Lady Gaga, Chromatica review: dance away your troubles with pop's queen of the glitterball

Neil McCormick
A robotic cheerleader: Lady Gaga

Just dance. That was the self-empowering mantra that launched Lady Gaga into the superstar stratosphere back in 2008, when she was an arty extrovert ingenue channeling a love for Queen and the Queen of Pop. Now here she is again, a little older and wiser but no less determined, back on the dancefloor in ludicrous overdesigned platforms and a wardrobe that would make Barbarella blush for a set of super-tuned, rocket-fueled, luxuriously polished, high energy electro space bangers. The big question is whether the lockdown world is still in the mood for dancing.

The fiercely ambitious Stefani Germanotta enjoyed a glorious imperial phase as a 21st Century Lady Madonna before cracks began to show with the conceptually overwrought Artpop (2013) and equivocally mainstream Joanna (2016).

It is not that Gaga went AWOL exactly, but she loosened her formerly steely grip on the zeitgeist as pop itself shied away from her mad maximalism into something more digitally downtempo. Meanwhile, Gaga went to Vegas and Hollywood, swinging with Tony Bennett (Cheek to Cheek, 2014) and country rocking with Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born, 2018).

If her Oscar winning triumph was a reminder that Gaga remains a world class talent, Chromatica has been purpose built to reestablish global pop supremacy by setting the dial back to her EDM roots. It is hard to imagine Gaga’s turbo charged showboating in the altered musical dimensions of spaced out trap beats and autotuned mumble rap. But if pop has got too minimalist for her megawatt charisma, then she clearly feels she's just going to have to pump it back up herself.

Chromatica is big, brash and completely over-the-top, harnessing the talents of such hot producers as Bloodpop, Skrillex and Axwell of Swedish House Mafia, with genuine superstar guest spots from Ariana Grande (out ululating Gaga on strident techno anthem Rain On Me) and Sir Elton John (abandoning the safety of his piano stool to stomp and roar around the disco floor like a man half his age on Sine From Above).

Over a 16-track and 42-minute running time, its high impact aerobic charge barely lets up (apart from three short orchestral interludes to add a touch of cinematic swagger and allow everyone to catch their breath). In terms of singalong melodies, catchy hooks and infectious grooves, thrilling synth sounds and lubricous rhythm tracks, Chromatica is an all-killer-no-filler set so tightly honed it could be a greatest hits compilation rather than a brand-new collection. So far, so Gaga.

Timing, though, is everything in dance music and showbusiness. Gaga’s glitterball comeback has already been delayed for six weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, with a planned summer spectacular tour surely in doubt. At this point, she can only hope that after months of anxious social isolation, the world is hankering for some fantasy escapism.

Because there is something just a little bit off about the scale and stridency of Chromatica, the almost bullying force with which it insists on the liberating power of strutting your stuff. Whilst her turn in A Star Is Born allowed Gaga to expose her vulnerability and probe the rawest edges of her voice, on Chromatica she has turned back into an almost robotic cheerleader, shouting at herself through a megaphone to get up and dance her troubles away.

Beneath the gleaming surface and between the lyrical lines, the now veteran superstar spends much of Chromatica complaining about the price of superstardom. “Tell me, where d’you get that hat? / Why is she crying? What’s the price tag? / Who’s that girl, Malibu Gaga? / Looks so sad, what’s the saga?” she pouts on the chirpy synth pop Plastic Doll. Referencing her own early hits on Fun Tonight, she sings: ‘You love the paparazzi, love the fame / Even though it causes me pain / I feel like I’m in a prison hell / Stick my hands through the steel bars and yell.”

Is there any subject in pop more deadening than the famous moaning about fame? How many revellers will be ready to take up a chorus refrain of “I’m not having fun tonight” if they ever do open the clubs and allow us back onto the dancefloor?

The cover of Lady Gaga's Chromatica

The art of the sad banger is an exquisitely delicate one, involving melancholy melodies and soulful singing set to grooves that offer escape into movement, the bliss of the physical as counterpoint to the emotional. What Gaga does incredibly well is defiance (inspirational anthems Free Woman and Alice) and escapism (Stupid Love, Enigma, Babylon).

Chromatica offers up a sparkling sideline in off-kilter synth pop (911, Sour Candy) where her clunkingly self-lacerating lyrics seem more in tune with the musical setting. But the overall tone of Chromatica is too bombastic for its own emotional undercurrents, with lyrics about heartbreak and struggle enunciated over fist-pumping beats with all the nuance and expressiveness of an AI elocution android.

Even the usually soulful Sir Elton catches the habit, breaking off each word into sharply pointed syllables: “struG-gle” “immor-Tal”. You might have expected a soaring piano ballad from this pairing but instead they deliver a completely bonkers dance epic about the healing power of musical sine waves on another planet (or something like that), in which Elton sounds like he might have squeezed into one of Gaga’s sci-fi designer ballgowns just for the hell of it.

It says something about the force of Gaga’s musical personality that she can draw a star of his calibre into her stylistic world, rather than the other way around. The question for Gaga’s renewed imperial ambitions is whether she can once again stamp her musical personality on the whole world?

Chromatica offers Gaga at her most energetic and forceful, and that is something to behold. But 12 years down the line and after everything we have just been through, it will be interesting to see how many are ready to follow her lead and just dance. 

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