Last Friday (Thursday night, really), Lady Gaga released her newest single, “Perfect Illusion,” kicking off her highly anticipated album five era.
The single is yet another sonic shift from her previous work, more straight rock than it is pop with a rock tinge. The song came as a surprise to listeners and left some people scratching their heads. Then again, the same could be said about each one of her singles, so maybe this isn’t all that different after all.
“Perfect Illusion” is a pretty straightforward offering, absent of the shiny electropop production we're used to but still very much a Lady Gaga record. If you’ve been paying attention, the shift in her sound shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise (and not just because she basically told fans this is the direction she was taking at the end of the ArtPop era).
Throughout her career, Lady Gaga has referenced all of the rock influences she grew up with — Springsteen, Queen — in her music, even putting the late Clarence Clemons from the E Street Band on 2011's “Edge of Glory." Much of that album can be looked at as heavy metal through a pop lens.
Gaga’s career thus far has been fascinating: She went from an unknown artist to an overnight success with "Just Dance" and then a household name with "Poker Face," a song that you could not get away from.
With her second album/The Fame rerelease, The Fame Monster, which is largely thought of as her best body of work to date, she had pop culture by the horns. I still don't think I have ever seen a release or reception like that of "Bad Romance." It seemed like literally everyone loved it. Lady Gaga had truly made herself the nucleus of the pop universe.
Her third album, Born This Way, saw her harnessing the power that her first two successes had given her and using it to make herself into a full pop juggernaut. The music was great, the performances were captivating (and also rock-influenced), and the person at the center of it still managed to somehow come across as likable and unaffected in interviews.
And then there was ArtPop, the album that many fans consider to be her least impressive. It was in that era that it was clear something in the Lady Gaga machine wasn’t working. She parted with her longtime manager, Troy Carter, just before the album release, cracking a tongue-in-cheek joke about it on SNL that week. But after that appearance, Lady Gaga was largely absent, especially compared to her omnipotent presence during the Born This Way album cycle.
By the look of things, Gaga was unwell. The industry that she once was at the top of had finally gotten the best of her, and in just a few short years. She did what a lot of artists do when they’re down: She started a passion project. A few of them.
First there was Cheek to Cheek, the jazz record with Tony Bennett, and the accompanying tour. To me, that felt like a gigantic flex on the industry and her critics. It was Gaga saying, "Look at everything I’ve given you. I’m the hardest-working artist in the game, and now I’m going to do this project completely out of left field to remind you that I can do whatever I want. I'm nobody's toy." It was all very confusing, and the era seemed almost endless, but it was also something that no other pop star could even think about doing, let alone pull off. Even as a huge Lady Gaga fan, I just pretended it wasn’t happening. But good for her.
Then there was her Sound of Music tribute at the Oscars that reminded people that she’s not just a shock artist, she’s a vocal powerhouse. Her lead role on American Horror Story: Hotel and her national anthem performance at the Super Bowl brought her back into the spotlight and people's living rooms in a way that she hadn’t been before.
Even in her off time, she's working harder than anyone else. She seemed like she was having fun doing whatever the hell she wanted. I felt confident that whatever her next move would be, it would be good, because she seemed happy and healthy, with time to create the album that she wanted (so long as it wasn’t another jazz record with Tony, please god).
And now we have our first introduction to it, "Perfect Illusion." The stomping rock anthem careens forward with Gaga’s vocals, slamming percussion, and a shrill siren arcing over everything, making the song an exciting and almost manic listen. If Born This Way was rock dressed up as pop, this is a fully pop production executed as rock.
With Mark Ronson ("Uptown Funk," Back To Black) at the helm, assisted by BloodPop and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, we hear another new iteration of Gaga. Never coming back the same way twice, her vocals seem almost untouched, raw, and a little imperfect. We’ve heard her like this before, but never on wax. It’s maybe not the earworm we’ve come to expect from her, but she’s done that before, time and time again. She’s given us something different, something that feels new, which is what she has done her entire career.
It’s not what I expected, and that’s the point. We know Lady Gaga as a character, not a person. She didn’t invent the reinvention of the pop star, but she has mastered it. Everything seems more stripped down this time around, but I wouldn’t get too comfortable. Each time she takes off a mask, she only reveals another. If Rock Gaga is what we’re getting in 2016, then I’m on board, and looking forward to hearing what sort of album she has in store for us.