Lady Gaga’s new album is easy to like and hard to love.
That’s not because it’s not ambitious, or good, or catchy. Returning to the pop music scene with the same stripped down production that reinvented and reincarnated the singer following the disappointment of the noisy Artpop, Joanne features tracks that are all of those things.
But when you’re Lady Gaga, the fact that you’re, well, Lady Gaga is both your blessing and your curse. Your very unapologetic Lady Gaga-ness is out there for all to dissect. You don’t set out to satisfy, and, in turn, you often don’t satisfy.
Being polarizing is the calling card of Gaga’s entire career. Her early singles and blockbuster albums capitalized on that.
The weirdos had gone mainstream and now had anthems worthy of both the shadows and the sun. “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and “Bad Romance” work as well in the dark of a beer-soaked dance floor as they do blaring from the car radio on a summer road trip.
Her wardrobe and aesthetic were to be either embraced or apologized for—alternately a beacon for those finally ready to let their freak flags fly, or a point of exhaustion for others who just wished to enjoy her songs without the distraction.
Lady Gaga was, in essence, a lot, and she carried that muchness with her like a sense of duty, both in her music and her persona. Meat dresses begat alternate male personas. Meticulously produced club bangers gave way to cacophonous pretention. The Fame Monster gave birth to Artpop.
The act of being Lady Gaga had drowned out the brilliant music, and the importance of Lady Gaga had somehow muddied the simple pleasure of being her fan: It was her authenticity, in all of its strangeness and lofty artistic pursuit, that spoke to us. That seemed to have gone missing.
Joanne, with standout tracks like “Million Reasons,” “Diamond Heart,” and title song “Joanne,” is a bit of an overcorrection to a few years of that trajectory. Artpop was Gaga’s least successful album to date—2.5 million sales versus The Fame Monster’s 15 million—and its schizophrenic tracklist, for all the pre-release talk of Gaga’s vision, lacked any identity or even hits.
Intentional or not, the ensuing years after Artpop served as career rehab, in which she took it upon herself to re-convince us of her talents and also her relatability. Performances at two consecutive Oscar ceremonies and a Super Bowl rendition of the National Anthem for the ages triumphed. An embrace of Old Hollywood glamour on red carpets stunned, and a memorable turn on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story proved that her pop-star-tries-acting instincts were cannier than Madonna or Britney Spears before her.
And while Gaga certainly hadn’t gone away, it had been three years since a down-and-out, get-thee-to-a-club pop track had come from Mother Monster. It arrived via “Perfect Illusion,” the stripped down disco-rock anthem Gaga debuted in September. The response was tepid because, on the scale of one to Gaga, the track was tepid, too.
It was her Pat Benatar moment, with raw, unsweetened vocals un-self-consciously blaring over a straightforward guitar-driven production, climaxing with an old school, blow-your-hair-back key change. Some fans missed the bells and whistles; others loved the scaled back nature of the song, a showcase for Gaga’s strong voice, even if the single failed to light up the charts.
It turns out, as Joanne illustrates with its arrival this week, that “Perfect Illusion” was a warning shot to fans. Named after Gaga’s late aunt, after whom Stefani Germanotta takes her middle name, the album marks an evolved, more intimate performer more inclined to lay bare heartache, pain, resilience, and triumph than to mask it in electro-beats and pulsing.
It’s not that Gaga’s material hasn’t always been personal. In fact, a hallmark of the singer’s popularity has been the idea that performance and flamboyance can be personal and real, if showboating is what it takes to reveal it. Yet here we meet Gaga outside the club, or maybe the dive bar. She seems tired of having to yell the story at you over the din of the dancehall. But she still has one to tell.
Perhaps then it’s no surprise that country music is a heavy influence on Joanne, with its natural lean toward storytelling. Joanne channels the genre in all forms, too, be it a Carrie Underwood-approved piano ballad (“Million Reasons”), the moodier Johnny Cash-tinged “Sinner’s Prayer,” or the more defiant, radio-friendly hoedown that is “A-Yo.”
There’s literally a song called “John Wayne.”
The material suits Gaga’s voice well, and abides by her lyrical mandate to reach out to listeners who may share some of her strife, whether its singing about loss in “Joanne” or even surviving rape in “Diamond Heart.” And Joanne certainly isn’t a slave to the trope of country music despair. The reason the album feels familiar is its insistence on, as Gaga has always done, reaching from pain to sheer exuberance.
The latter is certainly true on the aforementioned “Diamond Heart,” which for the sobering nature of its content, is a gutsy anthem aiming for the arena nosebleeds—and with all the power to reach it. Collaborator Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age, certainly leaves his mark on that, in the same way that Mark Ronson lends “Perfect Illusion” its aggressive energy. “Dancin’ in Circles” is the most stereotypically Gaga pop track, which is why, for all of its infectiousness, it’s among Joanne’s least adventurous and therefore least exciting efforts.
The rest of Joanne is simply pleasant. “Come to Mama” will titillate anyone clamoring for Lady Gaga to hit Broadway, “Angel Down” is a solid torch song to wind down the album, and “Hey Girl,” her piano-backed duet with Florence Welch, is as lovely as you’d expect from the phrase “piano-backed duet with Florence Welch.”
Our first impression of Joanne meets Gaga on the album’s cover, sans heavy makeup and looking naturally beautiful wearing nothing crazier than a wide-brimmed pink hat. The music that follows hews close to the veritably all-American girl on that cover, with not a false note played or sung across the entire record.
But that’s when we realize what played a large part in our attraction to Lady Gaga, the blessedly ludicrous pop star that’s dominated the last decade: a little bit of falsity. The crazy makeup, insane wardrobe, over-the-top music and even more over-the-top performance. We clung to it because it let us pretend we were maybe a touch wilder, weirder, or more interesting than we knew in our hearts we were.
Through her authenticity, Lady Gaga was our escapism. Joanne is confronting us with a realer Stefani Germanotta, and we’re forced to sober ourselves up, too.
Gaga hosts Saturday Night Live this weekend, and in February will headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Both seem to be natural fits for this next stage of Gaga’s career. She’s proven well-suited for the intimacy of a SNL performance but also shown, within Joanne, that she’s a rightful heir to the throne of the stadium rocker.
It’s a new Lady Gaga. It’s a good Lady Gaga. But it’s also one that’s going to take us some getting used to.