Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta sprang into the world as Lady Gaga from a self-fashioned, Fabergé-meets-Aliens, slimy-glam egg in the late 2000s, brandishing a glowstick battle ax and, before long, dancing in a dress made out of meat. For four or five years, she spun pop culture on its head, with postmodern collage and an epic conceptual collaboration with Beyoncé—academics even began to talk about a field of “Gaga Studies,” a clear successor to the “Madonna Studies” of the 1980s and 1990s. But when the commercial dominance of the dance-floor divas began to fade in favor of more downbeat hip-hop and R&B, Gaga’s 2013 Artpop album was met with blank stares outside of the ranks of her ever-loyal Little Monsters, and she began restlessly seeking reinvention. She pivoted back to her theater-kid roots via duets with Tony Bennett, and then to 2016’s Joanne, a country-dance-rock-singer-songwriter hybrid that few listeners seemed to be clamoring for, with the possible exception of me.
What happened next everybody knows. She starred in the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, and “Shallow” became the song that felt like it would never get out of your head and landed an inevitable Oscar. The film and soundtrack also featured “Why Did You Do That?” aka “the song about butts” aka the song that, in the film’s narrative, apparently murdered Jackson Maine. Viewers argued about whether the song—with its opening verse, “Why do you look so good in those jeans?/ Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”—seemed intended to be bad, good, or some bedeviling, category-defying mix of the two. If bad, was that Gaga signing on to make fun of her own previous pop career? Also, if bad, why did so many of us have days when its electro-marimba lilt crowded “Shallow” out of our heads entirely?
Had Gaga decided to define her future path by the glint of her Oscar, that would be one answer. Instead, she made it clear another dance-pop album was coming, and after a rocky gestation period, Chromatica was delivered as the clock struck midnight on Friday morning. Conceived as a missive from a realm that coexists with our own—sometimes a zone of pure love and kindness, sometimes (as in the video for “Stupid Love”) a Mad Max war zone—Chromatica is nothing if not an album with a deep appreciation for the ass inside the pants and the gyrations that it can make. It’s a four-on-the-floor throwback to her decade-past dance-pop glory, with not a single ballad as a sop to “Shallow” fans. Cynically regarded, it’s all Little Monster fan service all the time. Listened to a little closer, it’s also an album about pain and breakups and mental illness, channeled through dance therapy. Had it come out under different circumstances, it would be in more direct competition with other, fresher summer sounds (Dua Lipa’s, for instance). But in this plague season, the nostalgic comfort and anguished undercurrents of its energies—channeled by primary collaborator BloodPop (who also shepherded Joanne) as well as Matthew Burns, Max Martin, Benjamin Rice, and Skrillex—might make it all the more appealing for dancing around your apartment in your underwear, alone or in virtual meeting places like Club Quarantine.
A subtle, clever thing about “Why Did You Do That?” was that while it referenced Gaga’s dance-pop reign, it actually skirted her own signature over-the-top moves. It combined the more direct simplicity of the teen-pop divas before her with the more contemporary stripped-back pop that followed. So it seems a good gauge for how well Gaga and crew manage the balance between revival and relevance.
Coming out of the eponymous overture, the first of three such instrumentals, this song serves to suck us down the rabbit hole into the album’s Wonderland, which Gaga signals is foremost the dance floor—“DJ, free my mind.” Its brisk house workout, with thematically appropriate downshifted vocal effects. It may not stick in your head. But it sets the mood.
You know this if you’ve made it this far. It’s the album lead single and Gaga’s highest-charting non–Star Is Born song in more than half a decade, with Gaga at her most Madge-estic and little complication in the way. Some days I want to run from this song, and some days I want to run toward it just as hysterically. Why’d she do that to me?
“Rain on Me”
Without Ariana Grande, I’m not sure this song would count as good. A shopworn metaphor about rain and tears (and, Gaga’s mentioned, booze) is utterly elevated when the vocal lightning kicks in, and soon even the backing tracks seem to be losing it in excitement. A cross-generational time-slip that feels both older and newer than it is and instantly indelible—underlined by its simultaneously obvious and emotional and ecstatic video by veteran filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
This more memoiristic track flashes back to Stefani Germanotta pre-Fame in New York: “I walk the downtown, hear my sound/ No one knows me yet, not right now.” Gaga’s said that the gender specificity, which she usually eschews, is a response to her memory of sexual assault by a record producer. The chorus asserts she doesn’t need men’s help or permission to become herself. It’s the wistfulness, and the little bit of musical theater in it, that make it more than a rote empowerment anthem.
