Lady Gaga Takes Mental Health Out Of The Avant-Garde
You look up and see their pictures everywhere. They're on your cereal box, pasted across social media, on the television, and billboards. Celebrities. They're all unique, but they have one thing in common: their portrayed happiness. Untainted by depression and basking in flawless mental health. It isn't accurate, but it's what the public sees, what our children see, the growing youth, up-and-coming generations. It's the only thing someone who has mental illness sees. When you’re suffering, other’s apparent happiness seems even more blunt. These are our role-models. The world views them as "celebrities:" untouched by any form of mental illness or suffering by definition. But they are people too. Many of them claim that they love their fans and feel lucky to be able to use their platforms to set positive examples as role models. Thus why aren't they revealing their truths to connect to those who lookup?
As a precursor, it was only natural for the meat-sporting Madonna of our generation to lead the way into the de-stigmatization of mental health in celebrity culture. And she chose a specially good time to do so. Everyone is confined to their homes right now and, more importantly, their minds, it’s crucial that we feel connected. The connection mustn’t be just to one another. We should strive to level with the world and those we consider leaders. With this in mind, Lady Gaga has invited her listeners to join her in creating new footprints. She opens a portal into the tumultuously honest realm that titles her latest release, Chromatica. Mother Monster consequently describes Chromatica as follows:
“Chromatica is how I do hard things."
After having tried deciphering this remark for some time, I concluded that Chromatica is a safe space for her to release her feelings and be herself. The barrier's demolished and Chromatica can exist as an endless world where emotions are felt, and truths unshackled. And now we've been invited to share in it as well. Celebrities struggle with mental health, and Gaga has unlocked Chromatica to show that famous people are just like the rest of us, plus the fame factor.
She's singing about herself yet again. How is that inviting to others who haven't lived her specific instances and felt those exact emotions? For starters, even if it's about her, it still puts out a message that says,
“YOU ARE NOT ALONE.”
But most importantly, there is growth within the album. This growth happens throughout 3 "acts" that Chromatica is broken into. Act 1 begins in a place of uncertainty and desperation, a place where many who suffer from mental illness have visited. It progresses into Act 2, the section that favors a tone of liberation over one of despair. This act gives its audience hope. By the time Act 3 rolls around, both the listener and the album more comfortably share in the discomfort that is indispensable for growth. So I’m diving into Chromatica head first like a graceful and ferocious Michael Phelps off the starting blocks. It’s a new time and Lady Gaga is employing new tactics to blaze a trail for an open discussion about mental health.
Chromatica Act I
The first lyrical track on the album says,
"Could you pull me out of this alive? Where's my body? I'm stuck in my mind."
(Lady Gaga - Alice)
This is a lyric that cries out to anyone who might be listening. It's a generalized statement and an acknowledgment. An acknowledgment of having reached a point in one's mental health struggles where you need anything to tear you away from your tightening psychological bonds. It marks the beginning of a [potentially] painful journey towards healing. And it's important to note that healing is more than likely something that you continue to work towards indefinitely. I think that's why Gaga stresses that Chromatica never ends and again claims that "it's how she makes sense of things." Because growth is infinite and not something that one will ever cease to experience on their mental health journey. Here's what Gaga had to say about the "acknowledgment" in Act I:
"This is a mental issue. I radically accept that I have it. And although I feel completely disconnected and offline, I am still going to pursue "Wonderland." I'm still going to look for something that I do not have right now through just simply trying. I think that being brave is hard. It's synonymous with trying."
(Lady Gaga - The Chromatica Interview with Zane Lowe, 2020)
Act I is all about adopting your truth and facing the fact that you are in a disconcerting place and that you'd like to find a way out. You don't immediately need to know how, but you must try. And isn't it great that this notion of admitting your truth is already topping the charts? With Rain on Me lingering in today's top 40 everyone gets to be reminded on their daily commute:
"Gotta live my truth, not keep it bottled in
So I don't lose my mind"
(Ariana Grande - Rain on Me)
Towards the end of Act I, Chromatica already takes its audience to a much lighter space. The song Free Woman ensues and stands as a symbol that although radical acceptance of your mental state can feel disheartening, it’s freeing. There’s hope as long as you try. But before reaching this point of liberation, Gaga insisted that she had to reach a breaking point. In the Zane Lowe interview, she discussed how not addressing the mental issues she was facing prevented her from producing work that was true to self. Gaga claimed she'd been making music that came out sounding happy, but it wasn't how she felt on the inside. The star needed to relinquish her grasp on prosthetic happiness. Then she could focus on crafting sound that aligned with the mental health journey she's on.
This is something that I think many who suffer from mental health issues can relate to. You don't need to be stunted in your art or your music. Mental health left unattended can put a block on your life. And there's no shame in letting your entourage know that you need help. If you're trying to be pulled out alive, you value your life and are thankful for the fact that you’re indeed here. This is expressed like a cryptic Hallmark card in Rain on Me’s chorus.
"I'd rather be dry, but at least I'm alive."
(Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande - Rain on Me)
With water symbolizing seemingly endless tears and despair, the song speaks to those in a similar situation of urgent defeat. It's not abnormal to feel this way, and if you ask for that hand, you're collaterally recognizing that you're here and have faith in that. It’s corny and tugs at your heartstrings but it’s true.
