The release of a Lady Gaga video used to be as big a pop-music event as you could get. Love her or hate her, she was an artist with gonzo ambitions at the height of her popularity, given free reign to overstuff surrealist mini-films with avant-garde chin straps, extraterrestrial birthing scenes, and Beyoncé on a murder spree.
After a 2014-2015 career detour into Tony Bennett’s safe embrace, this year it seemed possible she’d try to return to music-video greatness as part of her attempted reconquest of pop. Gaga’s furious, distinctive, and undercooked comeback single “Perfect Illusion” just debuted at No. 15 at the Hot 100—not very impressive by her standards. Perhaps the video could give it staying power, drawing views by announcing a new phase of extravagant wigcraft and winks at Madonna?
Nope. Gaga has doubled down on the implied message of her recent media appearances: The loudly weird fame monster we once knew is gone, replaced by someone still following their own muse but with 1/10th the quantity of camp and pretension. The “Perfect Illusion” clip debuted during the season premiere of Scream Queens, her friend Ryan Murphy’s outrageous horror-comedy show, and the aesthetic mismatch couldn’t be greater. Gaga isn’t playing jokes, and if she’s in character it’s a subtle performance. The only mission here seems to be to bring rock and roll back, or at least use rock and roll to bring herself back.