The album’s most explicit breakup song, portraying a dude who siphons his own self-worth from celebrity adjacency exactly as it’s becoming agony for our protagonist. It pulls the classic dance-pop trick of dark content paired with soaring music. Fun tonight? Nope, “I’m not having fun tonight.” Naturally, it’s constructed of equal parts ABBA and Robyn. It performs that operation in a quick and clean, under-three-minute space—except it quits just when it should ascend one last level, a mistake neither Robyn nor ABBA would make.
First, an extra butt point for the way it segues out of the ominous, Spanish-accented strains of “Chromatica II” into an utterly unromantic motorik beat. Second, I can’t help being affected by knowing that this is a song about getting prescribed an antipsychotic after a breakdown—“pop a 911” is a reference to emergency medication. But mostly I love the way the initial stark robotic sound of emotional numbness gives way to generous background synth washes, so I feel the richer perception the singer is trying to break through to from their stiff starting place. It’s no dance-floor bop, just one of the few songs that don’t smother emotional content with populist grasping.
9/10 … hearts, not butts, sorry
Well, sigh. Skrillex and BloodPop, Gaga’s co-producers here, seem to have decided this album needed a song that would have been a Katy Perry reject in 2012, using the most clichéd trope they could find, the woman as Barbie. One point for the lines, “Who’s that girl, Malibu Gaga?/ Looks so sad, what is this saga?” Otherwise the album’s second-least-redemptive moment.
With arguably the biggest K-pop group of the moment (and therefore arguably the biggest group in the world), Blackpink, this is more a great cultural event than a great song. Gaga doesn’t sound that invested in what she’s singing, but Blackpink’s Rosé and friends are giving it their all. Released just a day before Chromatica, “Sour Candy” will be huge and I’m into that. It does a lot less for the album as such.
This is the most Gaga-does-Gaga song, and I suspect one of the earliest-composed, given that Enigma was also the name of the Las Vegas residency she started in 2018. It probably sounded great in the show. Here it feels like a commercial.
It takes a minute of cooler Euro-disco buildup to get there. But the way Gaga’s multiple voices here (some too sincere and some too sarcastic, a good mix) parry and dodge perfectly incarnates the lyrics’ instability between a singer being tortured by a lover or by herself. One of the best blends of fun and tension on this album all about that blend. Do what the title says.
“Sine From Above”
It’s objectively not much of a song. But when I hear 34-year-old Gaga and 73-year-old Sir Elton John join on this very, very, very, very sincere song about sad childhoods being rescued by music, with its unhinged house music–meets–church choir cadences and its strange conceit in which sine waves are also like “The Sign” in the Ace of Base song—well, I can’t actually resist that.* And then there’s the crazy hyperactive drum outro. Did you know Gaga is the godmother to both of Elton’s kids? Resist if you must, you hollow-eyed husk.
This song is perhaps as sincere as the previous song, but it doesn’t have Elton John, and its sincerity feels so much more aggressively “we’re almost at the end of the album.” There is a really unbearable level of reverb. And one or two doves really would suffice.
There’s so much wrong here. The pun of “babble on” and “Babylon,” as used by a million hack poets and songwriters before her. The most uninspired Madge rip-off moment of the whole record, a hard-voiced recitative that sounds exactly like the famous “Vogue” rap. There is what I guess might be a Prince tribute in the line “We can party like it’s B.C.,” which I might not have heard the same way had there not been a “doves” song before it. But it’s so kooky and obliviously tasteless and self-affirming, all in that quintessentially Gaga fashion (it’s mostly a song against gossip, which is an ancient tradition), that … I like it.
Total butt average for Chromatica, mathematically: 6.3
Instinctive butt rating for Chromatica: 8
Like any good butt, more than the sum of its parts.
For more of Slate’s Culture coverage, listen to The Culture Gabfest.
Correction, May 29, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Ace of Base.