Drop a hat on her head, and call her Joanne. Lady Gaga introduces a new character to the lineup on her Americana-influenced fifth studio album.
Promising to deliver a deeply personal album is the kiss of death for pop stars. Pop icon Britney Spears vowed to provide fans a glimpse of her soul on her eighth studio album Britney Jean but instead seemed barely present in the midst of generic electronica (thank Godney for the creative comeback that is Glory). Bad Gal Rihanna delivered something innovative but with half the fun we’ve come to expect on ANTi.
Now, Lady Gaga is the latest pop starlet struggling to find any sort of authenticity on her most “personal” album to date, her just released Joanne…
Gaga has been notably absent from the pop scene following the lukewarm reception of 2013’s ARTPOP; however, that’s hardly to say she’s disappeared.
She teamed up with Tony Bennett to showcase her vocals while belting out jazz standards on 2014’s chart topping Cheek to Cheek. Presenting a relaxed aesthetic, Lady Gaga proved to the general public that her voice could drive a successful album release without relying on headline-grabbing, outlandish performance art.
It was this Lady Gaga who appeared at the 2015 Oscars to perform a stunning tribute to The Sound of Music. Gaga continued to shock critics with her frank honesty on 2015’s “Till It Happens To You,” which served as a theme song for the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground.
Making her acting debut on American Horror Story: Hotel enabled the hitmaker to incorporate some of the more gruesome elements of her performance art while playing a murderous succubus. Netting critical acclaim for her portrayal, Lady Gaga signed for a second season of the show and announced her musical return with Joanne in a sort of one-two-punch.
Heralded as her return to the pop scene, fans and naysayers alike had high expectations of Joanne. Those expectations were fed by Lady Gaga’s team in the months leading up to the project’s release. Joanne was to see Gaga teaming up with RedOne, the producer and writer responsible for helping her helm some of her defining hits including “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.”
Mark Ronson of “Uptown Funk” infamy signed on to co-executive produce the effort alongside Gaga. Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine signed on to contribute her vocals to a track, and Beck (of Beyonce-Grammy-robbing fame) offered a writing credit as well. BloodPop (“Sorry,” Justin Bieber) joined the mix, co-producing alongside Gaga and Ronson on the entirety of the album’s standard edition.
It was assumed that Gaga would be returning to her cleverly written and expertly produced dance pop of previous records; however, those expectations were dashed with the release of the project’s lead single “Perfect Illusion.”
“It wasn’t looooove, it was a perfect illusion,” Gaga growled over rock guitars on the track. The track abandoned any expectations of a pop production in favor of the stomping bravado of stadium rock. Her raw vocals and frenzied runs give the sense that the track is more a clumsy demo that borrows elements of tracks that have worked before and tosses them over the rough production.
With the release of buzz single “Million Reasons” and the project’s alleged second single “A-YO” the lack of pop became more evident. Massive hooks have been abandoned in favor of some good ol’fashioned rock, blues and Americana on Joanne.
Gaga’s attempts at delivering Americana are somewhat effective; however, her efforts lack the authenticity that was promised by Mother Monster ahead of the project’s release. It seems as though Lady Gaga has donned the persona as Joanne as yet another stage name.
She’s set a pastel hat on her head and abandoned her city-girl, party-pop aesthetic in much the same way that she dragged on a cigarette and glued on mutton chops to assume the character of Jo Calderone during her Born This Way era. The final result is just as jarring and about as believable…
The album opens with a flashback to Lady Gaga’s early Go-Go dancing days, referencing her hunger for fame on the rock-infused “Diamond Heart.” The track builds to a Gaga-esque chorus complete with confidently belted vocals. It’s hardly the first time that Gaga has referenced her need for fame (hello “Applause” and The Fame), but there is an element of rawness to her approach to the topic this time around. She’s starving for the applause and fabulously flawed, but regardless Gaga possesses a steadfast heart.
On few tracks is a country influence more evident than it is on the honky-tonk kiss off that is “A-YO.” Billed as a track for the haters, Gaga serves a confident performance on the track. Feeling slightly reminiscent of Jessica Simpson’s popped-up take on country anthem “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” Gaga’s voice is buoyant over the hook-ridden production. Though it improves with repeated listens, the track nonetheless feels like a try-hard attempt at gaining some crossover success.
