The tao of Gaga was her ludicrousness. There was a life-affirming joy to this woman whether shooting fire from her tits, entering the Grammys in an egg, wearing a giant Weetabix as a mask or terrifying Geri Halliwell by looking like a ghost wrapped in a doily at the Brits. She seemed to revel in the confusion she created. She was the cheeky winky face of subversion in a pop culture of conformity. A refreshing boot stomp over the spindly heels of the automaton, faceless sex bot porno-pop stars of the noughties.
The revulsion and irritation she ignited in some was worn like a badge of honour and cemented the feverish devotion in her rapidly increasing Little Monsters fan-base. She was misunderstood, maligned, an outsider who just happened to craft giant, singalong hits that steamrolled their way into the mainstream and crash landed at the top of the charts. In interviews she was articulate, sharp and wry with very European pop sensibilities. A bricolage of New York drag queens,Andy Warhol, hair metal, Grace Jones, Eurohouse and the best of Smash Hits from 1989-1991. It was as if Neil Tennant had created her in a lab, the perfect pop star who was in on the joke and was loving every minute of it.
Although for every ‘Bad Romance’ there was a ‘Brown Eyes’, for every ‘Judas’ a ‘Speechless’, right from the beginning there was no doubt that Lady Gaga was a fully formed ‘artist’. Even if she did attempt to play the piano with her vagina, she made sure that everyone was aware that the piano was most definitely being played by her own anatomy. Pop stars having to ‘prove’ themselves is nothing new but on her fifth album, Gaga is tipping the scales right into straightsville. After almost a decade of technicolour thrills culminating in the camp, batshit brilliance of ARTPOP we’ve arrived at the simple image of a girl in a pink hat.
Joanne is a reaction to the carnival of chaos that clattered around her, a witty, wonderful concept that may have earned her a Guardian think piece but pushed her off the mainstream radar. Joanne is a mission statement to the naysayers, an apologetic appeal to those who had written her off for being too damn flagrant. It is Gaga in a strange, uncomfortable mode of atonement, like the awkward artsy kid in a teen movie who’s growing her hair out to hang with the norms. As an artistic overachiever she’s dumbing herself down for those at the back who couldn’t quite keep up. Gone is the deep strain of crazy, the android annunciation, the dark electro throb to be replaced by polite acoustic guitars and standard rock production courtesy of Mark Ronson and Tame Impala with help from Fr. John Misty, Beck and Josh Homme.
These purveyors of testosterone-soaked tunes had the chance to create something truly original but instead they almost seem to have curled up in fear and have taken on a solid gold pop star without idea what to do with her. They have stripped her glitz away to such uniformity that it borders on blandness. The ultimate sin in pop is to be boring, and while Joanne isn’t a boring album it sure is lazy. It is a crime to hear a Lady Gaga song and suspect that Mark Ronson rescued it from the bin from his Rufus Wainwright sessions, which is just what the vaudeville, showtune style schmaltz of ‘Come to Mama’ sounds like.
On this album the essence of Gaga is poured into several moulds in an attempt to forge quicksilver genius but mostly it feels like a poor facsimile of something she’s done more successfully before. We have country Gaga on John Wayne a hiccupy, sexified You & I, and the entirely unremarkable Sinners Prayer. The supposedly ‘old skool’ Gaga on the truly atrocious A-Yo sounds like something Kesha would have turned her nose up at back in her heyday.
True brilliance comes when Gaga is allowed to breathe, stripped of the hyperactive, schizophrenic production and allowed to play to her strengths so that she shines so bright it’s blinding. Album opener ‘Diamond Heart’ is everything Joanne could have been, the perfect meeting of a classic band set up awash with sizzling synths and an irresistible melody showcasing the rich, smoky, range of her voice – a lost Stevie Nicks hit. An anthem for those forgotten Kohl eyed rebels in faded photos, this is where the theme of Gaga penning this album for her deceased aunt packs a real punch, free from mawkish sentimentality it is the most effective of all the tributes.
Apart from this moment of true Gaga glory, acoustic numbers like the title track and ‘Million Reasons’ are beautifully executed and extremely radio friendly if a little dry and the ’80s chrome pop of ‘Perfect Illusion’ is the closest there is to the manic mastery of ‘Judas’. There’s no mention of ear condoms and it is missing the weird robo-patois delivery but it is the song most akin to that Gaga of yore. Even with its embarrassing truck driver’s key change, it’s the only track here that befits dance floor genuflection at a sweaty club which is where all great pop songs come to life.
The one truly surprising moment on a fairly standard album comes from the duet with one Florence Welch. Those expecting a mewling, bellowing, screechathon of epic proportions will be thankful that Ms. Welch’s vocal dramatics have been dialled right down with ‘Hey Girl’ being an album highlight, a smooth, soulful vamping jam like a Prince-ed up version of ‘Bennie and the Jets’.
Joanne may be Gaga’s goodbye letter to all that went before – the outrageousness, the hilarious pretentiousness, the pop PhD, the very things that made her so special seem to be the shackles she is attempting to release herself from. This courtship with the conventional may pay off but is it worth the price of losing the most provocative pop star of the past decade?