Lady Gaga’s ‘Chromatica’ Is the Emotional Dance Soundtrack to a World on Fire

Kevin Fallon
Universal Music Group

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All Hail Our Dear Leader, Lady Gaga

I’ve learned in the last few days that Lady Gaga is not, in fact, singing, “I’d rather be drunk, but at least I’m alive” in her new single “Rain on Me” with Ariana Grande. But, cry for help as it may be that I heard it that way, the spirit, I think, is there—both of the song and of the environment in which it and Gaga’s entire new album Chromatica has been released. 

She’d rather, apparently, be “dry” in the song, in which the two powerhouses validate the trauma that people are so often instructed to bury in order to be successful or triumphant, instead shouldering it with them to the dance floor where the epiphany happens: You can still lose yourself to bliss while carrying that weight; you can survive. 

It’s a song about permission. The permission to hurt. The permission to dance. And the permission to still be bitter, to want something better or different—be it dry when the rain falls or, I guess, drunk instead of...not. I hate myself. But I think Lady Gaga is telling me that’s OK! 

That “Rain on Me” hit on something profound in light of current circumstances ahead of the release Friday of Gaga’s new album Chromatica might be coincidental. But it’s certainly consequential. 

There was the presumption that, like Dua Lipa’s fantastic Future Nostalgia in March, Chromatica would be a cure for quarantine malaise, a serotonin spike of synths and sass that would invigorate resigned souls and reassure us that there is a dance floor to get to on the other side of all this—even if it’s frustrating that we’re not there right now. 

A judicious collection of top-to-bottom kinetic club pop, Chromatica certainly is that, and as such a welcome return to a Fame Monster-era Gaga that some fans worried had been lost in the artist’s prolonged identity exploration over the years. (That is certainly not a diminishment of anything Artpop, Cheek to Cheek, Joanne, or A Star Is Born produced.) 

There were countdown parties and distraught social media points about the torture of the album’s release without the optimal habitat for it to be welcomed in: At a gay bar four-to-seven diluted vodka sodas in. But on further listening, especially on a morning shaded and suffocated by a storm cloud of world news and the worst in human behavior, it plays much deeper than that. 

It’s not a release, it’s a protest. We expected the album to be catharsis, and it is. On Chromatica, dance is an essential service. Reveling is important, and always has been to Gaga. Chromatica is about, as it forever has been with Little Monsters, celebrating the everything about you that makes up you. But it also seems to have another mission. 

“This is my dance floor I fought for,” she sings on “Free Woman.” “We own the downtown, hear our sound.” Don’t settle. Get angry. Fight for the world you deserve.

The rollout to Chromatica was a lot. On the one hand, you had the lead track, “Stupid Love,” which almost entirely rejects a search for deep meaning. Any way you look at it, it’s a bop. But it debuted alongside the massive, mysterious branding of Chromatica, which seemed manufactured precisely for the parsing of deep meaning.  

It seemed like a return to the whole high-concept, occasionally insufferable Lady Gaga thing, which might be read as more authentic to the artistry on which she built her stratospheric career. But maybe that’s the entire ruse at play here. 

Often, too, a dancefloor album is misconstrued to mean busy, nothing more than a chaotic collection of beats, tricks, and energy. Chromatica is the first Lady Gaga album to eschew ballads entirely, certainly a creative pivot after the massive success of A Star Is Born. But it’s also in many ways her most stripped down album yet. The Chromatica performance art has a simple message behind it, the songs are straightforward, and its lessons are powerful.

It’s about healing, both psychotic (“911”) and emotional (“Rain on Me”). It’s about worth and desperation (“1000 Doves”). It’s about vulnerability (“Sour Candy”), almost rebelliously set to her driving dance synths. She wants to be seen and validated, but also yearns to eschew that kind of superficiality in “Plastic Doll,” again rejecting the veneer of fun we often dismiss pop and dance for. 

Yes, many people can’t wait until dance floors reopen and they can lose inhibitions and fling sweat to Chromatica. But the album won’t be written off for that. The most persistent running theme is trauma, often explicitly (“Replay”), and what it takes to not rid ourselves or absolve it, but acknowledge it and how to carry it through life. Maybe that is through dancing. Probably, we suspect—and we don’t think it’s projection on this particularly dark day for civilization on which the album was released—it’s through something much more transgressive. 

Chromatica isn’t offering an escape hatch to another planet or existence. It’s forcing us to confront the one we’re in. 

On Chromatica, it’s open season on your personal demons, but more importantly it’s target practice on the barriers that prevent the world from being how it should be, how it deserves to be, how we’re not letting it be. We’re used to Lady Gaga being a maximalist artist, but everything here is specific and honed, from the blessedly concise running times—most tracks are barely three minutes long—to the messaging. 

And if you’ve made it this far and are weary from rolling your eyes at all this spelunking for significance….that’s fine. Here’s where you get maybe the most important bit: Chromatica is a great album, fun to listen to, and a fine return to—no, maintaining of—form for Lady Gaga.

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