Pop music is its own form of speculative fiction. It reimagines a dank, cold concert stadium as a heaven and a sticky nightclub as something close to a utopia; it renders heartbreak as a transformative force and love as the world’s greatest drug. Like the most immersive speculative fiction, there isn’t really any room for nuance in the most effective pop: blunt, overwhelming force tends to be the best method of communication when trying to unite an audience. Perhaps this is why so much pop is easily forgotten — at best, it’s more a simulacrum of personal connection than the real thing. Other genres and subcultures imagined utopias more convincingly — house and disco, spawned by queer people of color, were essential pillars of the first truly liberated queer spaces, representative of what an emancipated queer world could look like as well as the various LGBT rights movements of the late 20th century.
On her sixth album Chromatica, Lady Gaga creates a musical ouroboros of these two poles of popular music, regurgitating the imagined freedoms of '70s and '80s gay dance music as fun, politely feminist empowerment pop. The result is, on a musical level, her best, most consistent album yet, playing like 45 minutes of the most exquisite spin class music you’ve ever heard. It’s an unholy amalgam of stupidity and brilliance that only Gaga can pull off.
Much like ARTPOP, Gaga’s final foray into dance-pop before her five-year journey into acting, jazz, and country-rock, Chromatica is, loosely, a concept record. The 16-song album, which includes three orchestral interludes, is meant to evoke the planet Chromatica, a world where “kindness rules all” and love is an essential element, along with earth, wind, fire, and water. It is, to my understanding, a planet where all the colors and sounds (and math and people, or something) form a kind of truly unified mass. There is a smidge of centrist political allegory involved — tribes of red and blue warriors fight and reconcile in the video for lead single “Stupid Love,” which is meant to symbolise understanding and reaching peace with people who hold different opinions — but, for the most part, Chromatica the planet is an unintelligible thought experiment.
Still, the concept seems to have given Gaga a clarity she’s rarely exhibited over the course of an album. One of the greatest ‘singles only’ artists we have, Gaga’s albums have often been hampered by surreal, schmaltzy filler. Luckily, there is no clunker in the vein of Born This Way’s “Government Hooker” or ARTPOP’s “Jewels N’ Drugs” on Chromatica. Each of these songs — a tight 13 of them once the orchestral sections are removed — possesses at least some semblance of internal logic and cogency, which, while a low bar, is impressive for a Lady Gaga record. A lyric like, “Talk it out, babble on / Battle for your life, Babylon / That’s gossip, what you on?” on “Babylon” is functionally meaningless, but it’s a hell of a lot better than brain-smoothing ARTPOP lines like “Enigma pop star is fun, she wear burqa for fashion,” or “Touch me, touch me, don’t be sweet / Love me, love me, please retweet.” The production here, too, no longer wears the tacky patina that plagued ARTPOP or Born This Way. BloodPop, the main producer here, manages to dial down the most groan-inducing elements of Gaga’s old pop sound without filing away the camp value that her appeal is reliant on. It's a precarious tightrope walked with admirable confidence.
In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Gaga said that she wanted Chromatica to help the world in some way, and, by merely existing, it might check that box. These songs are thrilling, tightly constructed things: when the beat drops in the Ariana Grande collaboration “Rain On Me,” or when Gaga belts over the sax-tinted house beat of “Enigma,” it’s hard not to feel a rush. My first instinct upon hearing the record in full was that I wanted to hear it booming from the speakers at a packed, trashy gay club. Songs like “Free Woman,” which finds Gaga proclaiming that she’s “still something if [she] don’t got a man” and “Sine From Above,” an Elton John collaboration that spirals into furious drum ‘n’ bass, harbour a lighthearted nihilism that is often exactly what I want from pop.
The majority of these songs deal with some form of self-doubt or adversity and an eventual turn towards self-love: “911” finds Gaga overcoming imposter syndrome (“My biggest enemy is me”), while “Free Woman” celebrates an emancipation from the patriarchy. “Rain On Me” sees Gaga and Grande shedding the skin of PTSD (“Gotta live my truth, not keep it bottled in,” Grande sings), and “Plastic Doll” convincingly asks men to not treat women like playthings. I do not doubt the integrity of Gaga’s feelings of struggle: anyone who has wept after a screening of her documentary, Five Foot Two, knows that her traumas are tragic and genuine. But there’s a certain incongruity that arises upon hearing empowerment music in this mode. Chromatica takes the building blocks of queer dance music — which was mired in systemic struggle and communal liberation — and sands it down, filling in any crags or cracks with glossy varnish, replacing the roots of political club scenes with a generic message of individual empowerment and selling it to an audience of, largely, white gay men and white women. I know pop stars sanitising the sound of the underground for the masses is nothing new, but, like seeing a chicken eat a piece of scrambled egg, there is something uniquely perverse about this supposed queer icon upcycling this music so it can soundtrack advertisements for Apple — the video for lead single “Stupid Love” bears the badge #ShotOniPhone, and Gaga’s only interview this cycle was, conspicuously, with Beats 1 staple Lowe — or Amazon Music.
I write about pop music for a living; I understand, of course, that nearly all major-label pop music is stuck in a universe of financial consideration and compromise. But it feels especially rich to be asked to envision a planet bound by love and kindness in this context. Does the planet Chromatica have Amazon, I wonder? Does their version of Amazon work to uphold ICE on a material level and profit from deadly pandemics, too?
Pop is so tightly woven into the fabric of everyday life that this problem — the part it plays in expanding the wallets of multinational corporations and billionaires — is almost impossible to grapple with. Yesterday, Majical Cloudz’s Devon Welsh tweeted, “The massive team of songwriters, producers, designers, make-up artists, TikTok executives, etc known as ‘Lady Gaga’ always knows how to cheer us up, right everybody?!” And, to be honest, yes — for a lot of people, this music acts as an almost chemical mood-lifter. Anyone on the internet when Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion dropped their “Savage” remix a couple of weeks ago knows how swiftly and effectively pop music can lift a collective mood, even during lockdown. It might be a fanciful, naive idea, but it would be wonderful to experience this kind of culturally ubiquitous music without experiencing the niggling feeling that there are insidious networks of money and power coursing underneath the gloss.
Earlier this week, GEN’s Eve Peyser wrote about how, under the spectre of a pandemic, celebrity culture is merely “a chilling reminder of just how unequal the world is,” no longer valuable as frivolous content or escapism. It’s hard not to feel, to a degree, the same way about Chromatica. What might have been 45 minutes of sugary hedonism pre-pandemic now scans as a fun album that profoundly misread the room. Even if it can’t speak to a cultural mood, though, there is still value in Chromatica’s strange, gonzo sense of fun. Last night, when the album dropped in Australia, I put it on for my housemates. We were drunk, and we had fun listening, singing along to “Stupid Love” and “Rain On Me.” Strip the corporate affects and strange concept from it, and Chromatica is simply very good pop music, the perfect canvas to imbue with memories of stupid nights out (or in). There’s no harm in that.