The phrase never the twain shall meet never seemed more appropriate… at the time.
Years from now when cultural historians revisit and reevaluate the last decade in one expansive volume, women will dominate the chapters on pop music. It’s hard to imagine what the 2010s might have sounded like without the influence of Adele, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and, of course, Lady Gaga. They all had specific strengths, but more than any other pop artist of the last 10 years, male or female, Gaga embraced the chameleonic tradition that made David Bowie and Madonna iconic in previous eras and updated it to suit modern musical palates.
In the first year of the new decade—May 2010, to be precise—I was fortunate enough to catch the respective stage shows of Gaga and Julie Andrews within a fortnight of each other at London’s O2 Arena. On the back of her breakthrough album The Fame, LG was the bright young thing, the belle of her Monster Ball and a live(ish) performance that so perfectly captured and encapsulated the zeitgeist that I remarked to my companion that “Madonna’s going to have her work cut out trying to top that.”
Indeed she has, ever since. It’s been an obsession that has seen people question Madonna’s own sanity as she’s resorted to increasingly desperate ways to claw back the headlines.
In assessing Madonna’s career, there are two distinct eras, Pre-Gaga and Post-Gaga. And in Post-Gaga world of music, it emerged that not only did the Lady have her heavily mascara’d eyes on Madonna’s so-called ‘Queen of Pop’ epithet (which, of course, about as meaningful and accurate an egomaniacal label as Michael Jackson anointing himself ‘King of Pop’, and we all remember what allegations that was conjured up to deflect attention from), but she wanted everyone else’s too, impersonating everyone from Dame David at the Grammys to, yup, you guessed, Dame Julie at the Oscars too. You’ve heard the age-old question ‘Is nothing sacred?’, right?
There is absolutely no doubt that the lady born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is an immense talent. In terms of cultural impact and projecting an image, the 2010s belonged to Gaga, hands down, in the same way that the Nineties were owned by the Spice Girls. Not only is she a brilliantly talented musician, with a powerhouse vocal prowess that Madonna can only look up at green-faced. Unlike Madge, she’s actually not a bad actress either.
However, apart from the very Bowie-esque pathological quest to be all things to all people, I’ve often felt that after the hullabaloo and hype of The Fame Monster wore off, that sometimes her talent is let down by the blandness and conventionality of her material.
Someone said that to me about the Pet Shop Boys once, that for two such clever, erudite guys their insistence on largely staying within the synth pop genre betrays their talent. There is depth but often its submerged underneath cheesy Europop pastiches that probably should have stayed in the ’90s.
Anyway, get me. Because why would or should Lady Gaga listen to the likes of me? She’s just bagged the fastest album of the year so far with a collection of songs that are soulless, hollow retreads of former glories.
It goes with our saying that Gaga is a highly visible and divisive figure with a flair for drawing attention (she ain’t no fan of Bowie and Madonna for nowt), and in an interview with Apple Music’s interminably ‘hip’ Zane Lowe in March she proclaimed that “Earth is cancelled, I live on Chromatica.”
Back then you took her Ziggy Stardust-like sci-fi sloganeering as a characteristic rhetorical flourish — a dramatic way to finish off her stint as an artful experimentalist turned historically minded Lady Blandrews balladeer.
A self-conscious return to the sleek dance-pop that made her a star, her sixth LP was also conceived as a kind of brand reset after a half-decade of conceptual experimentation that included her 2014 duets album with Tony Bennett, the classic-rock-inspired Joanne in 2016 and her Oscar-nominated acting turn in Bradley Cooper’s 2018 reboot of A Star Is Born, in which she played—brilliantly—the showbiz-ingénue role previously portrayed by gay faves Barbra Streisand and, before her, Judy Garland. (Shallow, one of Gaga’s rootsy power ballads from the movie musical, won an Academy Award for best original song.).
To me, it sounds like a calculated attempt to refashion The Fame, just with less dynamic songs. But don’t just take my word for it, for the album review proper I give you the monstrous Michael Fontana.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then he shall begin.
Normally I preface a review with a few paragraphs about the subject that I am reviewing. I may review an album or a show and I like to think that my reviews are fair.
Recently, I reviewed Madonna‘s latest album Madame X for stevepafford.com. I was tough on my girl Madge. I put my fanatics aside and tried to be objective, however after seeing the live show—which was plagued with difficulties throughout the tour—I understood the record a little bit more and would probably speak far more favourably. Actually, I sort of love it now, but I’m not reviewing Madonna today and I stand by my review as it was how I felt at the time.
As a matter of fact, I’m reviewing the artist that Madge accused of being “reductive”. In case you’ve been living under a rock or in Nebraska, there has been this ongoing battle between Madonna and Lady Gaga. Actually it’s not the divas that are battling it out but the fans. I think it’s a complete waste of time but to each their own.
The arguments come from a statement on significant generational differences and a substantial change in the music industry. I came up on records, radio and MTV where fashion, art and pop were fused. Music videos played constantly throughout the day.