That hunger for a successful crossover continues on tracks like “John Wayne” and “Come to Mama.” On the first Gaga expresses her desire for a romp in the sack with a cowboy while the latter sees Gaga channeling some of Meghan Trainor’s throwback vibes while petitioning for a little more love in the world. “John Wayne” at least injects some playful life into the production, making for one of the more interesting moments of the release.
The much-hyped Florence Welch collaboration on “Hey Girl” provides an updated take on “Bennie and the Jets.” The girl power anthem updates the classic with some playful synths, but although Gaga and Welch are preaching the benefits of females working together their voices seem entirely disconnected. It’s as though they recorded the track from different sides of the globe, providing minimal opportunities for harmonizing.
“Sinner’s Prayer” and “Grigio Girls” are forgettable though listenable cuts from the track. The latter is more effective, as Gaga sings alongside a choir about an evening relaxing with her ladies and a glass (or bottle, no judgment) of wine.
That’s not to say that Joanne is without it’s successes…
Buzz single “Million Reasons,” the album’s title track and the socially conscious “Angel Down” prove that Lady Gaga remains one of the best balladeers in pop music. “Million Reasons” delivers an earnest ode to heartbreak, as the songstress struggles to find peace in a relationship. It is potentially one of the more successful attempts to implement a country-inspiration into the album, and it provides a notably softer more raw moment to the project.
The album’s title track provides a moment for soul searching over acoustic strings. Titled after her father’s sister while also referring to her own middle name (she is Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta after all folks, not to be confused with Britney Jean Spears or, gods forbid, Madonna). “Girl, where do you think you’re going,” she fragilely sings on the chorus. It’s an ode to letting go and moving on, revealing a more raw side of Gaga’s musicality.
The Beck-assisted “Dancin’ in Circles” is a delectably unhinged treat and potentially one of the most “Lady Gaga” tracks on the project. Delivering an ode to female masturbation, Gaga’s lyricism is at it’s wittiest on the track. “Dancing in circles, feels good to be lonely,” Gaga playfully sings over the bouncy production. It’s a wild moment that provides some levity to the meaty subject matter of Joanne.
In all, Gaga promises authenticity but instead explores a new character on Joanne. The album proves to be an interesting if slightly jarring listen from the Mother Monster. One thing that is fairly consistent throughout is Lady Gaga’s voice, which remains excellent if somewhat jarring on some of the numbers. While it leaves you wanting a little more in spots, Joanne improves with additional listens.
Over the years Lady Gaga’s ego has proven to be her greatest foe, as she tends to over promise and under deliver on projects. Heralding Born this Way as the album of the millennium is just one example of Gaga’s pretentiousness negatively impacting her artistry.
Her complete confidence and utter commitment to her craft surely make her a godsend capable of delivering visionary and groundbreaking moments; however, it also proves to be her greatest weakness. This is increasingly evident with Joanne, especially as the artist hops on social media to respond to negative critics.
Her recent Beats 1 interview sees her continuing to battle comparisons with pop’s reigning queen Madonna, and her response reveals that she seems to consider herself and her work as more worthy than that of other pop stars. “She’s the biggest pop star of all time, but I play a lot of instruments,” she said. “I write all my own music. I spend hours, and hours a day in the studio. I’m a producer, I’m a writer. What I do is different… There’s spontaneity in my work.”
This misconception that pop music doesn’t require skills (especially when speaking of Madonna, who has always been remarkably involved in her craft) is yet more evidence of Gaga’s ego. Pop music has given Lady Gaga the platform that she currently holds; and without it, it’s possible that she would still be the go-go dancer starving for fame that she referenced in “Diamond Heart.”
More confusing is Lady Gaga’s misconception that pop music cannot be both serious and fun. Had Gaga wanted to make an album that felt authentic and resonated with her core group of fans, the wealthy New York City native easily could have descended into electro-kissed productions like she has in the past. “Dancing in the Dark” being the perfect example of a pop song that delivers depth.
Instead, we’re left with the celebrated pop star delivering her best attempts at Americana in an attempt to be taken more seriously. It’s not bad, it’s not great, and it’s surely not a glimpse into the heart and soul of Lady Gaga. With that in mind, we’ll settle for getting to know her latest alter ego.
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Joanne was released on Oct. 21 (iTunes).