Lady Gaga surfaced as a fully formed pop star in the summer of 2008, fusing ironclad hooks with a theater nerd’s avant-gardist sensibility. Her meta-narrative was all about celebrity, which is exactly what she became when a string of monster hits elevated her to icon status in a matter of months. In recent history, no other artist has had such a dizzying ascent to the top of mainstream music’s pyramid, a success she sustained with a string of killer albums.
But the past three years have seen Gaga, born Stefani Germanotta, step away from churning out chart toppers. Instead she has made jazz music, including a well-received duets album with Tony Bennett (2014’s Cheek to Cheek), and delivered a Golden Globe–winning performance on American Horror Story. The Sept. 8 release of her new single, “Perfect Illusion,” announced a return to the style that made her a star overnight.
Or does it? “Perfect Illusion” is a big song, but it’s not a modern one. It’s anchored by a roaring refrain and features an unhinged, theatrical vocal performance and a militant drumbeat. It even has a key change on the final chorus–an appealingly old-fashioned diva flourish. This is all out of step with the trends. Since Gaga stepped away from the charts, a new sound has overtaken radio: many of today’s biggest hits have a breezy, aerobic quality, often a collaboration between a singer you’ve probably heard of–Justin Bieber, Rihanna–and a DJ you probably haven’t–DJ Snake, or Zedd. The No. 1 single in the country right now, “Closer,” was recorded by a pair of DJs called the Chainsmokers along with the Internet-famous singer-songwriter Halsey, and it succeeds by way of a shimmering effortlessness. A song like “Perfect Illusion,” with its sludgy production and glam-rock urgency, is as unhip as can be.
Yet there’s something timely about the sentiment, if not the execution, of Gaga’s song. “Perfect Illusion” is about the way a love affair can suddenly seem fraudulent; even though it’s not political, the song plays like an anthem for the disenchanted, and it arrives as the U.S. threatens to boil over with frustrations about systemic injustices and the nagging sense, across party lines, that everything is a scam. The rage that ripples through “Perfect Illusion” gives voice, uncomfortably, to something simmering in the zeitgeist.
When Gaga came up, it was also a moment of transition for America–at the height of the Great Recession. But back then, her message was uniting, a rallying cry so simple it felt like a salve: Just dance.
This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.
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