A little over six months. That's how long it took Lady Gaga to (seemingly) cast her pink Joanne hat aside.
On Saturday night (Apr. 15), Gaga played a well-received set at Coachella, where she became the first solo female headline at the Indio, Calif. festival in a decade. She played three songs from her Joanne album, released last October, including the piano ballad "Million Reasons," which became her latest top 10 hit on the Hot 100 chart in February. But the set's biggest story was about her debuting a new love song, "The Cure," that wasn't on Joanne - and didn't sound much like it at all.
Gaga's semi-impromptu Coachella performance (she was filling in for pregnant "Telephone" pal Beyonce) took place nearly four months before her Joanne World Tour kicks off in August. Naturally, Gaga could have celebrated her first album in three years and previewed an ambitious international run. Yet "The Cure," which was released to digital retailers and streaming services soon after the live debut, grabbed all the headlines after the performance, partially because the song marks a notable departure from the guitar-inflected cowpoke-pop of Joanne.
The pop great's latest LP railed against the bass drops of Top 40 while leaning on Midwest-oriented, back-to-basics songwriting, adorned with the production sparkle of Mark Ronson and Bloodpop. But on her new single, the gritty percussion of "John Wayne" is gone, and the automotive double entendres of "A-Yo" are a distant memory. With "The Cure" - which was co-written by DJ White Shadow and co-produced by Nick Monson, both key players on Gaga's 2013 album ARTPOP - Gaga has ditched the line-dancing and returned to the glittery dance music that helped make her a superstar.
And… that's what a lot of us wanted, right? The "Poker Face" queen is back, with a slower tempo to account for a moodier moment in pop radio! Joanne still exists for those who love it, and now we have a new jam just in time for summer! Head to the pool and soak in that synth hook!
That's all well and good, but the timing of this about-face is curious, to say the least. It would be one thing if "The Cure" was a Joanne bonus track that was released soon after the album to super-serve fans - or a coming attraction of a Joanne deluxe edition, a la The Fame Monster, which it may still end up being. But the song represents such a radical stylistic shift from Gaga's preceding album that it feels like an abrupt course correction, meant to build momentum ahead of her summer tour. (A source tells Billboard that the song is being tested at radio, but hasn't officially been named a single yet.)
One song that Gaga did not play at Coachella was "Perfect Illusion," the offbeat disco-rock lead single from Joanne that radio quickly shrugged off and Gaga has succinctly cast aside from live performances. And although "Million Reasons" has endured at Top 40, that's due in part to a massive bump provided by February's Super Bowl halftime show performance, in which it served as a centerpiece. Joanne became Gaga's fourth No. 1 album last fall, and has sold 515,000 copies since then, according to Nielsen Music. That number becomes even more respectable when considering that the album has not taken over pop radio; even ARTPOP, widely considered a misstep upon its 2013 release, was led by a top 10 hit in "Applause."
If "The Cure" does indeed become Gaga's next single, however, it means that one of her most idiosyncratic eras - a clear rebuke of modern pop trends - has ended unexpectedly early, and with little traditional crossover success to show for it. It also means that Gaga followed up that era with a single that fits in precisely with modern pop trends, from the Weeknd's rhythmic gloom to the Chainsmokers' downtempo EDM to the dancehall influence that everyone from Drake to Maroon 5 has recently absorbed.
While talking with a friend about "The Cure" after its release, we both agreed that the song itself is not as startling as what it could signal for Gaga's career; my friend lamented that, with Gaga, "There's always a wink, or something weird or different. This is TOO normal." And while I think that slightly undercuts the song's positive qualities - the finger-snaps, the shuddering production on the verses, the way Gaga's voice ramps up from quivering on the pre-chorus to attack-mode on the line "I will be right by your side!" - "The Cure" does indeed sound… normal. Even if the Joanne era hasn't been the dominant post-ARTPOP comeback that fans had hoped for, it has been colorful and inarguably singular, because that's who Lady Gaga is. What to make of a Lady Gaga song that feels good going down but has virtually no aftertaste?
Monitoring the fan reaction and chart performance of "The Cure" over the next month will be interesting, since it could forge one two paths for Gaga. If the song is a hit -- which it very well could be, based on the song spending much of the past few days atop the iTunes chart -- then she could feel compelled to continue exploring its synthesized uplift in her next batch of material; if it doesn't stick, then she could dismiss it as a one-off ode to her fans, and jump down the next rabbit hole.
Neither of those outcomes is bad, necessarily. But for a well-regarded superstar with a major tour looming, "The Cure" represents a creative crossroads that few saw coming quite so soon. Fare thee well, Joanne hat; we'll always have the Super Bowl.