Pop as healing in Lady Gaga’s ‘Chromatica’

Lady Gaga has always been beset by her public image. Whether it’s the bombastic music videos and otherworldly costumes of her debut, or the earnest, style-shifted music of Joanne and A Star is Born, critics have always questioned the authenticity of Gaga’s persona. The long awaited Chromatica, released May 29, with its alien-punk aesthetics and house-inspired tracks, is an unabashed return to the theatricality of Gaga’s early music, though nevertheless sincere, with its lyricism that explores the personal tribulations of fame and artistry. 

Using house beats as a springboard for her vocals, Chromatica most often finds Gaga belting out her lyrics. Foregoing the polished acoustics of her recent cinematic ballads, Gaga instead embraces any imperfections—rasps, cracks, and screeches—that her raw vocals invite. Her voice comes across as an anthemic battle cry or, at times, a plea for help, heightening the emotion behind her words. In “Alice,” as Gaga works up to a falsetto with the lyric, “My name isn’t Alice / But I’ll keep looking, I’ll keep looking for Wonderland,” Chromatica’s mission, through solemn lyrics amidst loud and uptempo melodies, makes itself known: To heal through music.

The album’s metaphors never regress into the maudlin, but its deepest cuts come when Gaga ditches the figurative and confronts her mental health head-on. In “911,” verses of fast-paced robotic spoken word build up to its chorus, making it one of the album’s most danceable tracks. With lyrics like “Keep repeating self-hating phrases … My mood’s shifting to manic places” and “My biggest enemy is me, pop a 911” (with 911 as reference to her antipsychotic medication), it’s also Gaga at her most personal and vulnerable. Yet, the album retains sonic cohesion even when it becomes thematically muddled. Set to a piano and saxophone riff that’s unmistakably reminiscent of Madonna’s “Vogue,” “Babylon” is Chromatica’s lighthearted closing track about the gossip that fame invites, though it’s just as lively as the album’s preceding songs of much darker topics. 

Chromatica is an ardent evolution of the original type of pop that put Lady Gaga on the map. It is loud and boisterous, and simultaneously an honest exploration of the psyche behind the persona. As a healing tool meant for her fans as much as it is for Gaga, it is an unrelenting, upbeat escape from our worldly woes. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

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