Lady Gaga was cool once. There was once a time when America found Lady Gaga to be shocking. It hadn’t really set in with the singles “Poker Face” and “Just Dance,” but when Lady Gaga died on stage at the 2009 Video Music Awards, she was badass. When blood dripped down her stomach during the final chorus of “Paparazzi,” Gaga had more akin to Mechanical Animals-era Marilyn Manson than Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. The Fame and The Fame Monster releases made Gaga a truly dark presence in pop-music. Even though she was still making fun, party music, she became a leading force in my own personal delve into poptimism due to her dark themes and theatricality.
Following Gaga’s leap into fame, she released pretty lackluster albums. Born This Way had the hits “Edge of Glory” and “You and I” but hardly mandatory listening. ARTPOP was a total flop. Cheek to Cheek was more of a passion project that was mostly loved by moms. Joanne is an excellent return to Lady Gaga making great pop-music.
Joanne is the type of dance music that fans have come to expect from Gaga, but it’s run through an 80’s rock and country filter. The first single, “Perfect Illusion,” sounds like Lady Gaga singing a Van Halen track. The gal-pal anthem “Hey Girl” has more akin to “Benny and the Jets” than it does to “Starboy.” Gaga’s anthemic pop-music is much better than any of the artists actively trying to make stadium-rock today. Joanne has been called a crossover into country music, but it’s really a crossover into classic-rock.
Despite this being Lady Gaga’s dad-rock album, she never loses sight of her youthful audience. Any song that isn’t a ballad is a certified banger. “Dancin’ in Circles” is a funky club jam. “Diamond Heart” has the type of soaring chorus that only a Lady Gaga fan could love. “John Wayne” is dance-rock at its best. Despite disguising itself as a country song, it is much more like Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Joanne” are both bluegrass ballads that would fit on Led Zeppelin albums. “Angel Down” is an epic power-ballad of a closing addressing some of the large issues this nation faces with gun control. “Million Reasons” is probably one of Gaga’s best ballads yet with all the grandeur of a Mötley Crüe song.
The lyric themes on Joanne are as varied as the genres that can be drawn. “Diamond Heart” is an ode to resilience and partying. The title track is a tribute to Gaga’s late aunt who the album is named for. “Dancin’ In Circles” has Gaga singing the joys of masturbation: “feels good to be lonely/baby don’t cry.” The Florence Welch featuring track, “Hey Girls” has the two singing, “Help me hold my hair back/walk me home cause I can’t find a cab.” “John Wayne” longs for a certain flavor of Blue-Collar-Americana that Joanne certainly brings.
Lady Gaga may never reach the same level of success and greatness that she hit with her earliest works, but Joanne doesn’t compromise any of Gaga’s integrity. It’s her best record in years, and we can only expect an excellent tour to follow.