There was a notable drop-off in first-week album sales, after “Applause” failed to repeat the No. 1 debut of Born This Way’s title track of 2011. Meanwhile, some of the Artpop rollout details -- an Artpop app! A Marina Abramovic performance piece! A... flying dress? -- were confusing at best. The mixed reception to the record culminated in a March 2014 performance at South By Southwest, in which Gaga poured beer on herself, had someone vomit paint on her and portrayed herself as a gutted pig roasted on a spit. The performance was generally considered a low point in a career that had contained blessedly few of them at that point.
After witnessing this warped version of her winning formula, some in the music industry believed that Gaga’s days as a top-tier hitmaker were behind her. That wasn’t necessarily a black mark on Gaga’s legacy: had Artpop indeed proven the beginning of the end, her five-year peak from 2009 to 2013 would still have rivaled any modern pop star’s commercial zenith. Given how difficult it is for any pop star to stay on top for a half-decade, and the waning enthusiasm around her tried-and-true approach, the widespread assumption was that Gaga would recede as a radio star, rely upon her catalog of hits to power a touring career, and enter a different phase of her career.
That last part happened: Following the Artpop era, Gaga seemed to realize that her dance-pop sound was losing its effectiveness, so she pivoted away from it for years. First came 2014’s Cheek to Cheek, a jazzy standards project alongside Tony Bennett that showcased her vocals and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. In 2016, fourth solo LP Joanne debuted a stripped-down, cowboy-hat-wearing version of solo Gaga. The album was preceded by the dance-rock flare-up “Perfect Illusion,” co-written and co-produced by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, which divided fans and underperformed at radio -- but Joanne’s biggest hit was “Million Reasons,” a plaintive, country-tinged ballad that reached No. 4 on the Hot 100.
By the time Gaga sang “Million Reasons” at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, sitting at a piano and lights from the audience swaying around her, she had quietly remolded the general perception of her music. Gaga was still best-known for the dance-pop of her apex — every song in the halftime show besides “Million Reasons” was an uptempo track from 2011 or earlier — but she had demonstrated that she could succeed without being tethered to one sound.
In the same way that some of early acting work (including a Golden Globe-winning role on American Horror Story) set the stage for her Oscar-nominated turn in the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, the success of “Million Reasons” may have laid the groundwork for the power ballad that proved to be the film’s breakout soundtrack hit, “Shallow.” The Bradley Cooper duet served as the centerpiece of the film, and its studio version treats it as such, with audience noise and applause still audible from the scene in which Jackson Maine pulls Ally onstage for the first time in the film. With its primed-for-karaoke vocal interplay and major-key chorus, the song successfully transcended its cinematic context -- and last March, became Gaga’s first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 since 2011’s “Born This Way.”
The A Star Is Born soundtrack included more singer-songwriter pop-rock in the “Shallow” vein, as well as some homages to Gaga’s danceable days of yore; “Why Did You Do That?” still goes, whether or not it’s supposed to be appreciated ironically. But it was “Shallow” that earned Gaga an Academy Award for best original song, and effectively completed a commercial renaissance that few could have predicted. It had been nearly five years since the SXSW performance by the time Gaga walked off the Oscars stage clutching an award, and she had rejiggered her image, transformed her sound and once again topped the charts. She had proven everyone who had doubted her mainstream staying power wrong. So, of course, it was time to dance again.
“We are definitely dancing,” Gaga told Beats 1’s Zane Lowe about her upcoming album, Chromatica, in February. “I would like to put out music that a big chunk of the world will hear, and it will become a part of their daily lives and make them happy every single day." Forget the rest of the world for a second — “Stupid Love,” the first single from Chromatica, has made Little Monsters euphoric as the dynamic return to dance-pop that they had been anticipating from Mother for years. Sure, the 2017 one-off single “The Cure” had dipped in a toe in dance-pop, and peaked at No. 39 on the Hot 100. “Stupid Love,” on the other hand, is a big, loving cannonball into Gaga’s past.
Even if “Stupid Love” was overdue fan service — a mash note to her most loyal supporters with its disco influence, joyfully oversized hook and kitschy sci-fi music video — Gaga had certainly earned the right to a throwback victory lap, chart success be damned. The fact that “Stupid Love” looks like a legitimate hit, with a No. 9 debut on the Streaming Songs chart and a first-week radio audience of 23.7 million, only sweetens the deal for both diehard fans as well as general listeners.
Gaga strayed from dance-pop for such a long time that “Stupid Love,” with its squealing electronic hook and relaxed vocal take, sounds fresh, a reminder of what the pop world has been missing since the early 2010s. (That itch has been similarly scratched in recent weeks by radio hits from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat and The Weeknd, in a shimmery pop revival that has been serendipitous for Gaga’s return.)
It also helps that she’s streamlined the grandiosity of the Artpop era more than a bit: “Stupid Love” is about falling for someone and wanting their love, simply put, with no gimmicks or highbrow references in sight. Gaga said that she wanted to make something universal with her new album, and here we have a straightforward pop record made with expert care (longtime hit creators Max Martin and BloodPop are among the co-producers) and zero frills. Gaga simplified the formula that she perfected at the beginning of her career, and came up with a surefire hit.
We’ve got one month until Chromatica is unleashed upon the world, and a few more after that before Gaga takes the album to stadiums this summer. Regardless of how the album performs or the tour is received, the critical and commercial success of “Stupid Love” has already added a new chapter in Gaga’s winding legacy. Her high-energy brand of pop is back in the top 10, and it’s time to just dance at least one more time.