The first half of my high school career, Lady Gaga was the coolest pop artist for weird art kids in a long time. “Born This Way” followed “Bad Romance” followed “Just Dance.” She was an unstoppable hit machine preaching tolerance through the melding of glam rock, sex, and faux Christian imagery. In high school, numerous LGBT people of tons of backgrounds waited for Lady Gaga’s secret 2011 New Year’s Eve drop. She announced the album Born This Way and shortly after released the crossover hit about LGBT rights. Straight folks could suddenly buy into gay politics for 1.29 on iTunes, and gay folks could feel represented.
The album itself, however, suffered commercially despite a strong critical appeal. Songs like “Judas” and “Marry the Night” were considered bubbling cauldrons of genre, yet they were still danceable. Elaborate music videos and dance remixes followed.
Then, Lady Gaga vanished.
Until 2013, Lady Gaga toured relentlessly and released very little new music despite another New Year’s Eve surprise (The oddly heavy “Stuck on Fuckin’ You”). Then, in 2013, Lady Gaga surprise dropped a new single, “Applause”, and announced an album featuring rap verses, pop culture callouts, and EDM influences. The infamous, ARTPOP. She banked on its success–working with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic on an ArtRave, album art, and live readings of the esoteric novel Solaris. Gaga’s videos at the time featured the blatant criticism she received at the time. A promo video for Artpop featured booing and the text, “Lady Gaga is dead.” Her MTV Awards performance featured booing.
Not the audience–but programmed booing.
Then, Lady Gaga vanished again. And this time she went on a slow and steady image revamp. She began acting, meditating, and meeting prominent jazz artists such as Tony Bennett. Eventually the pair released and album and performed a stint of shows with together. Meanwhile, Gaga also starred in American Horror Story: Hotel to rave reviews. Then a video surfaced online in which Lady Gaga discussed emotional intelligence: The craze of applying a philosophy of kindness and self-love as a spiritual practice, often involving saying no to things we don’t want to do and meditating.
And that’s how we got here, to 2016’s Joanne. The album is about and dedicated to Lady Gaga’s deceased cousin, Joanne, mentioned in the titular song and “Grigio Girls”, one of the bonus tracks. The launch party for the album was even at the restaurant Gaga’s parents named after said cousin. In early September, Gaga announced a new single, “Perfect Illusion.” This of course debuted to a polarized audience. The Chainsmokers and Black Keys have voiced their criticisms to its “rawness.” Gaga fired back with a link to the single “A-YO.”
Everything about Joanne seems to be a response to the critiques Gaga has been facing since Day 1–and yet, it subtly reverses many of the assumptions people place upon her. People have been wanting “Bad Romance Part 2” since the “Born This Way” era, and she’s only strayed further from that path ever since. Instead, Joanne focuses on the subjects Gaga has said she’s been focusing on elsewhere: Emotional intelligence, truth, autobiography, and pain. In fact, it comes on the heels of a highly public break up with actor Taylor Kinney. The simplicity is seen in the album artwork, the rather bare performances in dive bars and SNL, and in the music video for “Perfect Illusion.”
Gaga’s always spoken as someone from within the queer community, and yet over the years she’s faced criticism for being seemingly not queer. Joanne doesn’t assuage those fears–and in some ways relies on dated gender politics such as ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ as monolithic, binary groups. To my knowledge, Gaga has not addressed any of the newer queer political questions: nonbinary, trans women of color discrimination and murder, or the failure of gay marriage to ‘fix’ the problematics of queerness.
Instead, Joanne is Lady Gaga’s classic rock album. Who would’ve thought that the pop-turned jazz-turned crooner would craft rock music for the masses? “Diamond Heart,” “A-YO,” “Joanne,” even “Sinner’s Prayer” focus on classic rock tropes of a wronged person (although, in this case, female disruptive narratives about who is ‘losing’ power), a sorrowful interlude, and a call upon the Lord to deliver one from their enemies. Mark Ronson, king of “Uptown Funk” and nostalgic whammy guitars co-produced every track on the album.
