Lady Gaga videos used to be a big deal to everyone—and for good reason—but at some point, sometime between the uncool maximalism of Born This Way and the confused mixed bag of Artpop, her videos only became a big deal to herself. And maybe that’s why her newest, the first of the Joanne era, is little more than a glorified performance video.
The idea of Lady Gaga releasing a performance video for the lead single of an album that’s less than one month out is a stunning reversal. No one has become more emblematic of marketing excess. Has she learned her “lesson” on promotional exuberance and public burnout? Is this why she went on a 2 year long apology tour/image rehabilitation that included two trips to the Oscars, a Golden Globe win for a role in a Ryan Murphy snuff film, and an album with a beloved vocal jazz crooner? It would appear so.
In terms of obnoxious, in-your-face marketing, Gaga has toned it the fuck down so far. (Whether this is a deliberate choice on her part or a decision made by Universal Music Group, who fronted the cash for Artpop’s embarrassingly gargantuan rollout, remains unclear.) Her new album Joanne launches in a month. She announced it with a five word Tweet and a radio interview with Zane Lowe. No commissioned Jeff Koons sculptures, necessary.
That brings us to the relatively low-key “Perfect Illusion” video. It’s a little disingenuous to call this a performance video because those are usually devoid of frills and frills abound in this Ruth Hogben and Andrea Gelardin-directed clip. The edits are intense, the camera is full of personality, and the faces are familiar—hi Mark! Hi, Kevin! Hi... Bloodpop. This is Gaga after all and this appears to be her take on the performance video, that often boring card publicity teams play two or three videos into an album-cycle. (Radiohead just released one directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; the third video from the million-selling A Moon Shaped Pool.)
But is this really a new day for Lady Gaga? It’s certainly a day where she collaborates with Pitchfork heavy-hitters like Tame Impala, Mark Ronson, Florence Welch, and Father John Misty. And hey! Lemonade sampled Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Animal Collective and was written with Ezra Koenig and (again) Father John Misty and that was really good, right? It seems like she has finally tapped into the public’s preferred vein of unpopular popular music, so this must be good, right? Haha. Gaga’s best quality is that she wouldn’t know what to do with hipness if it hit her square in the face.
Here is the highest praise I can give the new tune. “Perfect Illusion”, co-produced by the crush-worthy marriage of Mark Ronson and Tame Impala (Before you start... Kevin Parker is Tame Impala; those other guys are a touring band), is still a Lady Gaga song. It’s structured like a Lady Gaga song; another loud-to-loud dynamic that never wastes a moment to show off the pipes. It nods to the ‘80s like a Lady Gaga song; this time repurposing a key melodic line from Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach”. It’s heavily influenced by resoundingly unhip hard rock like a loud Lady Gaga song; this time it’s Heart. Yet it doesn’t slam like a good Lady Gaga song.
This isn’t what’s interesting. Her singles fail all the time—“Applause”, anyone? What’s interesting is how “Perfect Illusion” fails: on her own terms. She hasn’t been swallowed up by her collaborators—by all accounts, producers who don’t have to put much effort to make themselves heard on record. In fact, you really have to squint to hear them at all. (Those very pretty synth arpeggios toward the end sound like Tame Impala, I think?) Beyoncé and especially Kanye West have toed the fine line between using external talent to further their vision and having that vision suffocated and fractured by too many cooks in the kitchen. In this sense, she has done admirably. Her vision is intact. The only problem with that is that perhaps Lady Gaga is suffocating herself.