Dispatches from a Diva: Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica”

The most peculiar thing about life is how deeply it can imitate art. When art imitates life, we feel the mastery of the work’s creator achieving its ultimate goal, squeezing absolute truth into an object that previously did not exist. Yet when our own lives begin to resemble films or novels or television series, a level of strangeness and absurdity shines through.

Partly uneased and partly amused, we find ourselves acting out what we have seen prior, behaving as we believe others would and completing cliched storylines with certainty. If too deeply attached, we can get trapped in roles that never change or offer growth. But if wise, one can extract what we’ve learned and apply it to a different existence, one full of greater freedom, clarity, and love.

For quite some time, Lady Gaga had played the role of the ultimate millennial pop star. With her explosive debut and a string of darkly euphoric singles, she revitalized modern Pop music as a powerful, influential, and above all important art form. Unlike her glossier, more conventional predecessors, Gaga indulged in the macabre, the horrific, and the profane, stitching together surrealist fantasies with haute couture glam. She courted the press and publicity like an Old Hollywood veteran, dropping delicious anecdotes before smashing her piano keys with nine-inch stilettos. Single-handedly, she set a tone, a flavor, a mood for what the 21st century would become: unhinged, uncertain, and absolutely fascinating.

Yet by the midpoint of the decade, the megastar’s fatigue for the game revealed itself in fractures and spurts. At SXSW, she puked up multicolored paint and declared that the music industry was a joke. Shortly thereafter, she recorded and toured an elegant, sophisticated jazz standards album with the legendary Tony Bennett. Between acting gigs, she released Joanne, a normcore ode to Tin Pan Alley perfection and deserted landscapes, and then flipped the switch entirely by filming a contemporary update to A Star Is Born, the closest thing America has to a timeless tragedy.

It was on A Star Is Born where her goodwill and rejuvenation for Pop completely returned, as the metafiction of her character and her own career as a modern icon merged into a romantic fever dream. Anyone who witnessed her glow across the screen realized that Gaga had fallen back in love, and that whatever came next would be intense and incredible.

And thus, we have the mind-blowing epic that is Chromatica. Drenched in an endless haze of dance floor radiance, the album is perhaps what one might expect from one of the most successful Pop stars of our time. It is loud, electric, expensive, and flickers with slivers of nostalgia. Yet, at the same time, there exists something far more mesmerizing, unsettling, and expansive at work.

Here all of her previous elements are pushed to new limits and new boundaries. Here all of her previous components have been recharged and refreshed entirely. Many will call this a “return to form,” but in truth, it is more of a return to self. Because, within this new world Lady Gaga has concocted, regardless of how riotous or magical it unfolds, there is a breathtaking layer of realism that feels more natural and more organic than any of her previous, striking balladry.

However, in order to fully dissect this journey through Gaga’s new world, I feel I must leave a series of notes highlighting its splendor and scope. For there are too many wandering thoughts to waste within trivial, stifling paragraphs. Instead, it is best if we merely dive deep into the fray of this futuristic wonderland that feels as festive as it does frightening:

