In March, 2014 Lady Gaga was vomited on at SXSW in a shocking move that had the popstar clutching at straws to remain the most shocking, post-modern popstar on the planet. It made headlines. It was always going to. But, in many ways, it felt as inauthentic as her 2013 record ARTPOP – an overly conceptual pop album that chose style over substance and made Gaga look like a popstar running out of ideas rather than the visionary she’d claimed the title of with her previous three records.
After the vomiting incident, there were barely any more shock tactics. Gaga did the most shocking thing she could possibly do – not shock. This is the popstar that wore a meat dress, arrived to the Grammys in an egg and released an album cover that had her poorly photoshopped on a motorcycle. All these things were pivotal to Gaga’s rise and yet audiences beyond her dedicated core had grown tiresome of the antics while ‘I’m just being me’ popstars like Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez continued their rise simply by positioning themselves as your best friend. Gaga had long fame consuming the artist and it seemed that life was imitating art.
To be fair ARTPOP reached number one in the US and certainly wasn’t the nail in the coffin of her career but it made her next move seem more important than ever. In just over five years she’d fallen from the most exciting, trailblazing popstar of our generation and there was no guarantee that she’d ever reclaim the position of her Fame Monster heyday. Gaga was smarter than that though, and so in 2015 she set about shocking the world by not shocking them at all. She went back to basics.
Gaga performed a rousing, straight-up Sound Of Music medley at the Oscars, released an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett and earlier this year performed one of the more memorable renditions of the US national anthem at the Super Bowl in recent memory. For the latter, she stood there and sung. No gimmicks, no costumes, no shock tactics – just talent. It was so good she outshone the half time entertainment Coldplay, who fell flat in comparison. Last year, she also won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story, an outlet where she was able to explore all her theatrics without having to trace it back to Stefani Germanotta – something she’s often struggled with on her records, relating Lady Gaga as a character to Lady Gaga as a person.
This brings us to Joanne – a record billed as Lady Gaga without the fame. It’s Lady Gaga as a person, stripped of any overbearing persona. For the first time she’s exploring her family roots using the identity of her late Aunt Joanne as a base. It’s a totally refreshed palette for Gaga. With Mark Ronson and Bloodpop on board as executive producers she’s dipping into a talent pool she never has before. She’s also collaborating with names like Josh Homme, Kevin Parker and Father John Misty – names that once would’ve been hard to connect to Gaga even through six degrees of seperation.
When she released Perfect Illusion, the first single with conjured more excitement through news of its collaborators, there was still some fear that she was going to stumble. The overbearing chorus and firing key change took repeat listens to warm up to. That, and the fact that people had to accept that Gaga’s next album was not reaching for the former pop glory of Bad Romance. Where ARTPOP seemingly invited the comparisons, Perfect Illusion shot down any chance of another Bad Romance and set us up for the stylistic switch-up of Joanne.
The whole ‘popstar goes back to their roots and strips everything back’ route is not new. It’s often a route that ends up with lame ballads about chances not taken and faded romance. And that’s exactly where Joanne differentiates itself. There are three moments, Joanne, Million Reasons and Angel Down, where Gaga completely strips it back here but apart from that she’s still as vibrant and brimming with personality as she was on The Fame Monster. A-YO, a country-tinged
Gaga is a confusing character and even with a back to basics approach we were never going to get a straightforward character. The soaring, over-the-top chorus of opener Diamond Heart proves she’s still hyperbolic, Dancin’ In Circles is full of devilish, sexual innuendos
Audiences were originally drawn to the fame-driven, wondrous side of Gaga. Paparazzi, Bad Romance and Beautiful, Dirty, Rich were exciting because they detailed a popstar on the brink. It wasn’t relatable but it was a perfectly constructed, dangerous world that sprinkled the imagination with a little bit of reality to create a fantasy of sorts. There’s a little bit of that on Joanne, but if Til It Happens To You proved anything, it’s that Gaga’s relatable side is also her most powerful.
On Beats 1, Gaga described the album as “a place for you to rage, or to feel healed,” and that’s the heart of it. “I’m a gypsy,” she sung on Gaga, seemingly stripping her of any sense of home, but she’s not. She’s a daughter, a niece, a friend. Lyrically, the most simplistic moment on the album is her duet with Florence + The Machine where she simply sings, “Hey girl, hey girl, We don’t need to keep on one-in’ up another,” in a sweet display of friendship and female empowerment. “Some asshole broke me in / Wrecked all my innocence,” she sings on Diamond Heart, once again exposing her history of sexual assault. It’s not to be shocking. You genuinely believe Gaga is delivering these messages to help others with her own experiences. Hey Girl and Diamond Heart are a perfect example of the juxtaposition between the record’s “rage” and “healing”.
“As an album this is searching for a good time and it’s searching for a party but there’s some unavoidable truths that need to be dealt with,” Zane Lowe eloquently described the album’s two modes and he’s hit the nail on the head. Often Gaga’s gone straight for the good time but this time around she’s gone lyrically deeper than ever and for the first time relates on the same level as her audience rather than from a platform or glass box.
For the first time in a while, it feels as if she’s in a position where she can do exactly what she wants next. The Gaga story has been refreshed.