Release Date: Oct 21, 2016
Record label: Interscope
Although it’s difficult to quantify, somewhere between her crazed little monsters and meat costumes, Lady Gaga's schtick became more of a brand than an identity. It came to a point where her colossal stature reeked of an artist worried more about her image than quality in the music. Her last album, the perhaps aptly named ARTPOP had the terrible feeling of someone fulfilling a role already mapped out long before her - a bloated persona attempting to strike in all directions but rarely ever hitting the sweet spot.
Lady Gaga is an evocative name in music, occupying her own uncontested space and wildly dividing opinion since her sudden arrival way back in 2008. For some, her name is a shorthand for a cover version, someone who is a deft and calculated impersonator, a mere product of her very clear influences. For others, she’s an innovative pop icon, a charismatic force and a jolt to the senses in a beige plateau of cookie cutter popstrels.
Lady Gaga may be pop’s version of multiple personality disorder, but on her latest record, a prominent stab at genre promiscuity can’t hide the voice and the heart at the core of her talents. Many artists have an Artpop in their catalog, an album so off-base that it forever defines their output into “before” and “after.” In Gaga’s case, the “before” was pop perfection: a string of endlessly danceable, empowering singles that raised her profile from one of many experimental singer-songwriters eking out life in New York City to Mother Monster. The “after” was a calculated attempt at rehabbing an image that musically had begun to succumb to excess.
Lady Gaga and the New Simplicity. It sounds like a plausible band name – but it also works as a summary of where Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is right now. The first of her middle names gives a title to her fifth album – which also happens to be the name of her late aunt. It is one of many indications that this time she wants to dip under the radar she sought so actively with The Fame.
It's difficult not to view Joanne through the prism of Artpop, the 2013 album where Lady Gaga's expanding fame balloon finally popped. Ambitious but muddled, Artpop debuted high but came crashing down to the ground, stalling out after the second single, the R. Kelly duet "Do What U Want." Gaga quickly retreated to the confines of cabaret, cutting a nicely accomplished standards album with Tony Bennett, a move that not only gave her the opportunity to work with a legend, but signaled that she considered Artpop a step too far: The camp of Cheek to Cheek was elegant, not garish, an acknowledgment that she was once again back in control of her joke.
At the start of the decade, Lady Gaga worked hard to reposition pop as a high art or vice-versa—both absorbing and extending a lineage that included oddball visionaries like Andy Warhol, Klaus Nomi, Prince, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Elton John, Madonna, and Missy Elliott. Most of her avant-garde gestures were extra-musical, a string of cheeky, absurdist visions realized entirely outside of the studio and only tangentially in conversation with her bloodless dance jams (Gaga herself has referred to that early work as “soulless electronic pop”). It’s not hard, now, to recall these stunts from memory: she was sewn into a dress fashioned from slabs of flank steak for the VMAs.
Joanne is Lady Gaga's best album in five years, since the disco-stick hair-metal manifesto that was Born This Way. In her quest to master all pop spectacle – hit singles, scandalous TV stunts, The Sound of Music medleys at award shows – Gaga's been too restless to slow down for albums. Or maybe after she hit it so far out of the park with Born This Way, she figured album-making was a party trick she'd already done.
Totally binning off the retina-battering visual barrage of her fairly all-over-the-shop last album ‘Artpop,’ and taking the tautly song-focused ‘The Fame Monster’ in a whole new direction, Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanne’ has just one agenda: simplify. Trading in her infamous meat-suits for a pink fedora, Pat Benatar, Shania Twain, Hall & Oates and Bruce Springsteen all perch on Lady Gaga’s candy-hued hat brim as initially surprising, but highly evident, influences. Recruiting a sizeable dream team of unlikely collaborators for the ride (Beck, Mark Ronson, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Father John Misty, Florence and The Machine, and Josh Homme to name but a few) is also a deliberate move to switch gears.
Both musically and sartorially, Lady Gaga has always enjoyed playing dress-up. Bruised by the reaction to 2013’s muddled electro-pop experiment Artpop, Joanne finds her trying on a more “authentic” American troubadour guise, complete with pink Stetson and a hoedown about bad men called John Wayne. Elsewhere there is chugging blues (A-Yo), delicate folk (the lovely title track) and, on Million Reasons, Carrie Underwood-style country balladry.
Sometimes you have the pop zeitgeist in your grasp, and sometimes you don't. Lady Gaga's 2013 album ARTPOP certainly didn't: as pop music was making a turn towards performed autobiography (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift), Gaga's art-school electro-clash sex party played cold and distant to many. Joanne, Gaga's first solo record in three years, arrives with a stripped-down image, more acoustic instrumentation and a title named after the artist's late aunt.
