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Lady Gaga's Road To 'Chromatica' Is A Revolving, Evolving Dance Floor

Lady Gaga performs in Miami in February. Following a turn to traditional pop and roots rock on recent projects, the singles from her forthcoming sixth album, <em>Chromatica</em>, have indicated a return to the maximalist dance pop that first made her famous.
Theo Wargo
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Lady Gaga performs in Miami in February. Following a turn to traditional pop and roots rock on recent projects, the singles from her forthcoming sixth album, Chromatica, have indicated a return to the maximalist dance pop that first made her famous.

Back before Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta became Lady Gaga, she spent five nights a week dancing at dive bars and gay clubs across New York City. The rising BPMs soundtracked her last call epiphanies, and their hallmarks left a glitter-flecked imprint on her songwriting. Her musical framework was forged in her favorite Lower East Side haunts, and her debut album, 2008's The Fame, paired clever, cheeky wordplay with her beloved four-on-the-floor beats. She would take detours through other genres — '70s piano balladry, '80s bar band rock, jukebox country twang, Hollywood bravado and disco — but the dance floor was her dependable stomping ground from The Fame through 2013's Artpop.

At the time, Cheek to Cheek, 2014's album of jazz duets with Tony Bennett, felt like a way to flex a different kind of diva muscle. But after shelving her electronic inclinations while focusing on their lounge act, she leaned into the creative reset that gave her space from the sound that had come to define her. When she eventually returned to the studio to record her fifth album, Joanne, it was in pursuit of a completely new sonic palette, one that banked on guitars instead of the thudding pulse of '90s house. A glimmer of a dance hit came in 2017 when she released her stand-alone single "The Cure," but Gaga's synthetic impulses have mostly remained dormant for the last half decade — until Chromatica, her sixth studio album out May 29.

The dance-pop of Chromatica may seem like a work of Little Monster fan-service, a batch of bangers and blockbuster music videos that recall her greatest hits. But Chromatica is both a return to form and a full-circle moment, a complete revolution back to the music she not only loves to perform, but loves to hear. "Just Dance" remains timeless and "Shallow" is forever, but Chromatica is where she's at right now: happy, hopeful and healing in her hard-won electro-pop utopia. Here's how she got there.

Lady Gaga at Glastonbury on June 26, 2009. Two weeks later she would release "Paparazzi" as a single, which would go on to become the fourth top 10 hit from her debut album, <em>The Fame.</em>
AFP / Getty Images
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Lady Gaga at Glastonbury on June 26, 2009. Two weeks later she would release "Paparazzi" as a single, which would go on to become the fourth top 10 hit from her debut album, The Fame.

The Club Kid Becomes The Fame Monster (2008-2010)

Two attributes were consistent in early coverage of Lady Gaga: Everyone agreed that her songs were undeniable earworms, and everyone fixated on her apparent allergy to pants. In the spring of 2006, Gaga — then simply Stefani Germanotta, a born and bred New Yorker with a powerful voice and years of piano lessons under her belt — dropped out of New York University to pursue her music career. She moved into the cheapest apartment she could find in the Lower East Side, and began working with producer Rob Fusari. He was impressed by her piano ballads, but encouraged her to tap into the rhythms of her downtown life by working a drum machine into their sessions. She welcomed the instrumental change-up, and carried over her keen sense of melody and lyrical dexterity.

She signed with Interscope, who released The Famein August 2008. "Just Dance," the first single, was inspired by the many blacked-out nights she spent on the sticky club floors of her neighborhood — as were her disco ball bustiers, giant shades, towering platforms and leotards, which established her signature style.

Critical and commercial success came quickly: "Just Dance" earned her first nomination (for best dance recording) at the 51st annual Grammy awards before reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in January 2009. "Poker Face" hit No. 1 three months later. She won best new artist at the MTV Video Music Awards that fall, and released The Fame Monster, a reissue of The Fame including an EP of new material, that November. Some of The Fame Monster's songs — namely "Telephone," her duet with Beyoncé — extended The Fame's throughline of cohesive, edgy-yet-approachable Top 40 gems. But the majority of the nine new Fame Monstertracks were an eclectic mix, one that included Elton-esque ballads ("Speechless") and industrial dashes of Europop (the Ace of Bass-channeling "Alejandro").