  1. As previously mentioned, Chromatica will more than likely be seen as a “return to form.” But has Gaga ever sounded this confident? Has Gaga ever sounded this immersive? Has Gaga ever sounded this free? Within her trademark sugared-funk vocals, there appears a startling, cataclysmic liberation not once heard prior, as if emerging from the colossal depths of her soul and thundering through the neon sky. Upon each and every track, she reigns dynamic, brilliant, and alive.
  2. Speaking of vocals, this album may be one of the greatest distillations of Diva Pop. As a self-proclaimed student of Whitney and Mariah, Gaga has often sprinkled traces of their pristine, earth-shattering majesty upon her own art. Yet, here, the precocious student transforms into their own polished entity, belting and bellowing with a sanctified ferocity that forces one to kneel down and pray to the Lord. On Chromatica, Gaga is preacher, choir, and sanctuary all at once.
  3. Part of this sparkling spiritual fervor is undoubtedly connected to the omnipresence of disco and its darling descendants. From the nightmarish, mirrored-ball dazzle breezing through “Replay” to the chilled-out, downtown house flash of “Alice,” the album is a greatest hits collection of dance music of the last 50 years. No crevice is spared or safe from the militaristic arrival of throbs, thuds, bumps, or stomps. One merely gives in to the war of noises, becoming a passive prisoner of its magnificence.
  4. Which bears a more important note: there are no traditional “ballads” whatsoever. There are no slow jams, no torch songs, and no cabaret flourishes. In fact, there is nothing resembling anything that could not be played on a willing dance floor. It is as if Gaga desired to conjure a work that could never force us to stop, sit, and settle. Instead, she desired for us to froth and fly, to simmer and soar, to wiggle and wobble. Even in her most revealing moments, we are faced with the beautiful chaos of a nocturnal anthem.
  5. In fact, her combination of confession and club beats is one of the greatest contributions to Chromatica. Though on the decadent darkness of The Fame Monster such a mixture proved incredibly natural, the usage of fame as a metaphor for her divergent emotions gave it a remarkable distance. And even upon Joanne, when she slipped off the costumes and makeup for a fresh-scrubbed family-girl aesthetic, the revelation was present yet somehow felt neat and perfected. Here, the honesty emerges through the mind-bending disco with tremendous sting and insight. Despite the colorful productions, there is a victorious level of maturity and growth within these reflections, displaying a megastar coming to grips with pain and suffering without hidden identity.
  6. Interestingly, Chromatica is built around a concept of tensions and rivalries spilling around the titular planet. However, amusingly enough, this is Gaga’s first concept album that feels as if it is less about the concept and actually more about her own real-life. As she rhapsodizes about her insecurities, depression, triumphs, and achievements, it is hard for us not to imagine her talking about herself, uncovering the figure who blazed upon the trails in 2008 and never once looked back. On her previous album, she dressed-down to be more relatable. Yet here, within her most extravagant concept, her relatability has never been more intact.
  7. That is not to say that the concept does not flow or gel at all. Amongst the rambunctious machinery, distorted vocals, and delirious rush, one feels the frozen, placid strangeness of this new world. It is a place of confusion, puzzlement, and alienation. Yet, it is also a place of immersion, sophistication, and hedonism. Are we “long ago, in a galaxy, far, far away” or are we staring into the next thousand years? Either would suffice and neither would take away the spectacularly claustrophobia that gives the album its atmosphere.
  8. And then there is the exploration of identity on Chromatica. Though a few tracks reimagine her studies on fame in excitedly eerie turns (take the way the tragic starfucking in “Fun Tonight” sounds like a joyous endeavor), many other tracks reveal Gaga’s long-standing irritation with being unfairly judged as a woman. On the coolly strident “Free Woman,” she reconciles her passionate desires with pervasive doubts while within the stuttering scape of “Plastic Doll,” she formulates Ibsen’s New Woman with an icy, miraculous chill. On previous albums, her feminism may have felt more daring and aggressive yet here, there is more nuance and ease.
  9. Perhaps, even more nuanced, is the spectacular “911.” With Gaga rattling in a robotic, expressionless tone about pill-popping and ridding herself of moodiness, we enter into the kind of ironic, cold-hearted artistry she initially touted and championed as her main objective. “My biggest enemy is me!” she coos with distress through a mainframe, before gingerly demanding, “Pop a 9-1-1.” There is something radically scary, uncomfortable, and yet absolutely irresistible amidst this milieu, turning one’s depression into a disco in one’s mind.
  10. Speaking of scary and uncomfortable, “Sour Candy” sticks out as a sumptuous, grotesque gem of attitude and style. Devised as an engrossing duet between Gaga and Korean girl group BLACKPINK, the track oozes with a globalized mania, oscillating between language, come-ons, and warnings all over a devilishly introspective coolness. Gaga’s “Come, come, unwrap me” may be one of her greatest and most discordant hooks.
  11. Yet Chromatica’s true centerpiece would have to be “Enigma,” her ultimate ode and encapsulation of Diva Pop. Here, she lifts her voice to the highest of heights, disrupting all order and structure, all calm and gentleness. This is her tearing down walls, breaking down bridges, erupting volcanoes, and annihilating civilizations. Just listen to that impossibly stunning pre-chorus, the way she shouts “We could be LOVERS, even just TONIGHT, we can be ANYTHING YOU WANT!” If your spine does not tingle, then you cannot be living.
  12. Ending with the riotous “Babylon” makes it feel absolutely complete. Sitting just under three minutes, the track’s sublime, confident bounce feels delightfully expansive, exploding into a refined runway romp that would not be out of place at any 1990s fashion show. At times, Gaga sounds as if she is channeling both RuPaul and Ramses, aligning historical glories with modern decadence in an ethos that feels entirely of her own. “Strut it out, walk a mile/Serve it, ancient-city style,” she directs with furrowed glamour, and we follow without question nor fear.
  13. Ultimately, Chromatica is an excellent and exceptional album. It is not so much a reinvention of what Pop can be, but rather a luminously faithful interpretation of its most prized, prosperous, and most passionate elements. By utilizing the delectable dignity of Diva Pop, Gaga transforms her futuristic fantasia into something of absolute depth and weight, bringing us to heightened degrees of euphoria and exaltation. Here she has delivered a love letter to the dancefloor accompanied with a slice of her heart. Here she has brought all of the madness, silliness, and dopeness we first in love with into one cohesive gulp. This is the sound of a Pop artist truly growing and exploring who they are. This is the sound of a Pop artist truly living as they wish.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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