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.
Ten years and four studio albums into her career, this is where Mother Monster sheds the trimmings. Joanne – named after the singer-songwriter’s late aunt, but also her own middle name – is Lady Gaga’s way of drawing a line, at least for now, under the perception of her as the girl with the lobster on her head. Having taken her self-focused art project to the far end of the conceptualist spectrum on the 2013 album Artpop, the singer was left with diminishing sales and the awareness that her music had been eclipsed by an image that was spiralling into parody.
Lady Gaga is a pop star of the Glee generation. She doesn't do subtle. Whether she's singing standards with Tony Bennett, paying tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys, or playing a riot grrrl in the music video for her single “Perfect Illusion,” the effect is that of a musical theater kid trying on costumes she found in the high school storage closet, not a chameleonic performer flexing her innate versatility.
In interviews, Lady Gaga frequently cites the steady diet of musical theater and classic rock she was raised on during her formative years in Lower Manhattan. The artist formerly known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta famously took her stage name from a Queen song. Yet, the dance bangers on her first album, The Fame, which catapulted her to titular stardom, hardly suggested an affinity for Sondheim or Springsteen.
There is a real raw heart to ‘Joanne’, too: the title track, dedicated to the singer’s paternal aunt, who died of lupus before she was born. It’s a leavetaking song of great, simple beauty, more tenderly affecting than anything Gaga’s done before, showcasing the emotive power rather than the force of that great voice. The rest of the album too, rings with urges for us to take care of each other in a cruel world, most of all ‘Angel Down’, a song about the death of Trayvon Martin that also seems to allude to what she called, in her recent NME interview, “the toilet of the internet”: “I confess I am lost in the age of the social/On our knees, take a test/To be loving and grateful.
On her flamboyant early albums, Lady Gaga’s fascination with fame led to trenchant societal observations and subversions. The tepid 2013 album Artpop reversed that trend. With its vapid, debauched commentary—the kind at which she once sneered—the record wasn’t from the perspective of an outsider looking askance at celebrity culture, but from an artist who had internalized and embraced fame’s worst facets.
Since the beginning of the decade, Lady Gaga has been a figure who has constantly strived to inject pop music with a hefty dose of theatricality and over-the-top spectacle. From her outlandish outfits to even more grandiose videos, Gaga was a figure who injected a bit of colour and even an element of the avant-garde into her work. Unfortunately, that ethos hasn’t always extended into her music.
Here’s a weird name to throw in the mix for next year’s Desert Trip: Lady Gaga. A deep believer in the power of costume and character and thumping electronic beats, this 30-year-old pop star hasn’t historically sold herself to the classic-rock lovers who assembled this month near Palm Springs to witness Neil Young flay his guitar in a black T-shirt and jeans. But on her new album, “Joanne,” Gaga is speaking precisely their language.
Like a meat dress destined to become jerky (lest it spoil), it has long been clear that a shift in form was inevitable for Lady Gaga and her aesthetic. She blasted into pop’s stratosphere in 2008 with a force, her early career a deluge of looks, hooks, and striking videos that was as exhausting to process as it was impressive to behold. By the time the stunning McQueen-laden one-woman fashion show of “Bad Romance” rolled out in October 2009, it seemed like the most radical thing Lady Gaga could do was dress down.
Lady Gaga gets some help from producer Mark Ronson on "Joanne." Lady Gaga is all about reinvention: piano-pounding rocker, Euro-disco anti-diva, art-pop whirlwind, jazz vocalist — she's done them all in a career that spans less than a decade. Now comes her latest remake: the retro stylist of "Joanne" (Interscope). She's teamed with one of the most traditional of the 21st century pop hitmakers, U.K.
Lady Gaga is fully embracing her inner Meat Loaf. In the three years since most critics dismissed the New York pop star’s campy third album, Artpop, as an overproduced mess, she’s responded by paring everything back for her most singer/songwriterly album to date. If you’ve seen Gaga live, you may have observed that, despite her love of spectacle, she’s always seemed more natural and comfortable belting out at the piano than doing the cookie-cutter choreography every female pop star of the past three decades has been obliged to learn.
For almost a decade, Lady Gaga has been assiduously arguing the case that the external is the internal, that performance is authentic, that flamboyance is ideology. Her career has been predicated on demolishing conventional ideas about what it might mean to play a character — with Gaga, it was never play, always work, and always true. Though she was focused on the transformative powers of packaging, that some sort of recalibration would come was always likely — Lady Gaga was always simply too focused a singer to be strictly defined by her presentation.