As another summer filled with forgettable pop tunes winds down, Lady Gaga has emerged with “Perfect Illusion,” a single from her upcoming fifth studio album “Joanne,” set to be released on Oct. 21. “Joanne” comes off of the heels of 2013’s “ARTPOP,” admittedly not the artist’s best work, a 2014 duet album — Cheek to Cheek — with Tony Bennett and a foray into acting lauded by critics and fans alike; her role in “American Horror Story: Hotel” was recognized with a Best Actress award at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards.
“Perfect Illusion,” however, marks a rather subpar return to the solo pop world in which Lady Gaga made a name for herself. While not an utterly terrible song — I would allow it to run the full three minutes and two seconds while sitting in traffic on the way home — Lady Gaga’s newest single lacks the avant-garde, “Lady Gaga-ness” that audiences are accustomed to. Three years down the line, we would have expected from Gaga a spectacular, jaw-dropping, punch-in- the-face number guaranteed to redefine the phrase “knock your socks off.” It’s catchy, of course, but so is every other song on the radio. The vanilla hidden beneath a wash of intensity would be typical of any other pop star on the market, but just not Lady Gaga.
Which brings us to the key change. Right around 1:51, the song modulates from the key of A to B, which means that the rest of the song has shifted up and will now be sung in this new key. Key changes aren’t necessarily unusual; composers have been tossing them into their scores since keys were invented. In fact, 18th century composer and music theorist Charles-Henri de Blainville dramatically stated, “Modulation is the essential part of the art.”
Essential, perhaps, but cliché? The key change has become a trope, appearing at the end of pop songs so frequently now that it’s referred to as the “truck driver’s key change”; shift the semi up a gear to finish off those final miles in the journey. It’s become nothing special, just a little something added to drive home the point of the song. However, I would never say that it’s ineffective. In “Perfect Illusion,” Lady Gaga sings of the moment reality comes crashing down in a seemingly perfect whirlwind romance. Her mantra “it was a perfect illusion” is intensified by this shift up so that the final chorus is comparable to the wail of a heartbroken individual. It’s dramatic and emotional, but it’s been done over and over again, and better, too.
The late, great Whitney Houston transformed Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” into an iconic anthem of love found then lost with a spine-tingling key change that shows off the haunting power of her vocals and her inimitable prowess as a performer. The drumbeat and her impeccable timing kept listeners on the edge of their seats, a sense of anticipation that is missing in “Perfect Illusion.”
Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” is also considered an admirable example of the key change, but for an entirely different reason. The composition of “Perfect Illusion” parallels “Love on Top” more so than “I Will Always Love You,” but where Lady Gaga falters is ingenuity. It’s ingenuity and courage that brought Beyoncé to incorporate an unprecedented four key changes into three minutes and 16 seconds. The writing isn’t spectacular, and the teeny-bop sound is so uncharacteristic of Beyoncé that you continually ask yourself “where is the real Beyoncé?” until the third key change where you say “oh, there she is.”
There are many more well-done iterations of the key change, but a discussion of iconic modulations can’t be complete without a nod to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” The shift is about as unmissable as a gospel choir at full voice, which is exactly what happens at the 2:52 mark after a moment of silence that mimics a collective breath taken. Not only that, but the fact that the shift happens on the word “change” in a song about change makes the modulation so over-the- top that it’s become iconic.
So there we have it. Three iconic key changes of recent music history, each iconic for different reasons: Houston’s key change affirm her mettle as a singer, Beyoncé’s key changes are the tour de force of an otherwise bland song, and Jackson’s key change inspires listeners to take back the world for themselves. Unfortunately for Lady Gaga, her key change is nowhere near the level of genius Houston, Beyoncé and Jackson exhibi. Like flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, the cliché of the pop key change only works when it really works. Otherwise it’s just another element so beaten to death by pop you can’t help but roll your eyes. And in a song as polarizing as “Perfect Illusion,” a key change unfortunately can’t magically transform it into the masterpiece it could have been.
Photo courtesy of Collier Schorr