I have strong opinions about pop music. I was born in ’88 and grew up in the 90s, so my basis of modern pop tunes is everything from Mariah and Michael and Sheryl to Britney and Ricky and J.Lo. Jock Jams. Now That’s What I Call Music! I remember hip-hop sliding itself into the Top 40 in a huge way during the turn of the millennium, and alternative rock struggling to stay mainstream if it was anything less than catchy.
As of 2020, popular music has hedged in more directions that I can count. Between the 90s bubblegum pop surge and now, we’ve seen the charts topped by almost every genre there is: R&B, EDM, country, trap, soft rock, latin dance, folk, synth-pop, soul… Think about how utterly lucky we are to exist in a period of creation where this much variety in music is available to us.
In case you need a refresher, Lady Gaga emerged in 2008. First, as a chic underground pop star in small venues, and in a behind-the-scenes video series on YouTube called Gagavision. (Never knew this existed? Do yourself a favor and watch the first one. Diehard fans, you’re welcome. Enjoy this gem of a throwback.)
The following year, she dropped “Just Dance.” (Side Note: 2009 was the best damn year for modern pop music on record. Here’s the evidence. Come fight me about it.) Then “Poker Face,” closely followed by the artsiest tour you ever did see.
Soon, she started talking about disco sticks and showing up in outrageous outfits — and making big, bold statements like her now legendary 2009 VMAs performance. “If I’m gonna be sexy on the VMAs and sing about the paparazzi, I’m gonna do it while I’m bleeding to death and reminding you of what fame did to Marilyn Monroe. And what it did to Anna Nicole Smith. And what it did to…yeah. Do you know who?” (Answer: Amy Winehouse.)
That performance was when I realized that this woman did not come to play. She was bringing a punk spirit to the pop world that I hadn’t experienced before. Not Hot Topic-brand, Avril Lavigne punk. Not sad alternative aggression that wishes it were punk. But using her influence to say important things punk. Grossing out her critics just for shits and giggles punk. Wearing a meat dress punk. (Icky, but I admire her gall.)
I don’t know what to say about the state of pop music now… I don’t hate it, but most days, I’m not excited to stream a Top of the Charts playlist.
Enter Gaga, broadcasting live from Chromatica:
My immediate thought was an emphatic, “FINALLY. This is what pop music needs right now.” And by “this,” I mean vibrancy and positivity and fun and a return to the sound that made it so infectious in the first place. (The only mainstream artist who’s doing that at the moment is Lizzo, who’s wonderful.)
That’s when I realized that this song and this video have a distinct retro feeling to them. They don’t exactly feel like they’ve come out of 2020 — they feel more like bits and pieces of my childhood. And yet, the sound is crisp and loud and joyfully reckless and as danceable as any hit beyond 2000 has been.
It’s taken me several watches and listens, but I finally landed on a handful of things — that cannot possibly be unintentional — that make for delicious throwback vibes, rendering “Stupid Love” an automatic hit.
one | It feels pretty, uh… mighty and morphin’.
This is something viewers picked up on immediately. The concept of the video revolves around the planet of Chromatica, where several tribes are battling for dominance. Each tribe dons a different color with a matching tribal symbol.
There have been other comparisons to things I don’t have experience with — like the game Bayonetta and the iconic Star Trek — but if you ever watched Power Rangers in the 90s as a kid, these colors will undoubtedly jog your memory:
two | Graphics poppin’ up left and right…
It’s true that the tribal seals pop up and rotate onscreen for a few seconds during the video, but you may have missed the other graphics that made an appearance.
Remember the early days of music video blocks on MTV, VH1, and The Box? Remember how you knew what you were watching and what was coming up next? Check the bottom-right corner:
three | A disco beat + 80s synths always win.
Okay, this one isn’t unique to modern pop… but it’s on this list because it’s further proof that disco is one of our favorite pieces of musical nostalgia. Any song that opts for a disco vibe automatically reminds us of energy and movement and fun — and familiar standby songs by the likes of Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, and Nile Rogers.
Disco-inspired pop tends to finds its way onto party playlists, ambient shopping tracks, slick commercials, and workout playlists. Even now, in its mutated, evolved forms, we love that shit.
four | Rave fashion.
Club culture existed in the 60s, of course, but it was killed gently by the much looser hippie movement. It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that “rave” came to mean something way more distinctive in American culture in particular: Neon. Excess. Cartoonish. Glowsticks. DIY outfits. “Cyber”-everything.
One look at the costumes of Chromatica is all you need to know about how Gaga feels about rave culture. (If you were around for the ARTPOP era, though, you already know what’s up.)
five | The big, showy group dance.
It’s not unheard of in newer music videos — and it’s always been a staple of tour choreography for most pop performers — but music videos less and less often feature a good old fashioned, “Let’s all join in a massive group dance for no apparent reason other than it looks SO FUN.”
This is a video element that harkens back to the greats: Michael, Janet, Madonna, Britney… A simple(-ish) repetitive 8-count of choreography is something we all know and love, and it’s something Gaga and her choreographer have smartly incorporated into her biggest hits. Even if you’ve forgotten the words to “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face,” you probably remember the monster claws and face-swiping moves attached to those tunes.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t believe in living in the past, and I can’t stand it when artists recycle old successes from other musicians. (Ask me how I feel about film remakes.) But smart artists — in any medium — know that the past informs the future, and that people want to feel anchored in something they know while they’re experiencing things that are brand spankin’ new.
Gaga is one of a handful of performers who has a talent for seeing what’s happening at a given moment and injecting it with a whiff of something else entirely. Most times, it works. For the sake of 2020, I’m hoping the rest of her forthcoming album Chromatica follows the lead “Stupid Love” is setting: Coping with an uncertain future by draping ourselves in the styles and comforts of the recent past.