chaotic liebestod “Perfect Illusion.” Explosive, electric, maniacal, and completely rational all the same, this daring new track feels as if we are confronting both that artistic necessity to grow yet also a mirror into the kind of spirit marinating within the confines of Lady Gaga, waiting for its escape and eventual rise. Not to say that this immensely rock-tinged nugget of passion and surrealism serves as something totally uncommon within Gaga’s discography. Her Proustian masterwork, Born This Way, lushly and effortlessly merged the elasticity of dance beats with the jangly chords of hair-raising guitars. However, instead of allowing both genres to fuse into some alchemic miracle, Gaga lets her denim-clad biker-gang sensibilities flow fluidly, giving “Perfect Illusion” a rather mystifying, cannibalizing impression, like the kind of deliciously fossilized romp one would uncover in a dive bar jukebox.
It goes perhaps without saying that merely placing the multitude of references, emotions, iconography, and concepts of which arise from this new piece in continuous paragraphs does not seem proper. On such a basis as this – when looking at the newest work of a true Pop megastar – it feels only right to jot notes, to allow the mind free reign over thought or rhapsody. I will leave the seriousness to those who are still grasping what this “Pop” thing is truly all about; I will give myself the chance to be as free as the artist in question:
1. As previously mentioned: “Perfect Illusion” is a chaotic liebestod – a tempestuous love-death that feels every bit caressing as it is catastrophic, every bit mesmeric as it is murderous – the perpetual opening of a deep, demolishing wound painstakingly disguised by ridiculous bandages in hopes that the agonizing misery will somehow evaporate on its own.
2. Theatrics have always played an immensely integral part of Lady Gaga’s career, but here she may be at her most unhinged – yelling, shouting, screaming with the kind of fury and tenacity one does not expect outside of a Wagnerian epic. She is, in fact, not unlike Brünnhilde, launching her own Ride of the Valkyries to transport poor fallen heroes to the glorious Valhalla with that glittering battle cry of mirage and horror.
3. Speaking of horror, the track gently radiates a spooky, kooky, nightmarish undercurrent, where black crows, barren castles, crooked hilltops, and unlocked cemeteries dominate fearlessly. This is Bram Stoker, VC Andrews, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft on a drunken bender. This is Stephen King making love to the Wicked Witch of the West. Gothic, terrifying, addicted to the darkness of which we are most curious. A danse macabre of jovial skeletons adorned in studded leather jackets.
4. The seamless synthesis of sleaze and death carefully brings to mind the landmark fantasy erotica magazine, Heavy Metal. Known for its rampant violence and uncompromising sexuality exemplified in clever, mind-boggling illustrations, Heavy Metal often portrayed a futuristic, technocentric setting that meshes immaculately with the hard-edged beauty of “Perfect Illusion,” aligning the more passionate harmonies into a state of complete disarray. Merely viewing a short clip of the magazine’s 1981 film to the raucous sound is a rewarding, magnificent trip of its own.
5. For all of the brash, abrasive, bone-chilling anger spilling within Gaga’s voice, there is still that layer of vulnerability of which only she could simultaneously deliver; a marriage of hysterics and allure. Even at her ugliest moments, she displays an unwavering control of sophistication and soul, of absolute gorgeousness – too brilliant of a vocalist to ever be awful. It is here where she aligns herself with the hauntingly bewitching balladeers of the 70s and 80s, combining Heart, Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks, and Bonnie Tyler into her system and churning out golden hurt.
6. Assisting this enticing, endearing pain are the smooth, elusive background vocals soaring through the chorus, like a doomed girl group from the fiery pits of hell chanting spiritual mantras and hymns. It’s in the middle-eight, however, where the voices take on a whole different wavelength: merging, slicing, colliding against each other in mystically poetic near-whispers as Gaga wails atop of them, a victim of her own wandering thoughts, attempting to drown them out with her harrowing cries.
7. And then there is that delectable funk-laden disco breakdown that overflows toward the end, when she has relinquished all of her resistance and blindness, when she has finally given into her reality of her “perfect illusion” – bouncy, heady, irresistible. This is where Brünnhilde rides her horse into the funeral pyre. This is where the love-death takes its full responsibility, delicately finishing us off by embracing the romance’s rapturous demise with its exhilarating force. It is a slice of Donna Summer compressed by Butch Vig, a merging of safety pins with silver lamé.
8. Yet, in truth, what it is most enchanting about “Perfect Illusion” is the bizarrely infectious chorus that once gnawing into one’s ear canals never drifts away even for a moment. It is Gaga’s ruthless, ravaging trademark, one of which she learned quite well from her freakishly brilliant grandparents, ABBA: that striking ability to compose a Big Fucking Chorus that almost disputes any reason to pay attention to the verses altogether. Because Big Fucking Choruses are often birthed from the simplest of slogans, we often perceive them as easily conceived. However, it takes a very special artist to totally grasp that bridging of emphasis, enunciation, and flair and create something magnetic. Gaga, for the record, is one of the greatest.
9. Ultimately, “Perfect Illusion” feels reckless, impassioned, and obscenely dramatic. It is a Gaga creation, through and through, but teeming with a taste of something more extraordinary, something untapped, something untouched. She seems to be setting us up for a more puzzling release – a work of art that will not be easily defined or categorized. Through the dizzying mania and desirable melancholy of her newest original work, Gaga is giving us a preview of a reinvention – a transformation – that will carry itself with remarkable commitment and love, intimacy and belief. One feels that she truly knows no other way.