'Perfect Illusion' Lady Gaga Is Really 6 Previous Lady Gagas in One

Billboard

Like few pop superstars since Madonna, Lady Gaga tends to mark a new era in her career with each individual single and video. With a perpetually shape-shifting sound, look, and artistic ambition from release to release, an entire Stefani Germanotta album -- or a whole year in her career -- can contain enough separate, discrete Gagas to field a football team: "Just Dance" Gaga was totally different from "LoveGame" Gaga, which was thoroughly unrecognizable as "Paparazzi" Gaga, and so on.

That's part of what makes "Perfect Illusion," the latest song-and-video chapter in Gaga's career, an interesting case. The lead single from Gaga's upcoming Joanne album marks one of the first times when the pop star seems to be acknowledging her own history, combining some of the most immediately identifiable elements from various stages of her career into one explosive three-minute package.

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There's not a ton of "Cheek to Cheek" Gaga, perhaps -- while the jazz-pop era of Germanotta's career may have been a necessary palate cleanser, it's not likely to make much of an imprint on her eventual single-disc Greatest Hits -- but most of her other notable incarnations seems to be represented in some form with "Perfect Illusion" Gaga. Here are six examples.

1. The theatrical accent of "Bad Romance" Gaga

Maybe the most striking callback of "Perfect Illusion" is the return of Gaga's exaggerated pronunciation of "love" as "LAHV," an affectation that first entranced Little Monsters as part of the "LAHV, LAHV, LAHV, I want your love" refrain to 2009 smash "Bad Romance." In fact, if one part of "Illusion" has been banging around your head since its release two weeks ago, it's undoubtedly that chorus shriek: "IT WASN'T LAHHHHHHHHV!!" Love it or hate it, at least part of you has undoubtedly missed it a little bit this last half-decade.

2. The disco drama of "Marry the Night" Gaga

The song's glitterball stomp is a familiar one to fans from a couple Born This Way singles: the cinematic "Edge of Glory," and even more so, the barnstorming "Marry the Night." The latter was the under-appreciated fifth single from BTW, and its propulsive synth work and relentless 4/4 pulse gave the song the same dance-floor urgency and Moroder-like sheen that the Kevin Parker, BloodPop and Mark Ronson co-produced chugging beat gives "Illusion." (The video further ups the disco ante with trigger-warning-baiting flashing lights.)

3. The frenzy of "Judas" Gaga

The "Perfect Illusion" video is easily Gaga's most dizzying creation since her much-hyped "Judas" visual from 2011 - another cut-a-second clip that attempted to pack a movie's worth of action into an heavy-rotation-length music video. Unlike the more symbolically loaded "Judas," though, "Perfect Illusion" goes easy on the (sac)religious imagery in favor of rapid-fire splices of Gaga driving, mic-whipping, and generally enrapturing fans with her strobe-lit performances.

4. The griminess of "Poker Face" Gaga

Though she was ensnared by the mainstream almost instantly upon her late-'00s breakout, early Gaga seemed like she had just crawled out of the New York underground, the culmination of a decade's worth of electroclash and garage-rock seediness. The bass and synths on "Poker Face," her signature The Fame hit, packed a growl rarely heard on 21st century pop radio, and you can spot echoes of that grungy energy in the screaming guitars, throbbing bass, and impossibly sweaty (and handsy) video here.

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5. The rock fantasies of "You and I" Gaga

Though the song seems closer in sonic construction to EDM, and the video appears to be set at an Electric Daisy-like outdoor festival, the overall feel is closer to that of a basement rock show: All six-strings, crowd-surfing and Gaga hugging her bandmates. It's definitely the most RAWK Stefani has been since the Jo Calderone days, and Born This Way's stadium power ballad "You and I" -- down to some of the desert shots in the "Illusion" clip even calling back to the open-road panoramas in the "You" video. Plus, it's got a climactic key change that would make Jon Bon Jovi's jaw drop.

6. The simplicity of "Applause" Gaga

After Born This Way's singles got more and more ambitious and its videos increasingly overstuffed, Gaga had a sort of back-to-basics moment with the streamlined synth-pop of ARTPOP's 2013 lead gingle "Applause," and its dialogue- and plot-free visual. It's a comeback trend that wisely continues with "Perfect Illusion," which, for all of its integrated Gagas, still presents a relatively straightforward final result -- an exhilarating three-minute pop single, with the hyper-kinetic video to match.