Dancing By Yourself

Lady Gaga lands at a pivotal moment

(Shelby Criswell)

Welcome to planet Chromatica.

Lady Gaga has "deleted" and subsequently "canceled" Earth, inviting us to a very gay, very pink, emotional hellscape with an introductory verse asking "Could you pull me out of this alive?"

The album, Gaga's sixth, dropped on May 29 after facing COVID-19 setbacks and leaks sidelining what was set to be her grand return to the world of dance-pop, a genre she's largely abandoned since her most fascinating, catastrophic spectacle—2013's Artpop.

Then, on Memorial Day, the tragic murder of George Floyd by police officers had been recorded and the video rapidly circulated online. The ensuing wave of vital protests and riots consumed social media feeds and floods streets internationally to this day. This last straw for the systemic and chronic abuse of power needed and warranted the nation's undivided attention and commitment.

As the album was set to arrive at midnight on May 29, fans eagerly waited that Thursday evening, the same Thursday the National Guard was deployed to Minneapolis; Twitter was aflame with righteous indignation and could spare no room.

"Chromatica can wait" echoed countless users, and what would've normally trended at the top of Twitter's algorithms quickly dissipated.

Rightfully so, Gaga canceled her virtual listening party and quickly shifted focus. Chromatica could wait. The general public's insatiable need for constant entertainment and distraction was being replaced with a virtuous rage.

Could a piece of entertainment flourish as an international, commercial success without being at the center of public discourse? Would people still listen to Chromatica amidst a political and social call to action and pandemic? Ultimately,the album reigned top chart slots in numerous territories worldwide while becoming the top selling album of the year for a female artist in the United States. But, why?

Chromatica's succes is surprising. Perhaps I miscalculated the public's relationship with art and entertainment. It was, however, virtually nowhere to be seen on social media, and mostly positive reviews made way for more pressing, essential headlines. Chromatica, regardless of any intention, has been shaped and contextualized by a global pandemic and social unrest.

The lead single, "Stupid Love" arrived earlier in spring, teasing fans with a taste of the electro-driven beats they've sorely missed since the faux-unplugged Americana of 2016's Joanne and 2018's A Star is Born. "Stupid Love" provided refreshing, vivid and, well, stupid imagery of roving dance gangs battling on a foreign planet like a lost scene from a gayer Mad Max. Brilliant. The high camp, maximalist queen was back… right? By this point, Chromatica seems to be an alternate dimension, a sci-fi escape into a utopian vision of Gaga's weaving. I was sure I'd know what the album would be once B-movie auteur Robert Rodriguez—who last worked with Gaga on Machete—helmed the video for its second single, "Rain On Me." I was wrong.

While Chromatica drives forward with a full-on '90s house/acid/trance revival, it sinks lyrically into the pits of self-doubt and the stress of fame. Gaga reveals herself to be a reluctant pop star with lyrics centered around her being down "in a hole," "sick and tired of waking up," being "in a prison hell," "completely lonely" and "visibly bleeding." Gaga is not okay. The single "Rain On Me" had initially seemed like a standalone, melodramatic expulsion complete with daggers falling from the sky in the midst of a cyberpunk rave. Now, it fits more in line with the album than the lead single, "Stupid Love," whose frivolity feels out of place.

Chromatica is less the Bowie-esque concept album ready for Pride month dancefloors, and more of a deep dive into pop catharsis. Gaga pleads and whines her way through each track asking not to be hurt, toyed with or taken for granted. Her most telling song, "911," chronicles her reliance on antipsychotics as she robotically proclaims her biggest enemy is herself. If you can catch the verses rapidly fluttering by, it's like she resents her public persona. Beyond "911," Gaga offers little insight into her own inner turmoil beyond general proclamations of misery. This isn't to say empowerment, validation and hope aren't present on the album. There's power in vulnerability and introspection, even if she only touches on it skin-deep; it's no secret younger generations face high levels of anxiety and depression, with conversations around mental health coming to the forefront as a necessary subject relevant to everyone.

Without Chromatica's mostly somber tone, it might not have made its way to the top of the charts in this moment; while the album's topics of fame and identity are unrelated and irrelevant to the crises at hand, themes of coping, grappling and suffering allow its songs to be digested a little more easily. How many Little Monsters streamed Chromatica while checking the latest COVID-19 numbers? How many sang along to "Rain On Me" in the shower before or after attending a protest? In these times, the average listener might feel more at home relating to Gaga's internal battles than bragging of glitz, glamour and excess.

There is little to argue with on Chromatica other than there is little to argue with, an expectation that perhaps comes from her more provocative past. With society trudging through a sweeping pandemic and combating violent, systemic oppression, a more daring, experimental Gaga might not have been welcomed with such warm, open arms.

For an artist who's spent the better half of a decade trying to produce a sincere, personal record, Gaga may have finally achieved it, and not by way of heartfelt ballads. Yes, she has a fervent following that would've ensured success on some level regardless of any global situation, but it's the degree of success sans the -massive trending, online viral presence and with all circumstances stacked against it that makes it an intriguing pop-cultural moment.

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