It happens at the 1:51 second mark.
A groovy, lower lip-biting, “hell yeah… all right…” of a pop-rock banger, Lady Gaga’s Pat Benatar moment becomes one of those orgasmic musical releases. When your dutifully tapping foot transforms, almost as if under a spell, into a pogo stick and you find yourself compelled to ecclesiastical jumping, belting out the chorus to “Perfect Illusion” like it’s an experience both religious and sexual.
It’s the moment Lady Gaga’s formidable banger and return to pop music transforms itself from a pleasant and acceptable comeback effort to something great and undeniable. It might even color your impression of the entire song.
That key change though.
“Perfect Illusion” is good. It’s a different-ish sound for Lady Gaga. A “Marry the Night” ’80s throwback with the driving force of “Bad Romance,” but without the genius melody of either. The disco influence is new—ushered in by producers Mark Ronson, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and BloodPop—but everything else is familiar, from the spoken word bridge to the drug and addiction metaphors that permeate the lyrics.
“I felt you touchin’ me / High like amphetamine,” she sings in one verse. “But I feel you watchin’ me / Dilated, falling free / In a modern ecstasy,” she sings in another. Get it? Love is intoxicating, like a drug. It’s an adrenaline rush. But it’s all a perfect illusion, fleeting. (Gaga split with her fiancé Taylor Kinney this year, can you tell?)
That’s all fine. BUT THAT KEY CHANGE.
That key change is not just going to blow your hair back. It will set it on fire. Hi, now I’m bald. Here’s just a sampling of how everyone is reacting to the key change:
I’m a sucker for key changes. My soul leaves my body by the time Beyoncé does her last one in “Love on Top” and I will die on my “‘Thong Song’ is legitimately great” sword because of its key change. But they’re a rarity in pop music these days. It’s nice to see my enthusiasm doesn’t live alone.
If the rest of “Perfect Illusion” is safe, it can at least boast that as a bold move. Because the truth is, after Artpop, Gaga needed to be a little safe in her comeback.
Everything about Artpop was overwrought and buried in pretension—although the intensity of the reaction to it should seem silly in hindsight. This is a correction to that. Maybe even an overcorrection in its simplicity.
Does merely bellowing “It was a perfect illusion” over and over make each successive instance more profound? No, but we’re spared convoluted overwrites like “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture and me.” Plus it will be hella easy to sing along to in the car, the first hurdle that must be cleared for a pop hit. And Lady Gaga needed a pop hit.
In terms of an industry sound which Lady Gaga has helped shape over the last decade, “Perfect Illusion” is a rather meta title as well. It’s hard not to notice that there’s no vocal sweetening done to Gaga’s voice at all. That’s not problematic, of course. We’ve all learned, indisputably, that there’s a robust, interesting voice bolstering all of Lady Gaga’s bombast, bluster, and bonkers fashion.
Still, often the best singers in the world rely on vocal correction to tune their belting into a more “pop” sound, or to blend into a specific vocal effect that complements the song’s particular quirk. Often, it’s used to make a great singer even more perfect. A perfection that is—you guessed it—an illusion.
On “Perfect Illusion” you hear the rawness of Gaga’s vocals. The voice cracks sometimes. You can’t literally hear her gasp to keep along with the pace of the song, but the nakedness of those vocals laid on the driving acceleration of the track has that effect. It’s exciting, much in the way the exposed nature of Sia’s voice on her recent hits adds to her songs’ thrills, cheap or otherwise.
Much will be made about whether Gaga is paying homage to disco rock, reinventing disco rock, or, in some circles, bastardizing disco rock. To my ear, what makes “Perfect Illusion” so interesting is those raw vocals in the context of disco rock. A disco diva—Donna Summer, Diana Ross—is flawless, laying perfect, velvety vocals over a dance track with effortless smoothness. Gaga’s voice is explosive and jagged, muddying up that tradition.
It’s refreshing. Disco by way of Bruce Springsteen. A new direction via an old path. A comeback served up as only Lady Gaga could.
Had Lady Gaga been becoming normal? It was a horrifying or exceptionally pleasant thought, depending on how fiercely you worshipped Mother Monster and the flag bearer for the freak in all of us.
Her Tony Bennett duets album, Cheek to Cheek, deservedly won a Grammy, revealing to us all how surprisingly rich Gaga’s vocals are, and also how well-suited, for all this talk about this extraterrestrial pop star and her alien sound, it was for the most classic and pure of American sounds.
She stunned at the Oscars two years in a row, first with her spellbinding rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from Sound of Music—metaphorically the peak in her crusade to be respected as a vocalist—and then with her emotional performance of her Best Original Song nominees “It Could Happen to You,” earning the Joe Biden stamp of approval, no less.
Her acting turn on American Horror Story: Hotel was accompanied by a shape shift into an Old Hollywood siren, wearing classic glamour like a second skin as she accepted her Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries.
With critics chucking their copies of Artpop into a bonfire and sending smoke signals for someone to save Gaga’s music career—an overreaction, yet we’d expect nothing less from our reactionary internet tribe—it was a treat to see Gaga explore other creative outlets and reveal unexpected shades to her undeniable talents.
But now, finally, we have “Perfect Illusion.” We have new, real Lady Gaga pop music.
Appreciative of all that she has accomplished in the last three years, we’re running melodramatically, arms outstretched, to meet our Mother Monster back at our old special place, the place where we belong together: clutching hands, jumping up and down, and trying not to spill our vodka sodas while belting along to a key change on the dance floor of the gay bar. See you there, Stef.