There were no trashy shows, no programming that has nothing to do with music but with the trashiest people they can cram into a cast. MTV was just musical content, and another vehicle for artists to show their audience who they were and what they were about. It was made for someone as visual as Lady Gaga. If only it were in fashion now.
Today there’s no money to be made selling albums, and they barely air videos on MTV or anywhere else for that matter. Videos are released and shown on some shows but YouTube and internet sites give a fan access to the video they want to see in seconds. No one has to watch other music videos and learn about other artists because it is immediate gratification. In the ‘80s while tuning in to the latest Cyndi Lauper video (they’d announce the day and time of the debut!!!), I’d encounter so much amazing content along the way that my musical tastes became so varied as a result.
I’m not gonna do the whole “When I was a kid… blah blah blah”, it doesn’t play out well and I kinda just did it a bit. What I’m pointing out here is that at that time music was a big money business and a huge deal was made about every album released.
I remember record release parties at record shops, giveaways to the first 100 people who showed up. Lines around the corner for that anticipated album to go on sale at midnight! There was money being made in the music industry. They had higher standards because there was so much more at risk financially. Not that that’s a good thing.
Then of course, after getting the record or cassette the videos would pop up… “Join us here on MTV for the debut of Prince’s Purple Rain video!” Then there was the tour for the record! So much anticipation and excitement and discovering other artists. I even went through my parents records because I couldn’t get enough music or variety!
You might at this point wonder why I’m waxing nostalgia and stating a simple then and now rant. I’m doing it because entertainment has changed. Merchandise and tours are the money makers now, and an album appears on iTunes or Spotify and most people can just listen for free on a website. The great artists can get lost in all the noise coming from the standard of mediocrity.
While reviewing Lady Gaga’s Chromatica album, I want you, the reader to understand where I’m coming from. Let’s get into it.
Track 1: Chromatica
It’s meditation music that plays for one minute to introduce the album. This happens several times throughout the album. Janet Jackson did this with her Velvet Rope, and her interludes were narrative and connected to the music and the message. This felt forced and poorly thought out. I don’t wanna hear a Headspace mental health track when I start an album by a pop star famous for beautiful ballads and fun dance music. ‘Nuff said.
PS. I’m not going to review the other interludes. I don’t want to be as repetitive as this feature of the album was. Let’s move on, eh?
Track 2: Alice
Sounds like a lot of Lady Gaga’s other work but flat and dead. It could be any song she’s ever done minus the thought or effort.
Track 3: Stupid Love
This song reminded me of a dance track or many dance tracks they’d play at gay circuit parties, upbeat and fluffy with a touch of Top Forty 2020 style. It wasn’t awful but it lacked anything memorable. It sounded like a Lady Gaga 1992 futuristic circuit party song. In order for it to make its mark I’d need a lot of ecstasy and I don’t do ecstasy anymore. Does anyone? Hugs not drugs!
Track 4: Rain On Me
This song uses rain as a metaphor like millions of songs poems and other art has. It sounds like she threw elements of her most consistent sounding songs and just redid them to make this one. She pulled a page out of Madonna’s playbook—one I’m not always a fan of—by having Arianna Grande appear in the song. It didn’t help. Flat, dull and the monotone talking bits are bordering on insufferable.
Track 5: Free Woman
The music sounds exactly like a track recorded by Kristine W called Feel What You Want, if Kristine was unconscious when she recorded it. Much like there are similarities between Born This Way and Express Yourself (I love Born This Way, calm down!!) there’s a section of this song that would easily lay right on top of Feel What You Want without much variance. If you want to hear how a song like this should sound, check out Kristine W’s Feel What You Want club version.
Track 6: Fun Tonight
Here we have another song that sounds the same as many of her other songs but unlike Paparazzi, which I really adore, she’s whining and bitching about fame and paparazzi and attention. She talks about her emotions in this song but ruins it with the production and the whining. You’re famous girl! It’s what you signed up for! If she reworked the lyrics and freshened it up it has potential to be a great pop song but it isn’t. I may have it all wrong, maybe the whining is ironic but it doesn’t work.
Track 7: Chromatica II
Already addressed interludes.
Track 8: 911
Did she get 911 mixed up with 411 or does it represent some kind of glitter emergency or what? I do believe in her as an artist so I’m holding out for what this song means, but as for listening to it, the production squashes any potential lyrical meaning because it’s flat and I’d skip it anyway.
Track 9: Plastic Doll
Not bad sonically, but the lyrics are contradictory. She’s a doll and comes with accessories and then she’s not just a doll but then she is. I think once again I’d like to hear about the lyrics. This was interesting. Not a song I’d add to my playlist but it’s got something. I just don’t know what. I’ll stay tuned. (OK, I probably won’t stay tuned.)
Track 10: Sour Candy
If you’re a Gaga fan you probably think so far this review tastes sour but I digress. This song again had elements of 1990s dance music, not circuit music though. By the way, if you don’t know anything about circuit music, I abhor it.