“Diamond Heart” begins the album with a soft synth before engaging full-throttle electric guitars–typical of producer Jeff Bhasker–soaring choruses that speak of learning self-worth despite “some asshole b[reaking] my heart.” It falls in the vein of the “rock” or “banger” type songs on the album similar to “Perfect Illusion,” the lead single that features bare production and a screaming (on pitch for those trying to claim otherwise) Gaga. The drums accelerate as Gaga sings a second melody. Both songs are great car ride-along songs about learning self-worth despite, well, illusions.
The second single from the album, “Million Reasons,” stands out as a classic rock ballad with a country vibe, thanks to co-writer Hillary Lindsey (“Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Girl Crush,” even the song “Fearless” by Taylor Swift). “Million Reasons” sounds like one of those emotive belters that you’ve heard a thousand times before and are coming home to. It’s one of those songs you can’t believe isn’t a cover and can’t believe it hasn’t been written after two thousand years of human existence. This could be seen as cliche or as the ultimate pop songwriting achievement. Lindsey also helped write the excellent “Grigio Girls,” about a friend’s diagnosis with cancer and a girl’s Pinot Grigio club for discussing life, and “A-YO.” “Joanne,” with its country meanderings about life and “going” is a nice respite from the singles’ packed up front, but the track lacks the punch that “Million Reasons” or the closer “Angel Down” have.
I cannot describe to you the joy of listening to “A-YO.” There has never been a song like “A-YO.” It seamlessly blends joy, haters, “mirror on the ceiling,” and classic guitar licks. Also, it’s really catchy and it feels like pop should feel in your blood. Her enunciation is sexy, precise, and delicious. You can feel her singing this song from her body. It’s a precise hook with pounding verses.
The two more typical Gaga songs are the culturally ambitious (and Gaga should probably not get a pass for the cultural appropriation just because it’s catchy) “John Wayne” and “Dancin’ in Circles.” Both are about sex and both play into the changing tempos that feel faster than they actually are. These songs feel more like something from the Born This Way era, but not the singles–just something like “Government Hooker” or “Bad Kids.”
“Sinner’s Prayer,” “Come to Mama,” and “Hey Girl” pack the backside of the album and all are fine in their own right, if not a little on the nose in their messages. But I think something often forgotten about Gaga is that she never was subtle and never will be–she’s a theatre girl through and through and these message songs about love gone wrong, the evolution debate, and girl power work well in their delivery because they’re sincere. The production work and featuring of Father John Misty and Florence Welch also give some credence and umph that make me buy it a little more.
“Hey Girl” is perhaps my most tenuous relationship with Gaga. What is a girl, Gaga? In the age of genderqueerdom and trans masculine women, I’m tempted to be questioning over this crude gender essentialism. Who gets to be a girl? Do trans femmes? This may not be fair–Gaga is of course a capitalist pop star at heart and doesn’t know about modern gender theory. But since she has continually tried to speak on queer issues, I desire more. Still, there’s something very queer in the methodology of a grand scale artistic remembrance of the dead.
“Just Another Day” is a bonus track that shows off her emotional intelligence (finding happiness in the details, the way things are) and her involvement with Tony Bennett. Despite this, Gaga feels it is reminiscent of Bowie and the Beatles. I don’t fully see it for anything other than its obvious campiness.
The closing song on both the standard and deluxe edition of Joanne is “Angel Down.” It’s the song I’ve listened to the least so far, even after a week of owning the album. Gaga has said it’s about the murder of Trayvon Martin. She has endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter in passing as well. While I admire her gusto and the stance that she’s taking as a cis white woman, I wonder what it would look like to take a more active ally-oriented role rather than writing a song about it. The song itself is very beautiful but still doesn’t feel like an explicit protest song or endorsement of Black Lives Matter. It may be a start, but there’s a lot of room for her to improve in this area.
Joanne is a beautiful, bold album on Gaga’s part and feels much more cohesive than Artpop. It’s singles are clearer, catchier, and fresher. It proves that once again Lady Gaga is a genius of pop and not going away anytime soon despite the haters.
Spell cast, Gaga. Spell cast.