Joining her peers, including Kesha, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake, who also went for a “stripped-down” or more authentic sound and image with their latest releases, Lady Gaga’s Joanne represents the artist’s attempt to trade in her high-fashion-inspired eccentricities for a pink cowboy hat and her own natural blonde hair. The record has been criticized as relying on gimmicks (usually found in traditional country music) or just boring by critics, and while the work certainly does represent a strange step in the ever-evolving discography of Gaga, it was a necessary and heartfelt motion that represents her response to the immense fame she has gained since releasing “Just Dance,” her debut Billboard Hot 100 number one hit, ten years ago.
The album’s title comes from the singer’s late aunt, Joanne Stefani Germanotta, who died at age 19; her own middle name is also Joanne in reference. Lady Gaga said that she realized how much her aunt’s death changed her family and the album deals with that in some ways while also addressing herself (as Joanne rather than her stage name) and reflecting on her past. After Artpop, Gaga’s prior album, which was received with very mixed reviews from critics and the public at large alongside being a very difficult time for the singer as she struggled with body image issues and drug addiction, it was unsure if she would ever even want to release music again. In a lot of ways, Joanne represents the music that Gaga had to release as a response to overcoming the evils she had been faced with and returning to her roots.
Mark Ronson, of “Uptown Funk” fame, BloodPop, and Gaga herself serve as the producers on Joanne. The production of the record certainly strays far more towards acoustic and soft rock sounds than the artist’s previous work, but still doesn’t fail to serve a collection of danceable, upbeat tracks more akin to her past. Lady Gaga was a writer on every song on the album; most every track seems to tell a story from the singer’s past or deals with a current issue of hers resulting in a very personal assortment of tracks.
The record opens with “Diamond Heart” and “A-YO,” two fiery, uptempo songs that instantly grasp the listener and reassure them that this Gaga is nothing like what they’ve heard from her before. The former speaks to the singer’s past when she worked as a gogo dancer out of necessity and the flaws she has, but the unstoppable drive she had to become a star that propelled her out of that situation and into stardom.
Soon after, on “Joanne,” the title track, Gaga sings about her sadness for losing Joanne, both her aunt and a part of herself. She shows off her impressive, emotional vocals while pondering to herself about the fragility of life and the acceptance of a death as a part of a journey for someone at times. This track is highly personal and might serve as Gaga sending off not only her aunt’s spirit, but also the person that she used to be before all the fame and glamor of being a pop star.
On songs like “Million Reasons” and “Sinner’s Prayer,” Gaga channels classic Americana sounds that really serve to tie the album up to this point together sonically. However, after these songs, the album shifts and Gaga goes for more pop ballad and big band sounds as she finishes the album out with anthems that preach for more love in the world.
“Come to Mama” is a song of acceptance and unconditional love for everyone in the world, classic for a Gaga who has delivered songs like “Born This Way” repeatedly and advocated for equality. In an album full of personal struggles and strife, Gaga then presents her own thoughts on the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin in “Angel Down.” The song is mostly comprised of the singer questioning the situation of the troubled times our country is facing. In relatable disbelief, she simply advocates for what’s right and fails to understand the lack of direction rather than going to attack anyone in response to the problems.
In the time since Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta burst onto the scene a decade ago, she has certainly faced her share of personal struggle and growth. Joanne represents that ability to evolve and adapt in the face of adversity in a very unlikely way. It would be easy to dismiss the work as a cliche attempt at being a “real” artist, but this record really does find Lady Gaga diving into herself in a way that is personal, unparalleled in any of her previous music.
Listen to Joanne on Spotify below: