When you consider all of the big popstars of today and the last twenty or thirty years, there is something to be said for staying power and impact in the zeitgeist. There are stars and then there are icons. Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, embedded in the culture and hitless for around 20 years but still, their legacies are secure, and that was the case even before Prince and MJ passed away. But is Lady Gaga on that level? The way articles and she herself portrays her career, you might think so, and yet Lady Gaga isn’t even ten years into a career that has only spawned one actual hit album, 2008’s The Fame. She buffered that with the EP The Fame Monster but when she finally dropped the actual follow up, Born This Way in 2011, she had to juke the stats with a promotion where the album sold for a dollar. Since that trick, the powers that be have changed the rules on how cheap you can sell your album and have it “count”. She got a number 1 single out of it with the title track, but neither that song or any of the other singles had any staying power in radio playlists after the year was up. If you hear a Gaga song at a wedding or social event in 2016, it is definitely something off The Fame. 2013’s Artpop was a genuine flop, not going platinum and without a number 1 single (“Applause” got to #4, “Do What You Want” to #13, “G.U.Y.” to #76) and accompanied by rumors of sabotage and general mismanagement. Gaga has spent the time since rehabilitating her career by doing “normal” things, like dressing in conventional clothes and singing duets with old people, appealing to the norms. Now we have Joanne, and it’s clear that Gaga didn’t realize that it isn’t the music we were shunning, it was her.
I actually really liked Artpop and Born This Way. They both indulged in maximalism which is Gaga’s best look, always adding too much and overwhelming the senses. The thing with an all sugar diet is that eventually you’re gonna crash, and that was Artpop, too over the top and indulgent for it’s own good. But also, I think the whole Lady Gaga thing, people were done with it. Gaga had taken all of us to the edge of her abilities, and the world said, “Ok, I get it. I’m gonna pass.” With Joanne, Lady Gaga is trying to woo back people with what she thinks they want, with something she isn’t good at, which is being chill.
Joanne is a frustrating listen, like a bronco that has been tranquilized. Certainly Lady Gaga means well with her Trayvon Martin ballad “Angel Down”, but it sounds like sad word salad with lines like “living in the age of social” which strive for poetic but sound more like fumbling profundity. But more so, when the bpms rise, the production is still muted and dull, with an embrace of guitars and “real” sounds over the “fake” sound of EDM drops. As if guitars are just hanging off trees, waiting to be plucked.
The reviews for Joanne are tepid but kind. No one wants to out and out slam her, and even the supposed pan from Jon Caramanica in the New York Times is actually more even handed than Gaga’s retort would suggest. And about that, why is Lady Gaga responding to reviewers? Never a good look, girl.
What we do have to look forward to is the next Gaga album in 2 or 3 years, where she drops some megawattage video with huge synths and screaming vocals and does interviews where she says “Yeah, Joanne was a weird moment. But I’m back, sitting with you, covered in leeches.”