The Chromatica press tour would have you believe this is Lady Gaga’s return to form. Complete with her signature bubble-gum pink wig and otherworldly costume designs, the album’s cover promotes a reversion to the shallow, mesmerizing, dance-club music that launched Gaga’s career more than a decade ago. It’s the type of portrayal befitting an artist of Gaga’s cultural stature. But perhaps not most accurate of her most recent artistic decisions.
It’s no secret that even though Gaga’s dance music often emits perfect beats and a sense of infectious joy, an ever-growing list of demons lurks underneath. She has spoken about the pain of mental disorder and sexual assault. Her previous album, Joanne, used stripped acoustic bravado to catalog loss and depression. Her movie A Star is Born chronicled one artist discovering success only to watch another’s career trickle away amid addiction and despair. As each of these creative pieces mingled with autobiography, Gaga’s display of human fragility became more pronounced.
Chromatica is the pure manifestation of escape from that fragility. And it is found on the dance floor. (Chromatica itself refers to Gaga’s extraterrestrial planet containing marathon-long dance numbers shared between factions at war.) It’s on Chromatica where she grapples with the journey that paved the way for her transcendent status and worldwide influence.
In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Gaga described the album as “the beginning of my journey to healing.” She goes on to say that she thinks people in need of healing find it through happiness … and dance. Lots of dance. Her latest musical approach, while streamlined and brisk, is rather retro in style. In line with any Gaga production, the memorable moments are founded on an incomparable strangeness. And with Gaga, that strangeness is often inseparable from profane descriptions of relationships and empty hedonism.
For a large portion of its runtime, Chromatica unpacks Gaga’s transparent reflections about sexual assault and mental health, themes previously begun on Joanne and continued in A Star Is Born. While the majority of Chromatica’s tracks are devoid of interpretive allusion, the lyrics do retain a signature simplicity consistent with Gaga’s formulaic hits. “Free Woman” features a relatable phrase when she sings, “I’m not nothing unless I know I can/I’m still something if I don’t got a man/I’m a free woman.”
“Plastic Doll” begs a boy to stop viewing her as a toy outfitted with “blonde hair and cherry lips.” She also adds, “I’m no toy for a real boy … Don’t play with me, it just hurts me.”
Despite the emotional torment and relational failure, Gaga does her best to maintain the upbeat persona usually found on a dance floor. But don’t let the tidal wave of synth and disco drums drown out her honesty. On “Replay” she reflects that, “You’re the worst thing and the best thing that’s happened to me.” With some ironic titling, “Fun Tonight” is a declaration that she will in fact not have fun tonight, and that is OK. She’s moving on from this relationship because, “When I’m sad, you just wanna play/I’ve had enough, why do I stay?”
Teaming up with pop powerhouse Ariana Grande, Gaga copes with a failed relationship on “Rain on Me” daring the world to test her strength and resolve.
“1000 Doves” shows Gaga begging for a second chance, “I need you to listen to me, please believe me/I’m completely lonely, please don’t judge me.” With a single line, the song encapsulates the depth of Gaga’s longing for relief from her emotional nightmare. She sings, “I’m not perfect yet but I’ll keep trying.”
She is aware of her brokenness and failure. But the gravitational allure of perfection draws her closer to the dance floor for relief rather than more effective antidotes.
Chromatica’s creative direction forgoes vulgar language and explicit sexual descriptions. However, there are a variety of subtle nods to illicit substances and unwholesome behaviors.
Gaga’s subtleties appear on “911” as she turns to a drug for relief from the onslaught of emotional distress. “My biggest enemy is me/Pop a 911/Then pop another one.” After employing the services of illicit substances, she turns to herself for hope: “Paradise is in my hands.”
Gaga’s search for relief from her situations has taken her from the dance floor to country murmurings to the silver screen and back to the dance floor again. Through it all, she keeps returning to her old habits. She relies on one-night stands: “We could be lovers, even just tonight” only to later declare, “Every single day, yeah, I dig a grave/Then I sit inside it, wondering if I’ll behave.”
Linking with disruptive K-Pop group Blackpink, Gaga produces the provocative “Sour Candy.” Her suggestive double entendre repeats, “Now I’m undressing/Unwrap sour candy.” There’s little sweetness found in the rest of the song with lyrics, “I’m hard on the outside/But if you see inside, inside, inside.”
Another collaboration features Elton John on the track “Sine From Above.” She alternates verses with John, singing, “I found myself without prayer/I lost my love and no one cared.” He replies, “When I was young, I felt immortal/I lived my days just for the nights.” Both yearn for relief, and their solutions fail to extend beyond one-night excursions and self-gratification.
The anthemic “Stupid Love” doubles down on self-advocacy with the line, “Kinda hard to believe, gotta have faith in me.” Gaga trusts herself, even when she knows the consequences. She seems to be OK with them too. The opening track, “Alice,” compares herself to Alice falling into Wonderland. It’s far from the classic childhood wonderland as Gaga sings, “I’m tired of screaming/At the top of my lungs/Oh my mother, oh my mother/I’m in the hole, I’m falling down, down, so down, down.”
The return to dance floor anthems isn’t surprising, especially after Lady Gaga’s most recent effort failed to produce any chart-topping hits. And it’s the dance floor where Gaga seems to find hope on a layered album with an escapist bent. Indeed, the album seems built on the hope that its listeners can relate to Gaga’s search for joy and relief from whatever haunts, and hopefully they find it somewhere near a dance floor.
Chromatica avoids complicated assessments of culture and choosing sides to instead opt for Gaga’s relatable and documented relational shortcomings. Those include knowing choosing relational and hedonistic dead ends. It’s a superficially appealing pop experience that tempts its listeners into thinking clubs and dance floors (and everything that goes along with them) can solve your problems.
At this point, even Gaga seems to admit that there is no permanent satisfaction, yet she continues to dance on.