Stefani Germanotta takes off the mask in her fifth studio album, “Joanne.”
When Stefani Joanne Germanotta released her club-banger first single “Just Dance” in 2008, everyone was dying to know who the mysterious Lady Gaga was. With more chart-topping hits like “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi,” the New York-bred singer quickly built an empire. Her songs and their accompanying videos were theatrical productions full of leotards, glitter and lavish costumes, making her living pop art more than just music—it was an experience and a mystique.
Her public appearances were extensions of her pop brand. Whether she was showing up on red carpets with Kermit the Frog or wearing a meat dress, her over-the-top ensembles always got us talking.
Unlike other artists of her time, Lady Gaga used her theatrical music to provoke cultural conversation, and her productions often reflected that. Through her blood-soaked, iconic performance of “Paparazzi” at the VMAs, she spoke to the death of Princess Diana and America’s sick fascination with fame. But the lavish theatrics—the gore, the glamour and her extreme array of backup dancers—always threatened to outshine her lyrics and message.
Back then, Gaga wrote her own music and she continues to do so. In a world of electronic, mass-produced hits, this is extremely refreshing. However, Gaga always wore masks, wigs and costumes, which yes, was part of her identity, but also felt like she was hiding a part of herself from the spotlight.
But something happened after she released “Artpop,” dubbed “Artflop” by fans: Gaga became, for lack of a better word, boring. It was no longer shocking when she showed up to events with metallic bleached hair or dresses that looked straight out of a Halloween store. Her high-production music videos were de rigueur for pop artists like herself, Beyoncé and Britney Spears. She had gone mainstream and her music no longer felt authentic, with vocals drowned out by aggressive, electronic beats. “Artpop’s” one successful single, “Applause,” was just another mass-produced pop hit that didn’t necessarily speak any truth.
After fans claimed Gaga was over, she shocked them further by announcing her collaboration with Tony Bennett on a jazz album, “Cheek To Cheek.” While it was an acquired taste, it was one of the most interesting things she had done musically since 2009, and led her to the music-rich path she’s on now.
The most successful artists in the industry don’t stay the same; they evolve. From her theatrical, mass-produced hits to her jazz album, Gaga proved her dynamic range. All of a sudden, she was trading meat dresses for simple, old school-Hollywood glamour on the red carpet. She went from performing in drag on stage to starring in “American Horror Story.” Gaga always found ways to reinvent herself, and that’s just what she’s done for her fifth studio album, “Joanne.”
The tragic figure in her album, “Joanne,” is Lady Gaga’s late aunt, whom she has spoken about as one of the most important figures in her life. The stripped-down, bluesy Americana vibe of the album perfectly reflects the sorrowful, honest tone. Working with big-time producers like Marc Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Gaga fuses multiple genres. She draws influences from David Bowie and Elton John to create a new sound that really has no label other than pure Lady Gaga.
The ballad-heavy album sheds any masks she was hiding behind to bare it all. Just as Beyoncé did with her tell-all commentary and takedown of her own public image in “Lemonade,” Lady Gaga channels her broken spirit to create “Joanne.” She sings about emotional and physical abuse in “Sinner’s Prayer,” preaches for female solidarity in “Hey Girl” and dispels the “Perfect Illusion” of her pop image, so carefully crafted by the media over the years. On her last track “Angel Down,” she laments the lives lost to violence in this country and admits, “I am lost, I confess, in the age of the social.”
In “Joanne,” I don’t see someone who’s trying out a new phase in her music career, in a futile grab at staying relevant—I see someone who’s found comfort in her public image by being her vulnerable self. She found purpose in the LGBTQ community and embraced being a “different” pop artist with a genuine love of people and music. Instead of letting her theatrics do the talking, her wisdom shines through “Joanne’s” music and lyrics. Between her own tales of bravery and expressions of sadness over 2016’s tragedies, there’s a strong woman with a powerful story to tell.