EXPECTATION VS. REALITY: “CHROMATICA” BY LADY GAGA

This article is part of a new Untitled Magazine series called “Expectation vs. Reality,” where we examine the hype surrounding popular projects before and after release, and examine whether they ultimately meet the general public’s expectations. The first part, “Expectation,” was written prior to release, while the second part below, “Reality,” was written after release.  

Courtesy of Streamline and Interscope Records.

EXPECTATION

Lady Gaga had a lot planned for early 2020 and Chromatica. Most of her typical promotional arrangements for her first studio album since 2016’s Joanne, including a planned surprise performance at Coachella, got the axe thanks to the global pandemic. On top of that, Gaga’s Las Vegas residency, Enigma, has been put on hold for who knows how long. Gaga even talked through the album’s chaotic rollout in a lauded interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. But ever since the now eerily-distant March when COVID-19 put a halt on any and all public plans, not only were Gaga’s plans dashed, but the album itself was on a much-publicized six week delay. Despite and indeed partly because of all these setbacks though, Chromatica has become twice as anticipated, with many fans expecting a much-hyped “return to form” of sorts for the pop star.

Despite fairly widespread acclaim, many fans both casual and diehard, have been disappointed with Lady Gaga’s output in the last five years or so. Her previous full-length effort, Joanne, was a stifling release. Many praised Gaga’s decision to sand off the gritty edges and bare her heart to the tune of a more grounded aesthetic, but the majority of fans found it devoid of the spark that made her such a unique fixture of the late 2000s. Meanwhile, 2013’s ARTPOP, a bold glitch-fest that was far ahead of its time, has only begun to garner the acclaim it deserves in more recent years. Followers of Gaga certainly enjoyed her more recent acting turns in American Horror Story: Hotel and her Oscar nominated role in A Star is Born, but her duet album with Tony Bennet, Cheek to Cheek, was a resounding meh from fans of her radio-ready hits (though overall the LP was a critical and commercial success). The A Star is Born soundtrack, fronted predominantly by Gaga, was certainly a hit (who doesn’t still have “Shallow” stuck in their head?), but it still left the diehards thirsting for more of the Gaga we came to love from 2009 to the early 2010s.

2016’s “Joanne” and 2013’s “ARTPOP,” respectively. Courtesy of Streamline and Interscope Record.

Thats why “Stupid Love” has struck such a chord. Amongst other reasons like its infamous leak, Chromatica‘s first single caused a great stir because it felt like Gaga’s version of a “back-to-basics” track. It is a fully modern song that echoes what were, at the time, the best parts of previously maligned albums. It ignored the twitchy and experimental vibes that ARTPOP became so divisive for, instead taking the intentionally simplified lyrics and gut-punchy beats from that LP as inspiration. Meanwhile, from Joanne it took the soul and production style that pushed Gaga’s vocals out front and center over the track, while nixing the twangy style and down-to-earth energy that turned many off. All that’s not to say “Stupid Love” is pandering; it is still undeniably Gaga.

The recently released second single “Rain On Me” took a similar approach with even greater success. The track takes house music, a genre that has seen massive mainstream resurgence this half-decade, and comfortably fits it into Gaga’s wheelhouse. Touching upon the pain Gaga and featured artist Ariana Grande have pushed through in the last year, the song is destined to be 2020’s song of the summer, coronavirus be damned. Also honestly, what better way to make hype in 2020 than to release a song with Ariana Grande?

 

Both these tracks manage to transport us back to the days of early Lady Gaga while still being unabashedly modern and fresh; and for that expectations are at an all time high. Barring another leak between now and Friday (which is frankly quite possible), a short time will tell if Chromatica will truly be the Gaga fans have been craving.

Overall Expectation: As high as can be

Reality

Maybe it is pure collective queer naïveté to have genuinely believed Chromatica would live up to all the hype. It’s been quite a while (since Born This Way to be precise) that a Lady Gaga album has received nearly universal acclaim from fans. Nine years later the mere thought of this much touted “return to form” drum music outlets have been banging for months made 2020 just feel like the exact right time for the Gaga lighting to strike again. But we all know the pattern by now: overhype of anything leads to disappointment when the final product doesn’t turn water to wine or cure world hunger.

