To understand Lady Gaga’s career trajectory over the past few years, look no further than A Star Is Born. An allegory about authenticity’s importance over artifice, A Star Is Born seemed to crystalize the journey Gaga began when she wiped off her rave makeup and stepped into the booth to record 2014’s Cheek To Cheek, her jazz standards collaboration with Tony Bennett, and 2016’s Joanne, her stripped-back detour into country. Charting an artist’s rise from humble beginnings to glitzy, brightly-coloured stardom and back to rootsy authenticity, A Star Is Born positioned pop music as antithetical to pure values, and seemed to put the final nail into the coffin of ‘old Gaga,’ the gonzo trailblazer who found universal fame with her earliest releases.
Today, with the release of “Stupid Love,” the first single from her forthcoming and currently untitled sixth record, Gaga attempts to return to the commercial heights of her first two albums, treading back into the world of EDM pop. Ruthlessly catchy and attached to the kind of wild, mega-budget music video that lent her virality in the past, “Stupid Love” is a savvy and shameless attempt to regain dominance in a world that she once owned. By the sounds of it, she’s committing fully to this return to her early-2010s sound. Will everyone else?
Pop is about connecting with the masses, and at the start of her career, few musicians were better at that than Gaga. Her first two singles glided to No. 1 on the charts and her sophomore record, the ridiculous and ubiquitous Born This Way, moved over a million units in its first week, something only 12 other artists have ever done. Every empire has to crumble, though, and the public eventually grew tired of the Pollock-y maximalism of Gaga’s sound, as well as her increasingly cheesy brand-sponsored stunts. Her third record, the better-than-you-remember ARTPOP, sold only a fraction of the copies of her previous albums, and failed to yield a hit with any longevity.
By the logic of pop, a ‘failed era’ generally warrants some kind of reinvention. Madonna, Kylie, and Cher all know that a flop is often less a referendum on an artist as much as it is a referendum on her aesthetic, and operating by that mode of thought has yielded each of them hits in multiple decades. Gaga, operating with the logic of her forebears, responded to ARTPOP’s failure by shunning her glossy, ultra-saturated aesthetic for the grit of Joanne and A Star Is Born. The sheer convincingness of the pivot was a success in itself.
The thing with those projects, though, is that they each roughly had the same impact as ARTPOP, if not less. (Wile “Shallow,” a single from A Star Is Born, did peak at No. 1 on the charts, it still felt more like an Oscars-induced anomaly, and didn’t approach the ubiquity of Prime Gaga.) So the release of a song like “Stupid Love,” which finds her returning to the bombastic, clubby sound with which made her name, felt like an inevitability.
“Stupid Love,” which drips with classic BloodPop samples and features a lowbrow/highbrow bass synth that I could only ever associate with Gaga, has all the makings of a classic Gaga hit. It’s palatable, but it also makes me feel like my brain is spasming; it’s smart, and yet, somehow, also very, very stupid. It even has Gaga elongating her pronunciation of “love” three, maybe four, times — a staple of her best songs. But it doesn’t feel like the song that will get Gaga back to No. 1.
For one, “Stupid Love” is, on an aesthetic and structural level, fairly similar to “Applause,” the single that led ARTPOP. “Stupid Love” is a little cleaner, and the hook isn’t “Put your hands up / Make ‘em touch,” but functionally they’re very similar. I have spent the past few months listening to a lot of ARTPOP, and find the record’s abject insanity charming, and often quite fascinating. But it flopped for a reason: Gaga’s own hubris, her unflinching willingness to believe that she was unstoppable regardless of how extreme her songs became, led to a record far too wild for many palettes. “Stupid Love,” while a lot more digestible than anything on that record, still feels maximalist and, occasionally, grating.
Maybe Gaga doesn’t want to regain chart supremacy. But in mainstream pop, saturation equals victory, and, despite still making headlines, Gaga doesn’t control the conversation in the way she once did.
Then again, who is? The age of the Gaga-style pop star is well and truly over. The late 2000s and early 2010s were dominated by Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and a handful of other megastars who seemed more than capable of constantly replacing their No. 1s with even more successful No. 1s. That’s not the case anymore. Rappers, and those who can easily approximate the aesthetics of rap music, dominate the charts instead now, and that’s made pop more interesting and more variegated.
Even the titans can’t recapture their old chart magic: Katy Perry, who once released a record that yielded five No. 1 singles, released the Teenage Dream-like “Never Really Over” last year, which would have been a surefire hit in her prime, and watched it fizzle without ever reaching the top 10. Even if “Stupid Love” were the greatest single Gaga had ever released, it might not play in a market that’s seeking pop stars in the centre of the pop/rap venn diagram like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande.
The irony here is that, while Gaga’s bid for authenticity with Joanne may not have been a successful chart play, the success of both Grande and Eilish is contingent on their successful communication of the kind of unfiltered realness that fans connect to. It’s a new era, and the goal posts for pop success have shifted; whether Gaga likes it or not, ARTPOP is no longer the name of the game.