"Bad Romance," in particular, dumped a bucket of kerosene on the fire of Gaga's creativity that culminated in a dangerous, high-fashion music video. "Bad Romance" introduced a new component — a high-concept narrative — into her typical mix. She looks, and sounds, beyond human in her sightless latex bodysuits; she'd played with cartoonish styling on tour and in her "Paparazzi" video, but she was always an amplified version of herself, never alien. Now her appearance grew more eccentric and daring with the drop of each new single. Dresses weren't sewn from fabric, but made of plastic bubbles or drapes of raw meat; music videos sprawled into 7-minute arthouse epics with plots, social commentary and status symbols. ("Bad Romance" featured original designs by Alexander McQueen; the song would soundtrack his spring 2010 runway show.)

Her first two years as a recording artist were triumphant, and they laid the foundation for the decade to come: She prioritized experimentation so early on that stylistic reinvention — elevated to new levels to accompany every new piece of music — became her constant.

Gaga, emerging from an egg during a performance of "Born This Way at the 2011 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
Mark Ralston / Getty Images
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Gaga, emerging from an egg during a performance of "Born This Way at the 2011 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

The Rise of Mother Monster (2011-2013)

At the 2011 Grammy Awards, Gaga did not walk the red carpet, but instead curled up inside a giant egg and was carried, on a platform, into the ceremony by a group of her dancers. When she climbed out of another egg at the start of her performance of "Born This Way" during the show, she debuted a severe new look: Prosthetics were adhered to her shoulders, and sharp angles replaced the curves of her forehead and cheekbones to alter the human framework of her body. The spotlight hit these monstrous peaks as the disco beat of a brand new rock anthem filled the Staples Center: "I'm beautiful in my way / 'Cause God makes no mistakes / I'm on the right track, baby I was born this way."

When the "Born This Way" video dropped two weeks later, it was clear that Gaga's new look was a part of a bigger plan — one she had earned the freedom to explore with the whole world watching. "Born This Way" took off, and launched her into space: The seven-minute music video weaves a tale of an alien goddess, "Mother Monster," who gives birth to an all-inclusive "race within the race of humanity" that loves and accepts everyone — "no matter gay, straight, or bi / Lesbian, transgender life... black, white, or beige Chola or orient made.".

The metamorphosis was largely physical, as Born This Way amped up the strongest aesthetics of The Fame Monster and her growing involvement in LGBTQ advocacy (namely her work to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2010). Squelchy, industrial club staples were found in "Judas" and "Scheiße" this time around, while "Marry the Night" and "Edge of Glory" carried the anthemic, '80s pop quality of "Speechless." (There were zero degrees of separation between the inspiration and the material, in some cases: the melody of "Born This Way" was so close to Madonna's "Express Yourself" that the Queen of Pop commented on the similarities herself, and "Edge of Glory" and "Hair" featured the E Street Band's beloved saxophonist, Clarence Clemons.)

Critics were divided, as some adored the throwback excess that pumped through the album, while others found it derivative and noted her LGBTQ allyship more apparent in her "egalitarian use of house beats" than her lyrics. And for some listeners, the bridge struck the opposite of an inclusive note: as one critic put, "Gaga said she wrote this in ten minutes; rhyming 'chola descent' with 'Orient' is what happens when you do that." Still, her chart position and ticket sales soared: Born This Waydebuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, her first album to do so, after "Born This Way" topped the Hot 100 (thanks to the promotional bump from the Grammys). By the time she wrapped her two-year Monster Ball trek in May of 2011, the tour had drawn 2.5 million people across the world; 1.16 million viewers then tuned in for her Lady Gaga Presents: The Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden concert special on HBO the day after the tour closed. The Born This Way Ball built on that momentum, but the music had now grown into the space: "Born This Way" was tailor-made for tens of thousands of people to sing along to, and Gaga finally had the grand, glam manifesto suitable for such a space.

