“I wanted to be an actress before I wanted to be a singer, but music worked out first.”
— Lady Gaga accepting the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie
Back in 2008, Lady Gaga answered PopMatters’ 20 Questions, and although her answers are short and hurried, some proved to be indicative of where she would be nearly a decade after the fact. The best piece of advice she actually followed? “My dad telling me to stop doing drugs.” Her hidden talents? “There are none hidden.” Best thing she ever bought, stole, or borrowed? “Inventing, building and paying for my ‘disco stick’.”
Yet question number seven was key: what do you want to be remembered for? Her answer, while broad and more than a bit cliche, was exactly what you’d expect: “Being important to music and culture, and possibly changing pop culture.”
Eight years later, Gaga is putting out her sixth proper studio release (assuming you’re counting 2009’s mini-set The Fame Monster, which you absolutely should be) in the form of Joanne, a musical left turn in a career that’s already seen the Manhattan-born Stefani Germanotta effect pop culture in surprising ways, largely by becoming not only a dance-pop and music-video icon, but also a Golden Globe-winning actress, an Oscar-nominated singer, a Super Bowl Half Time performer, and, most important of all, Tony Bennett’s best friend.
Yet Joanne comes at a pivotal time for Gaga, because although her recent performances at the Academy Awards have drawn praise and her tour with Tony Bennett, as unexpected as it was, nevertheless endeared her to demographics that artists like Katy Perry wouldn’t dare to touch, Gaga has been figuring out what to do with herself for the past several years. Her implosive 2013 effort Artpop found her being so enthralled with the idea of turning trend-riven dance-pop into capital-A “Art” that she wound up scoring a Top Five single with a song that contained the lyric “One second I’m a Koons / Then suddenly the Koons is me”, giving her rabid fan-base the decadence they’ve come to expect while leaving critics and casual fans out in the cold. What was one unique and bizarre had since become expected and outlandish, her laving music videos growing so much in run time that one feared she was close to accidentally remaking Berlin Alexanderplatz.
So even as Joanne‘s “Papa Don’t Preach”-as-sung-by-Stevie-Nicks lead single “Perfect Illusion” writhed around on the floor in love with its own ’80s decadence, one had to wonder: what is Gaga truly trying to accomplish with this album? Redemption? Catharsis? “Realness”? The more Joanne unfolds, the more it feels less like an album and more like Gaga, acoustic guitar in hand, throwing ideas at the wall and trying to see what sticks, breaking from her past but not in such a way that she’d alienate her armies of Little Monsters. It’s different, it’s unfocused, it’s interesting, and — make no bones about it — it’s far from revolutionary. It’s less a reinvention than it is a casual reboot, and even if its pleasures are modest, it’s still a fascinating document from a diva who refuses to remain in one place.
Gone are her Top 40 knob-twiddlers like RedOne; super-producer Mark Ronson and rising-star BloodPop instead man the boards as a gamut of indie-rock namedrops (Josh Homme, Father John Misty, Beck) dot the album’s numerous co-writing spots, as if, after years upon years of rebranding Eurodisco through the eyes of someone wearing cigarette sunglasses, it was time to switch to acoustic guitars with hint of twang, partly just to mix things up and partly to make Gaga seem “genuine” and perhaps even “authentic”. In truth, there was no need for such a radical facelift: that “Sound of Music” performance at the 2015 Oscars silenced even her most ardent doubters, but having turned 30 earlier this year, she’s not ready for her showtunes-and-covers era of albums quite yet.
“Young, wild, American / Lookin’ to be somethin'” she describes on stomping opener “Diamond Heart”, a confusing uptempo number that aims for biography but lends up being too vague to be effective, her scattershot and self-referential lyrics soon descending into generic platitudes (“I might not be flawless, but you know I’ve got a diamond heart”). Yes, the song hovers around a theme, but like a lot of the tracks on Joanne, it’s hard to determine where she’s taking any of this. That being said, only two songs here clock over four minutes, and while this may be one of the few times that Gaga has shown genuine restraint in her discography by releasing an album that clocks in at a scant 39 minutes, Joanne is only five minutes longer than The Fame Monster mini-album, yet, surprisingly, feels so much smaller in scope.
