A PERFECT ILLUSION

Lady Gaga’s new video is shockingly different (and yet oh so familiar)

Streamline/Interscope

Lady Gaga surprised London clubgoers with a performance of “Perfect Illusion” two Fridays ago, less than 24 hours after the single’s official release. It was the first time that she had ever performed the song live, and the set could not have looked any more different from the debut live performance of her last lead single as a solo artist. “Applause” had opened the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards with multiple costume changes, multiple wig changes, flashing lights, Jeff Koons-inspired props, and more than a dozen backup dancers. The “Perfect Illusion” performance on Sept. 9, by contrast, found a ponytailed Gaga alone on the Moth Club’s stage in a pair of frayed silver hot pants and a heather-gray crop top, stomping around and swinging a microphone over her head by the cord.

“This is the real me,” the performance seemed to broadcast, a message consistent with how “Perfect Illusion” co-producer Mark Ronson had described his collaborator’s upcoming album, Joanne (Oct. 21, Streamline/Interscope) earlier this year. “It’s really great to make this very honest, authentic, kind of analog record with her,” Ronson told Charlie Rose in March. Watching the “Perfect Illusion” performance at home two weeks ago, thanks to some low-res front-row footage uploaded to YouTube, I couldn’t stop thinking about authenticity—not because I thought Gaga’s set was raw and authentic, but because I was intrigued by how masterfully precise her performance of authenticity was. And that same Wildean interest in the artifice of authenticity is on full display in her new music video for the Joanne track.

The “Perfect Illusion” video, which debuted during the second-season premiere of Fox’s Scream Queens on Tuesday night, finds Lady Gaga driving down a dusty desert road. She pulls over to kick and thrash around. A microphone appears in her hand. Lights and set pieces spring up around her. Unexplained extensions crop up in her messy blonde ponytail. A crowd appears, and so do “Perfect Illusion” collaborators Mark Ronson, Bloodpop, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Suddenly, she is surrounded. She appears disoriented as the song builds to its surprisingly divisive key change. The video, directed by Andrea Gelardin and Ruth Hogben, ends with Gaga alone (and without those extensions) in the middle of the desert, cast out of her “Perfect Illusion” as she tumbles out of frame.

Gone are the big-budget, multi-tiered, Ziegfeld Follies-esque sets. Gone is the clunkily counterintuitive yet somehow iconic choreography. Gone are the narrative-heavy dialogical vignettes and, thus, the bloated seven-to-12-minute runtimes. In fact, the “Perfect Illusion” video’s uncharacteristically short length might be the most shocking thing about it, but perhaps that’s the point.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-9-03-22-amStreamline/Interscope

When the public grew tired of Madonna’s sexually provocative image, she released 1995’s Something to Remember, a compilation album of low-intensity ballads. When the public decided that Rihanna was a singles artist light on artistry, she dropped an anti-Rihanna album of mostly radio-unfriendly tracks, appropriately titled Anti. Once the public grew weary of Gaga’s attention-grabbing gimmicks—the VMA meat dress, the vomit-splattered set at SXSW—and the unrelatable meta-pop star narrative that drove her 2013 album, Artpop, the singer switched gears. Since 2014, she has put her talent front and center, releasing an album of jazz duets with the grandparent-approved Tony Bennett, winning a Grammy for that album, channeling the equally inoffensive Julie Andrews at the Oscars, racking up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song a year later, starring on the sixth season of American Horror Story, winning a Golden Globe for that portrayal, and performing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Fans of Gaga’s music have always known that she can sing, and now, thanks to her efforts over the past two years, their parents do, too. Her rehabilitative campaign to prove her raw, authentic talent was over the top, sure, but it was understandably justified. Questions about authenticity disproportionately target female musicians, along with pop musicians and musicians whose music appeals to female and queer audiences. Lady Gaga is all of the above.

But has she really switched up her formula with the release of “Perfect Illusion?” She’s still stitching together aggressively rattled verses with soaringly anthemic choruses, regardless of how well they really fit together. She’s still relying on physical movement in her music video to say what her lyrics cannot, even if that physicality is no longer meticulously choreographed. She’s still dressing up a meta-narrative about pop stardom (“It wasn’t love / It was a perfect illusion” sounds like a perfectly Gaga-esque way to describe the loss of public approval when Artpop failed to deliver) in the far more relatable guise of a breakup song. But swap out the Koons ball for some dirt, sweat, and guitars, and now her work is “lo-fi,” “stripped-down,” “raw,” and “pure rock.” Perhaps that’s the true “Perfect Illusion” at play here.