Every metric indicated that Gaga's instincts — to make the music that had made her, essentially — had led her to pop domination. But risks don't always return rewards, even when they're confident and calculated, and the conceptual gamble of 2013's Artpop left many devoted listeners scratching their heads: She "designed" the record "to be fun from start to finish, like a night at the club in terms of the DJing aspect of it," which worked for her fans but fell flat with those seeking crowdpleasers. Artpop's frenetic pace split critics, as did the choices she made: Its R. Kelly duet "Do What U Want" was eventually scrubbed from streaming services, and the lasting image from the Artpop era is one of her getting sprayed with neon vomit by a performance as a part of her 2014 South By Southwest set.

The album isn't without high points and intellectual challenges. The adrenaline surge of its first single, "Applause," stressed her devotion to her art and interrogated her place on the high/low cultural spectrum — a welcome smirk after Born This Way's sincerity. But no other single from the album cracked the top 10. Gaga would later joke, "I don't remember ARTPOP" on Twitter, though it remains a fan favorite. "I don't regret my art, and wouldn't suggest anyone do," she told Paper in a recent cover story."Every album has been exactly what I wanted to make at that time. It's just there was a period where I think I forgot about where I was."

For her 2016 album <em>Joanne</em>, Gaga unveiled a new look to go with a sound that leaned toward rock and country.
Behrouz Mehri / Getty Images
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For her 2016 album Joanne, Gaga unveiled a new look to go with a sound that leaned toward rock and country.

The Return of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (2016-2019)

Given her classical training and life-long appreciation for the great American songbook, teaming up with Tony Bennett was hardly a left-field move. The only surprising element of the collaboration was how drastic of a shift it was from the intense aesthetics of Artpop. The jazz interlude was a lucrative one: Cheek to Cheek debuted at No. 1, and Gaga fully leaned into her and Bennett's lounge act. She dressed the part too, trading the bodysuits and fluorescent wigs for maribou and Marilyn Monroe waves — a makeover fit for a vintage Hollywood starlet. Stepping out of Mother Monster's shadow and back into the jazz of her pre-Fame days offered a respite. She focused on honing her vocal chops alongside a legend, and the simple, slower pace gave her a sense of calm that her own music did not.

"He's brought out a subtlety in me that I've missed for a while, because my life is very noisy," Gaga told NPR in 2014. "It's a lot harder to sing with auto-tune, in a way, you know? It's a lot harder to sing with rigid electronic music and lots of spectacle. It can be very difficult, because it's not always extremely natural."

The "spectacle" stayed on the shelf as her work in film and TV kept her busy. Her first release of original music since Artpop was the award-winning "Til It Happens to You," a stirring, orchestral ballad she co-wrote with Diane Warren and performed at the 2016 Oscars. Penned for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual abuse on college campuses, "Til It Happens to You" pulled from the experience of Gaga's own harrowing sexual assault. A group of fellow survivors joined her at the piano at the conclusion of the Oscars performance, and they were met with a tearful standing ovation: Without the distraction of costume or concept, Gaga's humanity shone through in a way her fans had never seen before.

When Joanne followed that September, she continued to speak candidly on her most personal experiences. She named the album after her aunt, who died from Lupus complications years before she was born, and wrote a plaintive lullaby for that namesake. This vulnerability extended to every aspect of her life, even when it involved confronting deep pain and physical trauma on camera. The Netflix documentary Five Foot Two tracked the making of Joanne — produced by hitmakers Mark Ronson and BloodPop — as well as the end of her engagement to longtime love Taylor Kinney, her struggles with fibromyalgia and the impossible balancing act of a famous person's daily grind. (It also casually mentioned that Bradley Cooper had cast her as the lead in his upcoming adaptation of A Star Is Born.) The film ends with the beginning of her performance at Super Bowl LI, and we're reminded that Gaga has lived many lives over the course of her career: She can suit up in a platinum leotard and throw herself off the roof of Houston's NRG Stadium to belt out "Just Dance" and "Born This Way" as if it's just another work day, but at no point does she pretend it's easy.