Chromatica Act II
Act I is all about the "radical acceptance," and Act II is probably the most descriptively personal [to Gaga] portion of the album. What contains subject matter that could feel like an icy and unforeseen blow due to its natural scarcity, is cautiously foreshadowed by Act I. 911, the first song in this act dives right into a discussion about an antipsychotic medication taken by the star. There is so much stigma around medicine when it comes to mental illness. Yet, antidepressants are among the most prescribed drugs in the US. Now one of the most famous performers of our century and today’s biggest pop star (following her dethronement of Bad Bunny) has taken to singing about them. People dance to this in their living rooms and sing it on the commute from their beds to their temporary home offices. It's already been said that mental health medications offer relief from symptoms like any other medication you'd take for various reasons. So why taint these medications with shame? In my opinion, we've seen Gaga in more provocative attire than the lyrics that dress 911. Meat dresses have thankfully not taken flight as a trend. Still, hopefully, this will help lift the unfortunate stigma that revolves around antidepressants and antipsychotics.
The rest of the songs in this act range in their "relatable capacity." Some originate from more specific instances in Gaga's life. In contrast, others address issues prevalent across a broad spectrum of society and might have specifically touched more masses. Replay, for instance, is about the star's scars that were left by the rabid monsters of her past. Akin to someone releasing their aches by finally openly discussing them, she works through personal issues throughout this portion of the album. It's hard to admit to your past and can be even more challenging to re-solicit it in the interest of healing. The liberation in being able to do so is the healing that comes of it, though. By publicly addressing her past, one of the world's most famous people is telling everyone that it's ok to do so. This doesn't go without saying that everyone is different, and publicized healing is not for everyone. But her generosity, in doing so, offers excellent catharsis to those in fear of discussion encircling their inner demons. The album offers so much reform as a whole, and I strongly recommend listening to it from beginning to end. Because although I'm drawing examples from only a handful of songs, it's the mind-flaying conglomeration of structured emotional revelation that progresses throughout it that offers the full spectrum of curative sound.
Chromatica Act III
Lady Gaga conceived Chromatica with intent. The album blends theatrics with meaning, and the outcome is game-changing. Mental health can be a confusing vat of mixed emotions and underlying circumstances. Thus you can trust that if anyone were to make a theatrically organized album divided by "acts" to address the topic, it would be Gaga. This thought takes me to the third and final division, Act III. Healing. After you've gone through the admittance of your mental status and begun to intimately rehash your past and present, you get to heal. Chromatica highlights the hope that rests in paying attention to mental health and the promise of some assuagement. This promise isn't a vow that venturing onto your mental health journey will be completed in any set time or that it’ll ever end for that matter. Again, it's a journey, and as Gaga emphasizes, Chromatica is endless. It's a world where opportunities to heal are endless and different for anyone who enters it.
Although Act III is the shortest section in the album, it’s by no means therapeutically devoid. Sure, Sine From Above is less universal in the sense that it's intimately specific to both Gaga and Elton John, who collaborated on the track. It talks about what healed them: sound. Despite being less transferable than some of the other songs on the album, it's obliging in our mental health journeys. What speaks to you? It might also be sound, but it could be any wealth of things. And who says you are confined to only one remedy? No one (hopefully). It's helpful to be able to look at the things that do work for you, though. Lady Gaga is an artist whose previous works have been all over the spectrum in terms of style and content. Chromatica targets her emotions and pinpoints what she'd like to say. It's a statement that makes for inspiring work.
"I'd do anything for you to really see me
I am human and visibly bleeding
When your smile is shaking, I'll catch you as you fall
I cry more than I ever say
Each time your luck seems to save the day"
(Lady Gaga - 1000 Doves)
Above is an excerpt from 1000 Doves, in my opinion, probably the most significant song on the album in terms of shining natural light on the issue of mental health. I started with this, and I'm repeating it here because it’s one of the massive points indicated in Chromatica:
MENTAL HEALTH IS PART OF THE EVERYDAY.
It is, in fact, so mundane that yes, even celebrities have to tend to theirs. And in this song, Gaga has removed any ambiguity and left her audience with the simple truth. She wants to be seen. Lady Gaga cries too. She's a human, and it hurts when the world seizes the right to selectively see that because she's famous, she doesn't bleed like you and I. This isn't the first time Gaga has tried to level with fans for them to see her as a person before all else. She attempted with Artpop, but the intention got lost in translation due to the obscurity of that album. Blend a topic as obscure as mental health with an even more arcane product and nobody is bound to catch on.
As humans, we're social creatures by nature. So being suddenly isolated has given everyone a lot more time to think about everything. Chromatica is a digital work released in a new kind of digitally reliant era. It's paving the way for the normalization of speaking out about all aspects of mental health. It's important to share and be honest with yourself and those close to you, now more than ever and Chromatica is a contemporary step in this direction.
Many have tried to bury any discussion surrounding their mental health or mental health in general. Even Lady Gaga is someone who went from stashing her past under a wardrobe of forcefully divergent apparel and provocative art for art's sake. But now she's openly summoned her former, acknowledged its existence, confronted it, and started figuring out how to move forward despite its eternal presence. Gaga went so far to change herself in the eyes of the world yet still made a massive comeback with Chromatica, a world she created to safely reveal her rawest persona. It didn't stop there. Because she's invited everyone to share in the experience. As a progressive artist, Lady Gaga has made an example of herself. Gaga's self-exemplification is a revolutionary step in the interest of empowering voices to speak out about something that, up-until-now, has been prevalently swept under a rug and held down with a coffee table and three stacks of books.
Moral of the story?
At the end of the day, Lady Gaga should be the one caught in the definition of "avant-garde", not mental health.
#ladygaga #chromatica #mentalhealth #taboos #normalize #talkaboutit #notalone