Review: Lady Gaga’s ‘Perfect Illusion’ Is a Bullet Train of a Pop Song, But It May Not Be Enough for Some
The years-long wait for new Lady Gaga music ends today with the release of “Perfect Illusion,” her new single co-written and co-produced by Mark Ronson, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and BloodPop. Is it as good as we wanted it to be?
The short answer: Yes. It’s very good. It’s also more than a little surprising.
Gaga, who has been known to dabble in excess now and again — five-minute singles, 14-minute music videos, most of her pre-now fashion — cuts to the chase immediately on “Perfect Illusion” and doesn’t deviate from it for even one moment. At just three minutes and two seconds, “Perfect Illusion” is Gaga’s shortest, most time-efficient single ever. This is the woman who crammed four or five hooks into singles like “Bad Romance” and “Judas,” but here she builds an entire song around just one. (Fortunately, the one is pretty killer.) Some may find this repetitive and annoying, but I would argue that, as a deliberate choice, it was a clever move for an artist who has shown she sometimes struggles with editing her ideas.
It’s concise, and it’s also fast, dizzying. It’s a bullet train of a pop song that rockets you from 1983 to 2016, and leaves you with your head spinning, wondering: What the fuck was that? (A right hook to the face.) Was that a Lady Gaga song? (Yes.) Was that a lead single? (Yes.) Was that it? (Yes.) Did I like it? (I don’t know, did you?) Do I need to listen to that again? (Yes.)
Sonically, “Perfect Illusion” is an angry mash of many different genres and references. It’s ’80s. It’s Flashdance. It’s disco (in the production), it’s rock-‘n’-roll (in the vocal take), it’s punk (in its brevity), and it’s pure pop (in its total result). It’s shimmering and ominous. It’s a modern, streamlined and more-inspired version of most of Born This Way’s album cuts. You can hear Parker in the synths and Ronson in the funky disco instrumental, but mostly you just hear Gaga: her powerful, frantic voice overpowers the whirlwind production. Somehow, all of that congeals nicely into a three-minute blast that is simultaneously progressive and classic Gaga.
Lyrically, “Perfect Illusion” pulls Gaga back into the realm of the relatable. Gone are the oblique, alienating, and sometimes half-baked metaphors of the ARTPOP era. Superficially, “Perfect Illusion” is the story of love lost — ahem, Taylor Kinney — of waking up one morning to realize the love you thought you had in your heart was never really there to begin with. “It wasn’t love, it wasn’t love, it was a perfect illusion / Mistaken for love, it wasn’t love, it was a perfect illusion,” Gaga sings on the chorus, which devours most of the song. According to Gaga, though, the song is also about living in the age of social media, in which everyone curates and edits their lives to look better, shinier, more whole than they are in reality. What you see, what you’re double-tapping, isn’t necessarily truthful. Love and Instagram: Two things nearly every music listener can relate to. This double-meaning is in keeping with Gaga’s M.O. as a songwriter; it’s a tactic she’s put to great use on songs like “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi,” and “Do What U Want,” and her penchant for writing this way is what makes her one of the greatest pop stars of all time.
Early reaction to the song appears to be mixed, which isn’t surprising given the combination of high standards when it comes to the creator of the era’s most defining pop song and Gaga’s waning popularity amongst a certain set of pop music fans (and, to a slightly lesser extent, music critics). “Perfect Illusion” detractors say the song is repetitive. And to their credit, it is. The repetition is purposeful, though, and given how short the song is, it’s not exhausting, and it doesn’t code as Gaga treading water. Others have said the song is lacking melody, which is patently untrue and a bizarre thing to say about a song that focuses so insistently on its core melody that it eventually self-references with a pretty epic key change toward the end.
But enough about detractors, who would still find a way to deride the song even if it could be scientifically proven that it’s 10 times better than “Bad Romance.” The bottom line is that the song is good — very good, possibly great — and it is arguably her most immediate single since, let’s say, “The Edge of Glory.” “Perfect Illusion” is true to Gaga’s creative spirit — it’s theatrical, it’s metaphorical, it’s clever, it’s danceable — as it also pushes her sound in a new direction. Most impressively, Gaga stripped away so much of the excess accumulated over the last several years while simultaneously avoiding the easy trap of pandering to minimalist-leaning radio trends like alt-R&B and “tropical house.” That little act of bravery is not to be overlooked given how much is riding on Gaga finding radio success this era.
It’s too early to say where “Perfect Illusion” ranks among Gaga’s other singles, but after more than 12 hours of listening, I can confidently say it’s a better lead single than “Applause” and a better song than “Born This Way.” It’s more interesting than “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” and “Telephone,” though I understand “interesting” is not necessarily an enticing word for every listener. Is it as good as “Bad Romance?” I don’t know. Probably not. But does it need to be? Is that the bar she needs to clear with every single she releases until the day she dies? And more importantly, if she had released a “Bad Romance”-esque dance-pop banger, would people have accepted that or would they have accused her of creative regression? Does she need to give us five hooks in every song? Why is everyone expecting another “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance” despite the fact she hasn’t been writing those kinds of songs for years? By now, it should be clear that Gaga is more interested in moving forward; she’s left moving in circles to her less-talented competition.
Only time will tell if “Perfect Illusion” becomes a bonafide worldwide hit and an important entry in Gaga’s own song canon. I certainly hope it will, forever rooting for her as I am. The pop world needs Gaga, a woman who almost never takes the easy route and who works hard to avoid repeating herself. A woman who is capable of so much more than so many of her contemporaries even on her worst day.”Perfect Illusion” may not be enough for everybody, but it’s more than enough for those of us who who are still willing to take a chance on her, those of us who are willing to let her take us on a ride.