Sure, clap-along numbers like “A-YO” and rambunctious boy-crazy thump of “John Wayne” energize, reminding fans of old that Gaga still knows how to get down and have a good time, but all these comfort zone numbers are placed near the top of the set, easing people in to her new sound even if by relatively unadventurous means (that guitar work on “A-YO” sounds like nothing you’ll hear on pop radio, though). There’s a good amount of familiarity here, and hell, even the self-pleasuring ode “Dancin’ in Circles” continues her fine tradition of ripping off Madonna by copping the melody to “La Isla Bonita” awfully closely, but just like her other Madonna rips, the end result feels less like thievery than it does crib-note interpretation. As we all know, pop music is cyclical (and at times, regrettably cynical), so as daring as younger Gaga fans may see this reinvention, the truth is that Gaga is following a carefully mapped pattern of “mature” efforts before, Joanne ultimately proving to be more True Blue than Like a Prayer.
Yet it’s not until “Million Reasons” that Gaga feels like she’s coming into her own, as this simple acoustic number feels less like a BloodPop production than it does a great Jimmy Webb number of old. “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away,” she starts, “But baby, I just need one good one to stay.” Sure, it’s schmaltzy, but it’s also purely classicist in approach, which, more than “John Wayne” or the earlier finger-picked ode “Joanne”, feels far more radical than any of her other attempted image revamps. “Sinner’s Prayer” has a casual country-pop vibe that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Shelby Lynne record, while the Florence Welch duet “Hey Girl”, cheap and tossed-off as it is, comes off as the most gloriously casual girl-power anthem ever recorded, both ladies giving killer vocal runs for no reason but clearly having fun in the process.
As fascinating as all of Joanne‘s detours are, one can’t escape the sense that his album is less a cohesive statement than it is a needed experiment, with Gaga trying on different styles but refusing to settle on a coherent theme or message. Like with Artpop, she’s clearly aiming for songs that border on iconic, but her lyrics are too fractured to be effective, all while her great voice is pointed towards the theatrical instead of the emotional, her natural performance aesthetic getting in the way of real vulnerability, which is the reason why her overwrought Trayvon Martin tribute “Angel Down” fails to reach true catharsis, as her post-chorus “oohs”, which trace the vocal line and nothing else, feels put-upon and unnecessary. Why not break so the string sections can do some more of the heavy lifting? Why not bring it down to a whisper instead of laying the melodrama on thick? It’s this same presentational aesthetic which vacuum seals all the feeling out of Katy Perry’s songs, but Gaga, in her uptempo, Queen-referencing style of old, never had to sell subtlety in quite the same way, which is why Joanne, much like Artpop before it, is the sound of Gaga truly finding out what her limitations as a songwriter and performer are.
So leave it to “Come to Mama”, a boozy USO-ready swing number, to save the record’s back half. Its chorus is lyrically unfocused like most of this record (“Come to mama / Tell me who hurt ya / There’s gonna be no future / If we don’t figure this out”), but the character she plays, beautifully derived from the Auntie Mame template, suits Gaga better than any of the other poses she adopts on Joanne, here being comforting and fun while still trying to be pointed and insightful, her Broadway belt proving to be a perfect fit for those swaying horns on the chorus. It’s fun, it’s loose, and it’s natural, proving that with that Golden Globe sitting on her mantle, Gaga may be better at playing characters than striking poses. The Gaga of The Fame Monster-era was clearly a character, while Artpop Gaga was a pose, thinking she was giving the audience what she wanted even if the end result was as messy as a shattered discoball.
Even if Joanne fails to connect with you emotionally, it’s nonetheless the album that will make fans and observers once again rethink what they know about the daring diva. Make no mistake: even with all her extracurricular endeavors paying off cultural dividends, Gaga’s greatest achievement is yet to come, and Joanne, flaws and all, feels like the necessary step to get there.