“Boy, there’s a lot of controversy about that song,” said the jock backselling Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” on Monday. Then he added, “It’s really growing on me,” maybe a little too hastily.
I loved “Perfect Illusion” after one listen. But if you’re grappling with it, or dismissive, I understand. It’s a harsh lyric and an adamant vocal. It’s yet another Madonna homage. It’s chaotic in places, especially the bridge. Even my friends with reliably similar tastes offered only qualified approval in the first few days. (I will say that the one person I know who did like it within seconds is a female co-worker with the best ears in the office.)
Gaga should have known to give radio the guaranteed crowd pleaser they needed from her. “Applause” was a really good little record, and still sounds good when I hear it on the radio, which is not that often. But it was not the best use of her “one-more-shot” moment after the sophomore slump of the ambitious-but-not-satisfying “Born This Way” album. So this is a particularly willful response to the “one more one-more-shot” moment.
The obvious thing to do would have been to offer up a “Can’t Stop This Feeling.” Justin Timberlake’s Michael Jackson-tributes and country excursions were just about to wear out his automatic superstar status at Top 40. Then he enlisted Max Martin on the next MJ tribute, released what was practically a DJ Earworm medley of recent crowd pleasers, and locked down many people’s Song of Summer 2016 within hours of release.
The thing that bothered me most about Justin’s ‘80s-soul pastiches was that none of them packed the initial jolt of “SexyBack.” For the first few days, many people considered “SexyBack” a dreadful, irritating, celebrity self-indulgence. It’s still not a song that everybody likes, but “SexyBack” emerged as the true hit of a summer that was otherwise full of pleasant-enough retro-soul exercises.
It’s been five days since the release of “Perfect Illusion.” I’ve probably played it 50 times now —and repeatedly in the first hour after its release. But just having played it all the way through once, then again immediately thereafter, is rare enough. I played “Just What I Needed” over and over in 1978. I didn’t do that with “Closer” by the Chainsmokers — and I like that song well enough.
?By now, most readers know that I haven’t much liked a lot of what acts like Chainsmokers and Major Lazer have unleashed over the last year — 72bpm EDM ballads with far more repetition than “Perfect Illusion,” manipulated vocal samples that chirp like a broken smoke alarm for three minutes. There is, at this moment, a dearth of tempo in every major format. So I am already favorably disposed to any song that is reasonably dynamic and energetic.
But what I particularly love about “Perfect Illusion” so far is that it does so many things that many great singles used to do. It commands attention from the first note. It goes through a half-dozen changes by the first chorus. It has a great drum pickup at the end of the (first) bridge, even though you’re distracted by that death-defying vocal modulation. It roars to a conclusion in under three minutes. Not since the White Stripes’ genre exercises of a decade ago has any artist been as determined to play with classic form.
I hear the Madonna references (as well as some of the other early ‘80s R&B that producer Mark Ronson didn’t get to on “Uptown Funk”), but it also sounds as if Gaga and Ronson have been listening to “Midnight Confessions” by the Grass Roots — one of the most perfect ‘60s singles ever. One friend wrote that the song was reminiscent of Roxette. But Roxette is a compliment in my world, too. And they can hold their own with Jack White on any discussion of single structure.
I love it for the energy. I love it for the tempo. I love it for not being the safe strategy. I love it because the people who make it like the same records that I like. (Ronson obviously knows from classic pop references, but “The Fame” was full of them, too.) And I noticed something else by Monday. I heard it segued into Flume’s “Never Be Like You” — the sort of stately EDM ballad that I’ve been ranting against lately — and the contrast made both records sound great.
I don’t know if my brief will bring a single radio detractor around, although there have been enough events since last Friday — hourly first-day CHR airplay; No. 1 on iTunes; 149 top 40 first-week adds — to keep the momentum going. The last few days have also been confirmation of Gaga’s sustained media celebrity after nearly a decade, in a way that isn’t tethered to one song. That combination of stardom and attendant controversy means that Gaga has delivered an event record to CHR, regardless of how enthusiastically some PDs choose to sign for it.
For that reason, it’s easy to imagine some PDs considering their obligations discharged after a single day of saturation airplay. And hourly isn’t always the best way to hear a song that some listeners have to warm up to on their own timetable. But radio should want this song to work. Because if it isn’t the song they need, then they’re going to have to wait for another major artist to show up with enough tempo and energy to break up the format’s current musical gridlock. And that isn’t happening at a reliable clip these days.