Hits And Misses: Lady Gaga’s ‘Perfect Illusion’

Our critical roundtable disembowels the hits of today and tomorrow

Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Hazel Cills, David Turner, Jessica Hopper, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Eric Torres, Doreen St. Félix, Sasha Geffen, Meredith Graves, and Ira Madison III.

Hopper: The anxious 4/4 stomp of this I hear less as the “rock and roll” vibe folks have been tweeting about — with those key changes I just hear valiant disco, especially in the bridge. Her voice here is going a lot of directions, some of which are unexpected, but the first half of the song sounds like a thoroughly workshopped, taped-together map of how to get to the triumph of the last 74 seconds. I got some mild Laura Branigan vibes throughout, which is always a good thing. The way the kick is mixed really gives it a Hunt Sales–kind of heavy footed clomp — and am now daydreaming of Josh Homme being the Bowie to her Iggy Pop and maybe this album is their Lust for Life?

Cills: Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by all the super thin pop vocals out there but Gaga’s voice seems weirdly, badly produced here, like they just sort of threw her vocal on top. I feel like by the time we get those last 74 seconds we’ve already been riding on that same high. There’s just nothing meaty in “Perfect Illusion” — it’s a throwaway pop song that relies on sounding a few degrees separated from “Eye of the Tiger.”

St. Félix: The vocals here are unearned. They are massive and extremely cold. For all her musical-theater tendencies, Gaga always worked in subtleties, modulations, even accents à la Nicki. That’s what made songs like “Bad Romance” singable, in the karaoke way, while also being platforms for her range. Side note: I wish the more classically disco break at 2:20 was leaned into for the whole song. All in all, “Perfect Illusion” is inoffensive and ironically named — it looks like an oasis in the Gaga-less desert we’ve traversed for years, but when you listen a few times, there's no ‘there’ there.

Turner: After a few listens to “Perfect Illusion,” I went back to “Just Dance,” the saccharine song that introduced Gaga to the world. The sonic contrast was immediate, but there was a familiar structural messiness to the song. Even in the brief moment when Gaga ruled pop, none of her songs had the rote of Katy Perry or the belabored perfection of Taylor Swift or Beyoncé. “Perfect Illusion” is too tight for a three-minute running time; Jessica is right to observe that it’s closer to disco than rock. All I hope is that, in line with disco tradition, there is a 12” mix to free this song.

Graves: My listening experience was preempted by the single’s artwork, which got my hopes up for either a hella rude, Don Letts–approved selector sample or some boot boy guitar skronk — pop music, but, like, it samples Annihilation Time or something. What a misread that was. If you ran into “Perfect Illusion” at a poorly lit house party, you’d probably think it was “Tik Tok,” so you’d call them Kesha multiple times before realizing you’d confused them for someone else, and you don’t even finish your beer, you just leave because you’re embarrassed. The key change is remarkably well-performed, though. She’s incredibly talented, she just deserves better songs.

Vozick-Levinson: Everyone here is right! “Perfect Illusion” is shameless trash. It’s a big, bold slap in the face to the very idea of subtlety. It’s a bedazzled skeleton glittering in the depths of an uncanny valley between Disco Mountain and The Church of Bon Jovi. It’s ... what’s the phrase I’m looking for ... right on the tip of my tongue ... a Lady Gaga song. Is that a bad thing now? The chorus was stuck in my head way before the YouTube clip was over, and I call that an unqualified success.

Torres: Americana Gaga is just so underwhelming for me on first listen, but I also got really into “Yoü and I,” so I won’t write this off completely. The disco influences give “Perfect Illusion” some much-needed character, but there’s nothing very … fun about this? I do enjoy those chanted background vocals before that glorious key change, though, which remind me of some of the breakdowns on Fame Monster. I was also expecting a lot more Tame Impala–grade guitar noodling here, but hearing this, we were probably spared. I just don’t really see myself revisiting this song unless I have to, or at least until it gets a very good remix. Can we just have the disco revival Gaga we deserve?

Geffen: Gaga, Ronson, Parker, Blood, and Homme are way too many cooks for the handful of notes that make up the main melody here. I don’t think I’ve ever made enemies with a key change like I have with this key change, which crashes in about two full minutes too early. You can’t shift keys on a chorus this flat! How are you going to nod to ’70s and ’80s greats (Eurythmics, Queen) and settle into your first hypercaffeinated chorus 30 seconds into the song? There’s no space for anything to breathe: not Gaga’s voice, not Ronson’s palm-muted riffs, not Bloodpop’s clunky drum track. I feel like Gaga and her meat dress are shrink-wrapped and asphyxiating in some well-intended but ultimately misguided PETA protest. I feel like my hemoglobin levels plummeted by the second listen.

Madison III: This messy queen. I actually … can’t get this song out of my head. She’s good for an earworm always, but there’s so much going on in this song. Is it an ’80s stadium anthem? Is it a Pat Benatar kiss-off? Is it a disco jam? Why isn’t she actually singing? I will actually disagree with Doreen and say that this song is hella singable. It’s singable in the way that “Cherry Bomb” is. It’s already a karaoke and jukebox classic and it’s been out for less than 24 hours. The song feels epic, but it’s not really. The key change is epic, though. I didn’t love “Born This Way” or “Applause” as lead singles, either, but I enjoy both of the albums they’re from, and Born This Way especially. I’m just glad she’s back.