Courtesy of ladygaga.com.

Chromatica is by no stretch of the word bad. What it is however is painfully generic, a word that, even through bad reviews and lukewarm fan reception, Lady Gaga has never come close to with a ten foot barge pole. ARTPOP and Joanne may have been contentious, but one thing they were not was derivative. They were bona fide artistic statements of their own accord, seemingly unconcerned with anything out of their ear and eyeshots, and more to the point, uniquely Gaga to their cores. Chromatica by contrast feels like white noise, and within such a varied catalogue of LPs, its hard to think of anything less harsh to call it other than token.

Now that word isn’t entirely accurate. The sentiments behind songs like “Rain on Me,” 911,” and “Free Woman” certainly speak volumes from Gaga’s heart and it would be disingenuous to say Chromatica was simply churned out to fulfill an obligation. That said, nothing on the LP feels particularly fresh or profound (two Gaga staples), particularly lyrically. Gaga’s liberal use of foreign phrases in earlier songs like “Bad Romance,” “Born This Way,” and “Applause” (French, Italian and German respectively) may have been easy for us to make fun of, but in retrospect they not only gave Gaga character, but also unbridled flair along with the rest of her comparatively avant garde lyrics. Meanwhile, with the sole exception of the cheeky “Vogue” homage “Babylon,” it is a genuine struggle to remember any lyrics of interest on Chromatica, or for that matter any that feel like they were even written by Gaga herself.

The album certainly has its merits. It’s easy to see why the singles were chosen; for reasons discussed above they are the best songs on display. The addition of k-pop superstars BLACKPINK on the deep house influenced “Sour Candy” does give the taste of that international flair of Gaga’s earlier days, all while staying modern and bouncy. The major house influence is a smart one to capitalize on in the wake of major electronic festivals becoming more mainstream than ever, and it makes the album perfect for clubbing. That club feeling however, is also Chromatica’s biggest issue. For the most part, it feels like music that idles away in the background at the club, not the kind of music that commands a room like Gaga’s previous work.

But to harp solely on Chromatica’s commercial appeal doesn’t entirely satisfy what this article hopes to accomplish. We are not only asking “is Chromatica good?” but also “is Chromatica what we expected?” Despite expectations of Chromatica’s quality being ridiculously high, and despite the last four paragraphs of critique, in many ways the answer is still yes. For all the lack of originality in both lyrics and production, Chromatica very much does harken back to the up-and-coming Gaga of 2009, albeit with most of the splinters sandpapered down. Had Chromatica been Lady Gaga’s debut album in that year, its hard to imagine her making the same splash as she did. But it still conjures similar iconography as The Fame, if only because Lady Gaga’s music is finally, after half a decade, danceable again. It recalls songs past in the best way possible: by exuding the same energy and catharsis without directly referencing.

Had the album been a carbon copy of Gaga’s early work, many might have called it out for pandering to the fans who have been chomping at the bit for old school Gaga. While it is hard to say whether people would have embraced Chromatica so fiercely had it been The Fame Pt. 2 (or Pt. 3 if you count the The Fame Monster), instinct says they would have. Because once again, nostalgia blinds, and the “return to form” would be nothing short of a calling card for 5-star review bombing from little monsters the world over. At the same time, even if the results are uneven and critically divisive, its better to have an authentic album over one designed by committee. And as it stands, for all its unevenness and hollow exterior, Chromatica does feel authentic, and to a mind makes it better than any sequel to Born This Way could be.

So yes, Chromatica is that – altogether now – “return to form” we were promised pushed through the filter of more modern electronic sensibilities. It may manage to feel like Lady Gaga is pushing her art forward rather than letting it stagnate, but it’s hard to feel like it will stand out in her catalogue years down the line.

Overall Reality: was Chromatica what we expected? Yes, though to some not for the better

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