Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta rose to international fame as Lady Gaga amidst the ruin of 2008. The exhortation and assurance in the chorus of her debut single—Just dance/gonna be ok—reverberated on dance floors and radio stations across the world as markets crashed and the big banks declared bankruptcy. If The Fame was the brave debut that showed the world Gaga’s talented command over electronic genres and signature disaffection, then her sixth official studio album, Chromatica, is a return to these roots. Chromatica was released to streaming services in the summer of this year, a few months after people began to die en masse of COVID-19 and dance floors across the world stood empty. This is why her music reminds me of the bone-deep depression that tends to beset people who are living through world-historical circumstances beyond their grasp. It is as much for dancing as it is for despair.
When the financial crisis finally hit, I was just about eighteen years old and beginning a four year degree at the University of Miami, where I had a tuition scholarship to study classical performance. I began playing the flute when I was four years old, and by the time I was a teenager, it had gotten me my first trophies as well as my first high school boyfriend, a very sweet French horn player. Classical music—marching band, wind ensemble, quintet, youth orchestra, All State—was one of the only social outlets that I was allowed to attend without check. Practicing alone in my parents’ large bathroom, where the tiles made the round and focused vibrato bounce back beautifully, I played and replayed what would inevitably be repeated with others. Many flautists want to be soloists, but to me, there is no higher honor than first flute in the orchestra. Why be alone when you could be one among many? The collective experiment of every two-hour rehearsal; the undivided attention of almost one hundred of us on the same idea. These were the times I was part of something I didn’t yet know to call utopia.
Chromatica is sixteen tracks total, each coming in at under four minutes. It boasts a euphoric combination of electronic genres, Gaga’s signature robotic vocals, and guest appearances by industry giants such as Ariana Grande and Elton John. It presents itself as an easy album to listen to, where the predictable form of four-on-the-floor bass bumps and catchy choruses promise the sweetest and most synthetic enjoyment. But the three short interludes—titled “Chromatica I,” “Chromatica II,” and “Chromatica III”—that frame the album into chapters, or movements, are what caught my ear by surprise. The simulated orchestral compositions are deeply serious, reminiscent of the Romantic era of Tchaikovsky and Brahms: music for a film score, or, to my mind, a Saint-Saëns symphony. In the first interlude, strings swell into a minor melody, gushing into dramatic crescendo and fleeting away at the arrival of confident fanfare from the brass section. And then, out of the depths of a diminuendo, a shimmering and distorted voice emerges: My name isn’t Alice.
By the time the recession began in December of 2007, I had not practiced my flute in weeks. I skipped rehearsals, went to weekly lessons unprepared, and was all but failing a music theory class. There were fun times with new friends but mostly there was just terrible, inexpressible, overwhelming sadness. Depression is a very difficult thing to recognize and relate, especially when you are experiencing it mostly for the first time, because it dissolves any sense of narrative and progress. But one thought stood above the rest, looming over every waking moment. Music was work, but it would never be my job. The reward for rehearsing alone for six hours a day in a small cell with ugly carpeting was a moonshot at a seat in one of the several defunded orchestras nationwide, if you were lucky. If you were not lucky, like most people, you could possibly support a seat in a smaller local symphony with an underpaid job in music education. There was nothing to be done about this, except avoid playing altogether. And not playing felt worse. Living in one of the largest epicenters of the mortgage bubble, whatever was happening on the news was charged with an elevated urgency, as conversations about supply and demand, risk, and crisis began to sound different. Everywhere was the ambient sense of vast, uncontrollable chaos—and that it was somehow my fault.
Like classical music, part of the immanent pleasure of electronic and pop is the experience of a sense of arrangement, of imagined order. The sensation of following the form of a symphony or sonata is akin to the building tension and blissful release of the most basic dance track. The twelve-tone chromatic scale, to which Chromatica alludes, is also a kind of progression, moving through all of the semi-tones within an octave. In the second half of the nineteenth century, composers began to experiment with tonality, making accidentals—notes marked with a sharp (♯) or flat (♭)—a feature within composition rather than a bug. Theodor Adorno, in his analysis of this historical shift in the aesthetics of classical composition, lauded composers such as Hector Berlioz and Arnold Schoenberg for their experiments with tonality against the expressive imperative of bourgeois music. In their intense refusal of the fetishistic classical forms of the culture industry, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions of the early twentieth century represented an effort to dethrone tonality altogether and eliminate what was thought to be the alienating fact of harmonic unity. But however radically autonomous Schoenberg’s chromaticism was supposed to sound, even Adorno admitted that the atonal quality of the music made it difficult to hear as a collective work of art. What sounded deeply isolating and strange was meant to dialectically overcome the fact of that society’s material alienation.
