Pop Culturing: The Enduring Power of Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica'

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday June 26, 2020

Lady Gaga in promo art for "Chromatica."
Lady Gaga in promo art for "Chromatica."  (Source:Instagram / @ladygaga)

Lady Gaga's new album "Chromatica" has been praised by critics for a return to form. The 16-track album (13 tracks if you don't count the short self-title interludes) is a dance record from front-to-back, finding Gaga getting back to her dance-floor roots and in touch with the kind of pop anthems she made when she began her career. But in the weeks following its late May release (the album was originally planned for April, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic), "Chromatica" has revealed itself to be more than fan service; it's a deeply personal album that is often sad despite most songs have a pulsating tempo.

It wasn't clear what "Chromatica" would really be until Gaga shared her second single, "Rain on Me" with Ariana Grande. Before that, Gaga shared "Stupid Love," a fine enough song but a terrible lead single in retrospect. In an interview with Paper magazine from earlier this year, before the track was announced, Gaga said "Rain on Me" is a "monster of a dance tune, but its message is about submitting yourself to devastation — a flawless dance floor crier as a 'celebration of all the tears.'" She also said at the time she had teamed up with a "fellow female pop star who [had similarly experienced] immense trauma while in the public eye."

"I sat with her and we talked about our lives. It's two women having a conversation about how to keep going and how to be grateful for what you do," Gaga said. Grande has found herself in the headlines over tragic circumstances, like in 2017 when her concert at the Manchester Arena in the U.K. was the target of a suicide bombing, killing 23 fans and injuring hundreds. A year later, her ex-boyfriend rapper Mac Miller died over an overdose.

Much of "Chromatica" explores how we cope with pain, trauma and tragedy and how it changes us. Gaga gets incredibly confessional on "Fun Tonight," a song about others wanting you to be happy and smile but not being able to actually do that. In one verse, Gaga reflects on her past: "You love the paparazzi, love the fame / Even though you know it causes me pain / I feel like I'm in a prison hell / Stick my hands through the steel bars and yell," she sings over a thrusting house beat. Here, Gaga recalls the early days of her career when she released her first album "The Fame" and its hit-single "Paparazzi," noting that particular time in her career was difficult. She also gets confessional on "911," a robotic dance banger that also finds Gaga at her most vulnerable: "I can't see me cry / Can't see me cry, this is the end / My biggest enemy is me ever since day one / Pop a 911, then pop another one," she coldly sings.

Gaga also smartly divides "Chromatica" into three sections. The album is split up by the three self-titled interludes; part one feels like a buildup of anger and tension, like "Alice," "Rain on Me" and "Fun Tonight" before exploding in the second section with some of Gaga's best music to date, including the acid house bop "Sour Candy," featuring the K-pop group BLACKPINK, the funk house "Enigma" (that has some of Gaga's best vocals on the album) and "Replay," a disco delight. Part three finds Gaga in a beautiful release, like the stunning ballad "1000 Doves" and the confident closing track "Babylon." That song is Gaga completely ignoring the haters who compared her to Madonna over the years — "Babylon," with its soaring choir and animal sound effects, is a straight-up Madonna inspired track (a la "Vogue") and better than anything the Material Girl has released in the last two decades. (The less said about the campy Eurovision song "Sine from Above" featuring Elton John, the better; the only clunker on the new album.)

"Chromatica" is a welcome return after Gaga's previous efforts, including the 2016 messy "country" album "Joanne" and the uneven and strange 2013 effort "Artpop." (Gaga was also a part of the "A Star is Born" soundtrack where her song "Shallow" with costar/director Bradley Cooper went to No. 1 on Billboard and won her an Oscar.) It not only finds Gaga giving fans the music they want while being at her most introspective but it also is the most mature album she's made (not including her Tony Bennett duet album). It's a breath of fresh air for Gaga, who allows herself to be vulnerable and honest while crafting some of the best dance music of 2020 so far.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.