Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.
Lady Gaga’s latest marks her return to the electro-dance pop on which she made her name about a decade ago. Her last album Joanne saw her exploring soft rock and country influences for a singer-songwriter persona amplified by her Oscar-nominated role in Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, which won her Best Original Song. Two years later, however, she has lost the cowboy hat, the guitar and even the piano for Chromatica, a manic, dance-pop concept album which the singer describes as her most personal release to date. “[This] dance floor, it’s mine, and I earned it,” the singer told Apple Music.
“My mood’s shifting to manic places / Wish I laughed and kept the good friendships / Watch life, here I go again,” she sings on “911.” Gaga, who has been vocal over the last few years about her struggles with mental health, addiction and the trauma of recovery from sexual assault, didn’t feel free to start dancing again until she had fully dealt with the weight of those demons. Chromatica is the end result of her processing trauma through music, an eclectic, liberating journey back to the dance floor.
The album is Artpop’s distant first cousin: an excessively hyperactive dance album by an artist who knows that pop music is most interesting when it’s campy and over-the-top. The difference now is that we’ve already had the privilege of getting to know Lady Gaga a little better on her last studio album as well as in her feature film debut, both of which softened her image. For all of their experimental madness, Born This Way and Artpop both had their merits, but it was hard to believe that Lady Gaga was letting us into her entire heart until the release of Joanne and A Star is Born.
On Chromatica, you can hear the liberation in Gaga’s voice, whether she’s telling us about the dance floor she fought for on “Free Woman” or how she’d rather be dry but at least she’s alive on “Rain on Me.” The album begins with “Alice,” suggesting that we—much like the singer’s own journey—are about to fall down the rabbit hole. Until this point, it felt safe to assume that Joanne was the Gaga album dealing with more difficult emotions, but amid the upbeat dance-heavy production, Chromatica offers equally difficult lyrics.
“I feel like I’m in a prison hell / Stick my hands through the steel bars and yell,” she sings on “Fun Tonight,” another fight with her own mind to let her dance again. On “911,” Gaga sings about her use of antipsychotic medication: “Keep my dolls inside diamond boxes / Save ‘em ‘til I know I’m gon’ drop this / Front I’ve built around my oasis / Paradise is in my hands.” On “Plastic Doll,” she sings to a sad female figure treated like a robot that may or may not be about herself: “Who’s that girl, Malibu Gaga? / Looks so sad, what is this saga?” And on “1000 Doves,” a sequel to “Come to Mama,” Gaga reminds us yet again that there’s a human behind the persona, one who struggles just like we do and will still fight for us nonetheless: “I’d do anything for you to really see me / I am human, invisibly bleeding / When your smile is shaking, I’ll catch you as you fall / I cry more than I ever say / Each time, your love seems to save the day.”
After the mainstream success of both Joanne and A Star is Born, Lady Gaga could have chosen to go any which direction she wanted next; that she chose to return to her dance-pop roots—and allowed us a better glimpse into her personal journey—indeed makes Chromatica her most personal record to date. When last we met the dance-pop artist, she was still most comfortable dealing with her emotions through deeply coded lyrics that kept listeners at arms’ length. Now, having dipped her toes into the acting world with a Golden Globe and Oscar under her belt, it’s clear that Gaga feels more secure letting us in. Besides, she’s the only artist in today’s music landscape that could manage strong collaborations with Ariana Grande, BLACKPINK, and Elton John on the same album. Gaga was already a pop icon, and with Chromatica, she wants us all to fight the demons back to the dance floor.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Chromatica: “Alice,” “Stupid Love,” “Rain on Me,” “Free Woman,” “911,” “Plastic Doll,” “1000 Doves,” and “Babylon”