a track-by-track listen of lady gaga’s joanne
Let’s be real: Joanne is easily a good four out of five stars, and here’s an attempt at finding out why.
Chastising Lady Gaga has become so indescribably tiresome. Since playing the fame-game better than it plays itself, she rose to global stardom at an inordinately rapid rate. Gaga was fully deserving of said notoriety: the five foot tall Italian-American catapulted queerness, gayness and being-yourselfness so extensively into public discourse that it felt like all of those teens with the blue hair and septum piercings had never not been there. There is a field of critical thought—offered by Jack Halberstam—which actually credits the singer with ushering in the end of 'normal', and thank Gags for that.
The problem with female power in celebrity is that a lot of men can't deal with it. The moment one meat-shoe is put wrong, the media—the same media who celebrated Lady Gaga's ingenious critique of famousness, or externality as internality for example—rabidly take to their soapboxes and lampoon these women for every single artistic decision they have ever made, are making, and will make.
Artpop—or Chartflop (proudly dubbed by a smug male critic)—saw Gaga's fall from her blood and Swarowski littered pop-throne, and since then the artist has nothing but failed in the eyes of the well-read, well-cultivated critic. Blah.
But this morning the queen of the Monsters dropped her fifth studio album Joanne, and it is perhaps the most Gaga record she's released since The Fame Monster. Reading reviews in the countdown to its arrival, people are saying the same thing, yet again: 'she's over, Artpop was the best', 'it's just fine', 'she should stick to living for the applause'. What is confusing about these upbraiding reviews is that these are the same critics who tore apart Artpop like hyenas would a meat-dress. It seems this artist—who has been through the extreme media ringer—can no longer do anything right. People are way more desperate to throw out some witty, scathing repartee to make themselves look more intelligent than the artist in question, rather than actually engaging with the art itself. Let's be real: Joanne is easily a good four out five stars, and here's an attempt at finding out why.
It's no coincidence that the whole album opens with the lyrics 'Young wild American / Looking to be something.' It's a song about a GoGo dancer on the Lower East Side—Gaga herself to be specific—in which she admits 'I'm not flawless': a refreshing mantra for a female pop icon. The song escalates from its moody roots into a kind of rock-EDM jamboree: with Queens of the Stone Age drummer Josh Homme in collaboration, the opener glides you into Gags' new country-rock-honesty with dexterity.
Who doesn't love a country song about Ferraris? Me, tbh. However, what's interesting here is that Lady G, who will from hereon be referred to as Joanne (her chosen persona for this work), is assimilating the incredibly male dominated patois of country music and subverting it into singing songs about female sexuality, desire, shagging. A-Yo is that track: it's essentially just a bunch of semi-metaphors for really wanting to fuck someone, really hard. Blood Pop—a Grimes/Bieber/Madonna collaborator—brings the track up to date however, with background shouts and synths which do, admittedly, make you wanna fuck. Think naked-flirty-country-barn-dance in the club.
How could you write an emotional country song without referencing Stevie Nicks and Bob Dylan? The eponymous track on the album, 'Joanne' is where it all began. It's a strumming, eventually strings focussed track which laments the loss of her aunt, Joanne, to Lupus before Joanne (neé Gaga) was born. The inspiration for the track influenced the direction of the whole album; leading to the queen of Art and Pop seeking, speaking and singing with more honesty than ever before. The chorus here is the first moment on the record where listeners are reminded of Joanne's shockingly brilliant vocal ability: something which, now shrouded in less costume and production, shines more than ever across this whole album.
She's tired of John Waynes, Jo wants a 'real wild man' apparently. This is the first track that obviously references bygone Gaga in it's 'Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)' distortion and 'Mary Jane Holland' epicness. It's patronising to assume the singer has no idea what she's doing: of course she's aware of her self-referentiality, of course she's weaving subtle threads throughout all of her works. This is the woman who pulled off a Kermit the frog dress, the same woman who no-one really questioned when she said she was half-human-half-motorbike. Unlike those shrewd and iconic moves, Joanne sees Gaga hone her messages toward subtlety, and thoughtfulness, with a deft sense of self-awareness.