Eventually, the characteristically wacky productions and massive tours returned — Jonas Åkerlund, who directed her "Paparazzi" and "Telephone" videos, signed on for the demented Dukes of Hazzard-esque romp of "John Wayne" — but Joanne may as well have been titled Gaga: Unfilteredfor its deep personal ties and acoustic country undertones. By the time she performed Joanne's honky tonk romp "A-Yo" on Saturday Night Live, she'd struck a balance between the stark concept of the album and the familiar flamboyance of her live set. In a sparkling crop top and fringed pair of booty shorts, she was the Southern-fried vision of her most fabulous self, a pop star who sneered as she picked up a guitar and didn't play it like a prop. She had reached a point where she could seamlessly flow between the genres she collected without the eye-popping set pieces and wardrobe. She was the show — and she could take it wherever she wanted.

Before shooting commenced for A Star Is Born in the spring of 2017, Gaga headlined Coachella and debuted a new single, soft-pop confection "The Cure," in the middle of her set. (Though it sounds like it could be a smash for Ally, the songwriter-turned-pop star she played in A Star Is Born, the song had no connection to the film.) Shortly after A Star Is Born hit theaters in 2018, Lady Gaga's star power hit supernova status: Both she and Cooper received heaps of praise for "Shallow," the duet they recorded for the film, which delivered another No. 1 for Gaga and a handful of trophies, including an Oscar, come awards season.

Queen of the Kindness Punks (2020)

If the Power Rangers clashed with half the cast of Mad Max: Fury Road and worked out their differences through a dance party at Burning Man, it would look, and sound, like "Stupid Love" — Gaga maximalism revived.

The pop star took a page out of the sci-fi playbook for the music video for Chromatica's first single. A brief prologue hovers over an undulating life form as dramatic instrumentals swell. "The world rots in conflict," it reads. "Many tribes battle for dominance. While the Spiritual ones pray and sleep for peace, the Kindness punks fight for Chromatica ..."

Enter Gaga, clad in bubblegum pink battlegear and sprinting towards a desert rager. She leads a pack of these rosy "Kindness punks" through a landscape of sparkling rock formations before they reach a group of feuding tribes and squash a fight in progress. Tension dissolves into celebration, and ecstatic synths cascade as she repeats her mantra — "All I ever wanted was love" — as the pre-chorus builds into a new wave explosion. She's the picture of bliss, twirling and leaping among the Kindness punks in this world of her own creation.

In the weeks leading up to Chromatica's debut, Gaga released a string of visuals and singles that ran with the futuristism of "Stupid Love," while hinting at a dark urgency underpinning the escapist vibe . On the album's cover, Gaga is trapped — or restrained — under the weight of a metallic sine wave. Everything she wears could double as a weapon: The heel of one boot is a bloody tusk, the other a butcher knife and spikes abound from her shoulders to her nails. In the video for her Ariana Grande collaboration "Rain On Me," storm clouds hurl raindrops and knives from the heavens. One pierces Gaga's thigh, and she pulls it out, screaming, before she crawls to safety and dances the pain away with Grande. The dance floor is her refuge, and she can heal here, even if the deluge won't quit: "I'd rather be dry but at least I'm alive." Order is restored when the violence abates and electro-pop saves the day.

In interviews, Gaga has stuck to lofty, vague descriptions of the album's concept. After she declared that "earth is canceled," she told Zane Lowe that Chromatica — also helmed by BloodPop — is a "beautiful abstraction of my perception of the world." She clarified to Paper that Chromatica was not a space rock, as her music videos hinted at, but a state of mind: "It's a perspective... I might sound silly, but I'm on it right now — I'm not on another planet. If you see and listen to Chromatica, and you want to live there, too, you're invited. But I do want to be clear that it's not a fantasy."

Plenty of people want to join her, if "Stupid Love," "Rain On Me" and now "Sour Candy" — her runway-ready collaboration with K-pop girl group BLACKPINK — offer any indication. The first debuted atop Billboard's Hot Dance/Electronic songs chart, and the latter racked up 20 million YouTube plays within 24 hours of its arrival. Gaga, in all her unpredictable, bass-thumping glory, is back — and the club kid never really left.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hilary Hughes