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.
In a desert landscape reminiscent of Coachella or Burning Man, Gaga jumps around on stage in front of an ecstatic crowd, drives around in an off-road vehicle, and performs in a night-time mosh pit with Mark Ronson, Blood Pop, and Kevin Parker (who she sloppily hugs as he drums). The editing is excellently chaotic, and at certain points Gaga appears to be filmed at a different speed than the other people in the frame. There’s something strange going on with her eyes—maybe she’s wearing contacts to make the whites bigger, maybe she was told to keep trying to roll her pupils back, maybe it’s just cool makeup. In any case, she looks fierce, hungry, and perhaps coked out, which fits with the song’s drug references. At the end, the revelry disappears and Gaga is alone in sand—was it all an illusion?
It’s not a work of provocation, but it is well done, and it is gutsy in a way: None of Gaga’s charts rivals would attempt something so raw and low-concept for a crucial video, nor would they be chasing the public using a genre as commercially dicey right now as rock and roll. Directed by Andrea Gelardin and Ruth Hogben, the video would have felt at home in rotation among the grunge and nu metal artists of ‘90s MTV.
The song, on the other hand, remains a mishmash of present-day dance pop—overloaded with hooks—and surprising throwback production (I still can’t believe Kevin Parker’s drums here sound as muffled and vintage as they do in his main band, Tame Impala). Together with this stripped-down video and the cowboy-hat art for her upcoming album Joanne, it seems likely Gaga’s staking her future on sounds more organic than the ones that propelled her to fame. This should allow her to highlight her vocal strength and stand apart from her peers, if the execution is right.
It’s not yet clear that it will be. “Perfect Illusion” remains imperfect, viscerally exciting but direly in need of something more interesting than a key change for the bridge. Something similar could be said for the video, as fun as it may be. Rock and roll is in large part a display of attitude and energy, but it’s not only that.