Dancin In Circles
It's new territory for Gaga to wait until track five for a song with a clear 'message'. A little Holly Valance 'Kiss Kiss' at times, a little Gwen Stefani, this collaboration with Beck is one of the most dreamlike on the album, capturing the joys of masturbation. It's the enchanting tale of woman self-pleasuring and relishing in her loneliness, a message so often overlooked in pop records that desperately seek and sing about men. Dancin in Circles is a cacophony of influences that oddly works, leading to an overall feeling of 'heat' blaring from the speakers.
Kevin Parker—of Tame Impala fame—bore the sample for the lead single from the album. It was, to say the least, a surprise. Met with disappointment and adoration in equal measure from fans and critics alike, it's undeniable that Perfect Illusion was a burst back into the popular music space for Joanne. It's bat-shit, under-produced, raw-rockerness is standalone on the new album. Perhaps the least well crafted of the selection, however props have to be given for going against the grain. Finally the charts are punctuated with something other than Autotune and impressive trills.
What makes this album perhaps more Gaga than most of her recent works it that she's finally mastered the art of internalising the external. Joanne is not a declarative, interminable plundering of whether Gaga is art or not (Artpop was pure genius, don't get me wrong), but instead Gaga has been consumed by the character of Joanne. She fully embodies a pink cowboy hat wearing country girl, who is down for the music more than The Fame, so tacitly and so skilfully that this album is the product of the slickest, least cliché 'reinvention' in modern pop history. This is not really "no-makeup Gaga", it's just different, better applied makeup. Million Reasons is the most clearly country in its perspective, and it is lyrically and musically tear-jerking. Think Celine Dion and Keith Urban have a child, and then it writes and sings a song.
A song perfect for the Coyote Ugly soundtrack, Sinner's Prayer is more like a simulacrum of country music, rather than country itself. It's a lead-ish track from the record, and it encapsulates Joanne's intentions more conspicuously than any of the other songs on the album. To its credit, the popularisation of country-r'n'b-pop is something which is seldom attempted, and seldom successful. But Gaga—in collaboration with Fleet Foxes drummer-gone-solo Father John Misty—manages to keep it just cool enough.
Come to Mama
"Everybody's gotta love each other / stop throwing stones at your sisters and your brothers" — of course self-dubbed Queen of the Gays couldn't resist a song about love and equality. And it's genius: imagine Elton John made sweet love to the Hairspray soundtrack. By a mile it's the most theatrical song on the record, and here she is again referencing her 'The Fame' days, donning a deep Southern drawl, and belting about equality: worlds that, when collided, take you back to old anthemic Gaga days.
Hey Girl (Feat. Florence Welch)
The extreme irony in the critical reception of this collaboration is that people seem obsessed with deciding who out-sings who, on a song which literally features the lyric "Hey Girl, Hey Girl: we can make it easy if we lift each other". Like, have you listened to the song? Anyway, this is old school, steamy, synthy funk at its most present on the album. You can literally envision Flo and Gags floating around a seventies apartment, in duck-egg blue satine robes, serenading each other over a Moscow Mule. Since the previous track, it feel like Joanne takes a turn toward the more political: exploring female empowerment, sisterhood, equality, the things that she does best.
Written in response to "the epidemic of young African-Americans being murdered in this country", Gaga was moved to write Joanne's final track after the shooting of seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012. It's a torch song, with just Gaga's voice and some faint, ghostly strings, which aims to explore the emotional feeling of unnecessary loss. Angel Down does this well, but it's perhaps impossible to capture the true authentic urgency and tragedy of an event like the shooting of Trayvon Martin on a pop record. It is, however, important that people attempt to.
Gaga simultaneously achieves honesty and rawness, alongside the performance of a totally false persona. There's a reason few other pop artists are placed so unforgivingly under the microscope. Here is an artist who is looking to shirk the zeitgeist, to introduce a new one, and perhaps—for this reason—Queen Gags will forever live in a cycle of being misunderstood, only to have her utter genius recognised with hindsight; (c.f. Artpop!).
Text Tom Rasmussen