For those still feeling the gloom of the world’s current climate, late-90s dance pop is a great place to mine some escapism. With the grunge movement over with and the millennium on the horizon, people wanted to party and the music industry got the message. The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC blasted europop onto MTV, the Spice Girls conquered culture with amped-up disco, Jennifer Lopez debuted with a Latin tinge on club music and Madonna celebrated her first comeback with a rave. Even outside of the mainstream, the rise of Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim combined with minor hits like “Music Sounds Better With You” and “Supermodel (You Better Work)” showed dance music finding a more enjoyable groove with pop hooks. Since then, dance music has splintered into numerous subgenres (EDM, dubstep, etc.) to varying degrees of enjoyment while pop has frequently defaulted to dance music but lately has become bored with itself. But maybe now, with an entire world in nervous slump, a return to those golden years might be ill-advised.
With that in mind, one has to feel bad for Lady Gaga. All she wanted was to have a nice throwback dance party to celebrate her first solo album in four years (and return to pop after A Star is Born gave her a Streisand moment). Sadly, Chromatica may end up being another album untouched until it can be celebrated in public. And to be fair, Chromatica does deserve to be played in a hot nightclub under a disco ball with hands up and ecstasy in the air. Gaga and producer BloodPop (Justin Bieber, Madonna) are the constant collaborators on the album’s 16 tracks with a spattering of other producers (BURNS, Max Martin and Skrillex). Regardless of the collaborators, every song here is a four-on-the-floor futuristic disco with funky bass lines, bright piano chords, fist-pumping drums and whirring electronic effects.
After the angelic intro track, the album builds unstoppable momentum for itself in the triple-punch of “Alice,” “Stupid Love” and “Rain On Me.” “Alice” is stadium-ready house music with deep bass drums accented by bright synth riffs and Gaga’s towering vocals on the chorus, while “Stupid Love” is classic 80s synthpop only the peppiest of mall pop stars could pull off. “Rain On Me” might be the most modern song on the record, and by modern I mean it sounds like Flo Rida’s “I Cry” without Flo Rida’s blandness. It builds to such a refreshing crescendo of funk bass and house drums thanks to the blinding vocal flexing of Gaga and Ariana Grande. While the rest of the record can’t quite match that three-song run, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Behind all the weird outfits and hairstyles, Gaga’s greatest asset has been her voice and hearing her deep voice stretch to the skies on the bouncy groove “Enigma” or the epic dance ballad “1000 Doves” is pure sonic euphoria. Gaga is also a generous collaborator, leaving room for Grande to leave her own mark on “Rain On Me” and letting K-Pop superstars Blackpink actually lead their runway-ready collab “Sour Candy.” Though it shows her overwhelming star power that even Sir Elton John plays second fiddle to her power on “Sine From Above.”
Despite the large piece of metal crushing Gaga on the cover, Chromatica sounds like Gaga liberating herself from something. Her movie career? Expectations? Horniness for Bradley Cooper? Who knows, but Gaga is charging through whatever ceiling is above her. “My name isn’t Alice/But I’ll keep looking, I’ll keep looking for Wonderland” is her triumphantly opening the album on “Alice” where she’s “tired of screaming” and wanting the DJ to free her mind. “Fun Tonight” is a misleading title, given it details Gaga in the club with a deteriorating relationship (“I stare at the girl in the mirror, she talks to me too/Yeah, I can see it in your face/You don’t think I’ve pulled my weight”) while “911” is self-loathing in both a literal (“Turnin’ up emotional faders/Keep repeating self-hating phrases…My mood’s shifting to manic places/Wish I laughed and kept the good friendships”) and metaphorical (“Keep my dolls inside diamond boxes…Front I’ve built around my oasis”). The dance beats and Gaga’s vocals are so mechanical and processed sometimes that it negates whatever power Gaga’s message has. When her vocals are left to flex their own strengths, the epic euphoria of “Sine From Above” (“I heard one sine/And it healed my heart, heard a sine”) or the triumphant release of “1000 Doves” (“Lift me up, give me a start/’Cause I’ve been flying with some broken arms”) remind listeners that sometimes Gaga’s songs can be as towering as she thinks her persona is. Except when that epic closure is nerfed by the dumb party jam “Babylon.”
Nevertheless, Chromatica has the misfortune of being the right record at the wrong time. Gaga might’ve been better off keeping the album to herself until mass gatherings (specifically clubs) are safe again, since it demands unmitigated dancing and nothing else. She’s 30 years late, but Gaga could’ve slipped this right into the background of Paris Is Burning. While it might not have the staying power to be revived in whatever post-COVID world people face, Chromatica is at least a sign that Gaga still knows how to have fun. She’s created a wild party for herself in the 12 years since her breakthrough, but she could still get lost with her little monsters rather than hover above them.