This was a bit more flavourful and had a house element to it. Again, the monotone bits can be tossed. If the lyrics are important sing them. Gaga is talented. She can sing beautifully but her talking voice makes me happy that deafness in old age is hereditary in my family. Another song that had me lyrically but I actually thought it should have been longer. It was going somewhere and then it ended.
Track 11: Enigma
Not at all serving a metaphorical enigma or a literal one but just another song that sounded like all her other songs but with a lame-assed, half hearted attempt. (Though there’s comical value in the chorus when it sounds like she’s singing “I’ll be your hairy butt” – Ed.)
Track 12: Replay
The title says it all. It sounds like just another one of her other songs BUT one of her good songs! I like it as a dance track. I’d love to hear this remixes with a darker sound. Is this about trauma? She uses lyrics that are cleverly cloaked but it didn’t bother me. I could dance to this out at a club. Well done.
Track 13: Chromatica III
I’m not doing this again.
Track 14: Sine From Above (featuring Elton John)
Good dance song but borders on that circuit vibe and house music intertwined. I’d love, once again to hear a darker heavier mix. Elton John adds an element when he first appears in the song but quickly sounds out of place in a way as the song progresses (Well, at least he’s consistent: Elton’s gruff over-singing guest vocals have been ruining records by Kate Bush, Pet Shop Boys et al for years – Ed).
But….I like it. I like that he adds an awkward charm and they play nicely off of each other. The one thing I’d take out is, again, the talkie bit, but this time it’s Elton talking. His voice is so specific and legendary that I don’t think his talking part was awkward or out of place, it was just bad. Otherwise I liked it. Will it hit my playlist?… no.
Track 15: 1000 Doves
I like the imagery in the lyrics but another song that sounds the same. I’d like to hear her sing this as a ballad. There’s something there but she won’t, or her producer won’t stop playing the same fucking song!!! She’s got a slew of albums each of which has a few good songs and the rest are interchangeable, unmemorable, and tired. It’s OK to have a sound but she’s literally in most instances, recording the same song over and over and over and over.
Track 16: Babylon
Babble on/Babylon, cute wordplay. Ha Ha. Cute is for Sesame Street. More spoken word but I like the way it sounds kinda runway. The background singers are flawless but the whole “gossip gossip” served me a bit of Katy Perry’s Swish Swish, which is a fun runway song, but Gaga, girl, you are talented, no need to repeat the same songs over and over, nor do you need to stylise a song (that’s how it comes off) that another artist recorded.
OK, so I’m done. I have a headache. I’m sure if you’re a Little Monster Gaga fan, after I reviewed two songs you’re already formulating hate mail. But if you made it this far with me, don’t send the hate just yet.
Lady Gaga has always been fantastically talented. When I heard Poker Face, Telephone, Alejandro, and even with all the comparing to Madonna, I loved Born This Way (Oi, where’s Bad Romance? – Ed). I was excited to welcome a new princess who would hopefully become a queen.
But… her second album is just her first album with bonus tracks. She has had some injuries and she’s gone through some rough things, but at some point one has to focus in on the art form and either do something different like she did with Tony Bennett and even the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, which I liked. She could also choose to take a break, hike in nature, and maybe take another path. I see the insecurity lurking behind her eyes and I love it. It’s that vulnerability from which great art emerges.
An entertainer with talent like hers, she should not be recording with producers or influences that keep her stuck on a tiny treadmill. All of her songs sound the same. Some have qualities that shine through and showcase her true talent but it’s rare. This was not one of those times. I wish it were because I love her general message and the general idea but not the soulless execution.
I’m sure her fans will love the album, after all they’ve heard it before. Remember when bad was good?
It’s OK to have a ‘sound’.
Google moment for anyone under 40 coming up.
Simon and Garfunkel had a distinct sound but each song told a different story and were composed in a similar fashion, but not the same keys and hooks and beats. Her songs are merging as one for me, and honestly, I suffered a bit listening to this one because it was her reducing her presence and talent and just going through the musical motions.
Chromatica had a few cute moments but overall I’ll just listen to The Fame Monster if I want the Gaga on a dance floor. It was fun and interesting and now it’s essentially the same song being produced repeatedly. Monotoooooooooooooooooone. She could’ve called it Monochromatic.
I wish I could interview her. The first question I’d ask would be “Do you even wanna be famous anymore because you whine about it a lot and everything seems dialled in.” She has too much talent to waste it on a venture like this one. I’ll check out the remixes but I think she should look at her team and herself and make some moves. She still has the potential for Queendom. I hope she taps into it.
About the author: Michael Fontana, creator of deviant character Eileen Dover, is a writer, actor, performer, producer and resides in New York City. He loves Lady Gaga and Madonna and this review was painful for him to write on more than one level.
For more information check out Eileendover.net
Hate mail will be forwarded to Trump Tower with Michael’s name taken off and replaced with, Hey you orange Asshole!
Originally published in 2020