Lady Gaga released a new single, “Perfect Illusion,” last Friday, and upon a first (and second, and third) listen, I felt as though pop music had reached the end of an era. For the first time, I found a Lady Gaga song to be boring.
Granted, there’s still a lot to enjoy from “Perfect Illusion,” Gaga’s first single since 2013’s “ARTPOP.” The song’s producers, Mark Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, synthesize a disco groove into its bombastic hair metal guitars. The phrase “perfect illusion” itself (and Gaga’s bizarro pronunciation) have already gotten their time in the meme spotlight. But the song has the overall appearance of a phone-in, a tactic that’s never going to work for an artist whose entire act is based on over-the-top performance. Gaga’s vocals reach for the stars, as they always do, but the standard four-on-the-floor club beat weighs them back down. When the key change comes, it sounds weird, dissonant, and unearned.
Even if the single had exceeded expectations, there’s still a much bigger question of the purpose Lady Gaga now serves in the 2016 pop music climate (besides “to make good music,” of course). She’s proven time and time again that she’s an exceptionally talented musician, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said that was the only reason she ascended to stardom in 2008. Her sexually charged lyrics and message of female and LGBT empowerment were a shock to the system, each new single creating more controversy over “disco sticks” and “rear windows.” At every televised awards show post-2008, the biggest question was not who would win, but what Lady Gaga would be wearing, because how could anyone possibly top a meat dress? (Answer: Arrive in a giant egg carried by attendants.) After music videos were all but wiped out from MTV, she ushered in a new era of long-form music video spectacle via the Internet; when “Bad Romance” and “Telephone” premiered on YouTube, they were bona fide cultural events, racking up millions of views within days.
Anyone who lived through Madonna’s heyday knows that none of this was radical, or at least it shouldn’t have been. But pop music’s memory can be short-term, and when Gaga appeared on the scene during the late aughts, pop had been scrubbed clean and sanitized for the past decade, to the point where even alluding to queer sexuality, or sexuality in which female pleasure took focus, was practically taboo. What Gaga did was essentially demolish that barrier by force. She borrowed theatrics from past icons (Madonna, Springsteen, Mercury, Elton John, dozens of drag queens and vogue performers) and did everything in her power to shock and amaze not just for the sake of it, but to bring back an essential ingredient of pop performance that had been left behind in the ’80s. She took what, at the time, were progressive ideas for mainstream music and, instead of hiding them underneath all the fanfare, brought them to the forefront of her work.
“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen,” she chanted on “Born This Way,” over one of her many catchy and danceable hooks.
But once again, as a culture, we’ve moved on. Music videos are giving way to full-on visual albums, such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s Endless; released on exclusive streaming services, these videos have become even more of a premiere event than they were in the past. Awards shows like the VMAs still revolve at least partially around fashion, but Nicki Minaj and others have proven that they, too, can pull off outlandish outfits. And speaking of Nicki Minaj, her Beyoncé collab “Feeling Myself,” along with Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself,” have brought female sexuality and pleasure to the top of the pop charts. No input from Gaga necessary.
And what of her LGBT politics and their lasting impact? They’ve never been flawless; I won’t dive into the problematic aspects of “Born This Way” or her overall approach to LGBT issues here, as there are dozens of Internet think pieces to choose from. All the same, Gaga’s open embrace of the queer community, and particularly queer and trans* youth, had a profound effect on a certain generation of teenagers, one that I consider myself to be a part of. I was in junior high when “Poker Face” came out, and I spent the next six years figuring out my own bisexuality and confronting internal and external biphobia. At times, I felt more like a drag than a queen, but the process was made easier thanks, in part, to Lady Gaga’s normalizing of queerness. I know that not every bi teenager shared that experience, and that for many queer and trans* youth who are also faced with systemic racial and class oppression, a white pop star isn’t going to solve their problems. But for better or worse, she left a legacy for how queerness is portrayed and accepted in popular culture.
Now, there are out artists scattered throughout pop music. Just a few weeks ago, the aforementioned Frank Ocean released the most anticipated album of the year which, like its predecessor Channel Orange, delves into his romance with a man. Lady Gaga, meanwhile, has continued her work in LGBT activism and had a Golden Globe-winning stint on “American Horror Story.” Her upcoming album will feature more collaborations with the likes of Florence Welch and Father John Misty. Even though she’s forayed into acting and collaborations with other artists, she’s still putting her own music first.
But right now, it seems as though there’s little pressure for her to produce another landmark record. A fun record, sure, potentially even a great one. But if “Perfect Illusion” is any indication, Lady Gaga has found a formula that works for her and is letting other artists, even her own producers, take center stage in pushing the boundaries of pop music. (Just look at Rihanna’s cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on her latest album, ANTI.) And no matter what she does next, she will continue to be a staple of Pride events and benefit concerts until her retirement. Her work as an innovator—or, rather, as a revivalist—of performative pop may be over, but her career is far from finished.