In its resignification of the chromatic concept, Lady Gaga’s album leans into the order of form, of classical music and classic house from 1890 and 1990, because collective forms of joy are what lack in our historical moment. From the symphony hall to the dancefloor, from the bass drop to the coda, an impersonal pleasure inheres in communal presence and organized feelings. Not only is Chromatica’s sound exclusively made from these two genres, but the tracklist charts a path of emotional progression through different shades of psychic pain in order to affirm the fact that auto-estrangement can feel good. The return to ecstatic modes of musical organization wrangles mental illness from its state of unspeakable hurt and works it into a shape that preserves a minimal distance within the thing called the self. Each song features divided and glitchy senses of being, in-between states of mind, deep inauthenticity, disidentification. These limitations, however, are where we can acknowledge where being is not ours, where it is a shared problem. “Free Woman,” the album’s ostensible ode to feminism, affirms that liberation can be felt through negation: I’m not nothing without a steady hand/I’m not nothing unless I know I can/I’m still something if I don’t got a man/I’m a free woman. “Fun Tonight” blames a breakup on an inability to be with oneself —I can't see straight, I can't see me/There's too much hurt caught in between—making emotional unclarity responsible for the declarative complaint before the beat drop: I’m not having fun tonight. The second classical interlude, “Chromatica II,” tonally shifts the album into the intense thumping of “9-1-1,” the most autobiographically inflected track that supposedly speaks to Gaga’s use of anti-psychotics. But the psychic trauma implicit in the lyrics is tempered by turning up emotional faders in the neutralized lilt of Gaga’s auto-tuned drone, while the sing-songy reminder My biggest enemy is me, pop a 9-1-1 insinuates the alienating and repetitive path of trauma: Almost like I have no choice. We don’t ask to be born this way, but we do have to ask for help. Other songs, like “Enigma,” joyfully confirm the possibilities of structural anonymity, of a life with no meaning except in connection with others:
We could be lovers, even just tonight
We could be anything you want
We could be jokers/brought to the daylight
We could break all of the stigma
I-I’ll be your enigma”
Moving from intense pain to ecstatic liberation, Chromatica cleaves to the idea that formal figuration can better express the collective nature of our deepest senses of insecurity. Being an enigma, existing as a puzzle for the other to solve, brings desire back into the picture and involves everyone else as its condition. “Alice,” the first vocals track on the album, bears out the intense weight of existence without this social link through the strict perfection of house following the classical introduction. Opening, interlude, verse, bridge, chorus, interlude, each following the sixteen beat structure. Every verse layers distressed lyrics over the predictability of eight bar phrases. Here’s the first one, words stretched slow over the steady, four-bar bass bumps of late ‘90s/early ‘00s house:
Could you pull me out of this alive?
Ah ah ah oh, ah ah ah
Where's my body? I'm stuck in my mind
Ah ah ah oh, ah ah ah
Oh ma-ma-ma, oh ma-ma-ma
I'm tired of screaming
Oh ma-ma-ma, oh ma-ma-ma
At the top of my lungs
Oh my mother, oh my mother
I'm in the hole, I'm falling down, down, so down, down
The expression of misery can only make sense in and through organized rhythm. At the start of this first verse, the singer’s clear questions are answered by the pulsing interjections, “ah”s and “oh”s that aren’t quite legible as either pleasure or pain. But by the bridge, the syllables and the singing have switched positions, so that the cries for help and anguished confession come as an answer to the percussive pleas, which modulate to double time and morph into sounds that strive to signify as language. The final line threatens to plunge the speaker off the edge, only to be overtaken by the surging sixteenth notes of a snare that snaps us back to the break just in time. In fact, this is the function of both classical and electronic music, to save us from ourselves: Maestro play me your symphony/I will listen to anything/Take me on a trip, DJ, free my mind. The Victorian trope of the track’s title lets loose a liberating estrangement within its repeated refrain: My name isn’t Alice/But I’ll keep looking, I’ll keep looking for Wonderland. Even in recognizing she isn’t enough, perhaps because of this, the speaker still hopes to follow a fantasy as far as it will take her away from herself.
The lesson that I was too young to learn in 2008 is that late capitalism tries to corrupt every last collective institution, leaving you with the awful notion that your anxiety is yours to bear alone. Twelve years after leaving the music major, my flute mostly sits in my closet, but I find time to practice here and there. You always begin with long tones, to warm the metal, and then go over your scales, starting at G major and ending with F# major, and then embarking on the chromatic scale. The slow and methodical ascent from semi-tone to semi-tone, through all three octaves from the lowest C to the highest, and then the smooth descent back down, models a certain logic of pleasure. The notes that feel wrong belong. The more difficult fingerings on the way up resolve themselves on the way down. Living in what feels like the end times, I know now what I wish I knew then: your symptoms are not quite your own. What I have learned since is that you can find that anonymous bliss in other places; on the dance floor, or at a protest. Withdrawing from the self can be exhilarating when there are others to share it with, and both electronic and classical music can give that strange joy a social shape. What Chromatica teaches us is that the in-between tones, the places where identity runs up against its limits, might be the places where we find the sweetest solace from ourselves, with others.