There’s something oddly alien about the stripped-down façade of Lady Gaga in promotional shoots for her latest album Joanne. Without the elaborate wigs and geometric makeup, her architectural cheekbones sweep along her face like foreign objects. Her full lips and sharp nose have a heavy, hawkish feeling. It’s jarring, because everything we’ve known of Gaga was the theatrics. And we have to wonder: have we ever known what she actually looked like?
In comparison to her peers, Gaga’s motives in her musical choices have been inscrutable. It’s hard to predict what she’ll do next. This difficulty in analysis is in part due to how we analyze her. Her fans and critics take her discography as fact, as a timeline. We do this because that’s what’s always been done. As artists age, their albums reflect that.
We analyzed her like this because that’s the framework we’re given. It’s worked for other pop artists, like Beyoncé and Adele. It’s possible to track the change from I Am…Sasha Fierce to Lemonade as Beyoncé became more confident and solid in the duality of femininity and power. 25 makes cohesive sense when in collaboration with 21 as Adele grappled with her rapid rise to stardom.
But Gaga’s choices don’t make that same sort of sense. And if you use the sequential model to analyze her discography, her discography makes even less sense. Because she’s not like other artists. She doesn’t work sequentially, she works laterally.
For Joanne, Lady Gaga’s fifth studio album, she took an earthier, cigarette smoke-wreathed image. She’s wearing white t-shirts and mom jeans, her blonde hair pulled back tightly into a bun or capped underneath a wide-brimmed pink hat. The music shifts from rock to a country twang easily. It’s partially a reflection of the Americana genre, but Gaga feels more grounded in this album.
Joanne centers around the theme of familial ties. “Joanne” is Gaga’s real middle name, but it is also the name of her father’s deceased sister. And so while this is another experimentation on the part of Lady Gaga, the themes—more personal than on her previous albums—makes Joanne her most deeply revealing album yet.
The sound of Joanne was a direct response to 2013’s ARTPOP, her previous solo studio album. In the wake of ARTPOP’s, Gaga took a more stripped-down tone, relying on her powerful voice rather than theatrics. It’s evident in her 2014 jazz album Cheek to Cheek; it’s present in her performance of songs from The Sound of Music at the 2015 Oscars.
Gaga said that she was inspired and influenced by country music. But Joanne is not a country album. And Lady Gaga knows that. It’s apparent particularly in “John Wayne.”
The song begins with a click of a needle hitting the record on the player and the slightly garbled, nouveau “cops and robbers” vibe starts crackling, all underneath Gaga’s voice. “It’s like, I just want a cowboy,” she says, and you can imagine it’s directed at a friend as they sit in a dim, mahogany bar, dirty gin bottles clinking against the lips of dirty glasses. “I know it’s bad but, like, can I just hang off the back of your horse and can you go a little bit faster,” her voice squeals as, we imagine, the horse takes off and Gaga is whisked away into the fantasy of a cowboy romance.
Gaga sets the scene. You imagine that it’s her fingers that put the needle onto the record, and it’s her listening to “John Wayne.” She’s listening, but we’re listening too. Gaga knows that we could never believe she authentically arrived at a country album. But by indulging us, and proving that she’s aware that this is a musical experiment, she stitches us into the narrative. We, like her, begin to experience the country influence. We, like her, want a cowboy. We immerse ourselves in the country genre with Lady Gaga as our vehicle.
“Come to Mama” feels particularly apt for the political climate. “So why do we gotta fight over ideas?” asked Gaga. “We’re talking the same ole shit after all of these years.”
A boozy, raucous throwback, with a bold “free love” ‘70s kind of vibe, the refrain says it all. “Come to mama/ tell me who hurt ya/ There’s gonna be no future/ If we don’t figure this out.” It’s a reference to Gaga’s role in her fandom as “Mother Monster” but tailored to her current image. She’s not the mother of a ravenous fandom. She’s a big, boisterous mother; she takes no shit, she’s tough love, but she ultimately wants everyone to be together.
“Come to Mama” is hopeful and loud and rousing. It’s probably the folksiest Gaga gets on her album, and digs into the dive bar-loud instrumentals aspect of performing. The music is as important as her lyrics and her harmonizing over the saxophones and snares.
A lot of the same ideas appear in Joanne as in her previous albums. “Dancin’ In Circles” details masturbation and female sexuality. “Perfect Illusion” talks about botched loves with men. But so much of the album resides under the framework structure of “family.” “Joanne” laments the death of Gaga’s aunt, who died before Gaga was born, but whose spirit lingered in the family mythology. “Sinner’s Prayer” pleads for understanding and forgiveness for a blinded-by-love sister.
Gaga is known for being chameleonic in her discography, each album grappling with different issues, built on the core of her identity. Her debut album The Fame was a foray into the positive aspects of celebrity, the initial sweetness of fame. Her follow-up reissue, The Fame Monster, was celebrity’s bitter aftertaste. She characterized it as her interest in the ‘decay of celebrity.’
The Fame and The Fame Monster illustrate that, even in the nascence of her career, Lady Gaga knew the pop machine.
In the music video for “Paparazzi” off The Fame Monster, Gaga is thrown off a balcony by her boyfriend. As she lies paralyzed on the rocks below, paparazzi crowd her and newspaper headlines fly across the screen. “Lady Gaga Hits Rock Bottom.” “Lady Gaga is Over.” The video moves on, Gaga starts in a wheelchair and slowly recovers. Eventually, Lady Gaga manages to kill her boyfriend. And as she is carted off to jail—after confessing to the crime—newspapers begin to flash across the screen. “She’s Back!!!” “We Love Her Again.”
The message of the song criticizes celebrity culture. She exists for them to devour her and then build her back up. She is an object to them, as immobile as someone in a wheelchair. And she will exist in that way until she can, effectively, kill celebrity culture. She knows how the culture works, and thus operates outside of that.
She touches upon that in “Angel Down.” “I confess, I am lost, in the age of the social,” she sings as the opening line. The song functions as her break-up with celebrity culture. In indulging it in, we lose touch with humanity. Rather than let it consume her, she would rather seek out people, ergo save an “angel down.”
Her third album, Born This Way, was arguably her most successful and cohesive body of work. It was her first album to reach number-one on the Billboard 200 chart, selling over one million copies in one week. The songs touched upon feminism, individualism, and religion. This was peak-Gaga.
Her fourth album, ARTPOP, was—according to her—a Warholian experiment to bring art culture into pop culture. Warhol is famously an inspiration of Gaga’s, and his attempts to bring popular culture into the art world had a decided impact on her artistry. ARTPOP brought in influences from the fashion world—“Donatella” lauded Versace—classical art—“Venus” invoked Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus—and film—“Applause” emulated Black Swan in its music video.
ARTPOP is also Gaga’s biggest miscalculation. The songs felt at some points unfinished, and the music videos weren’t cohesive. Even for “G.U.Y.”—a personal favorite—the portrayal of the reality television celebrities from the network Bravo as a pseudo-Greek chorus and television host and personality Andy Cohen as a god and an almost Bladerunner-esque vibe felt trite rather than revolutionary. Something wasn’t landing for Gaga; maybe it was too big of a reach too soon. Maybe it was just a few years too early.
Gaga’s process of making music wasn’t revealed to us at this point. ARTPOP seemed like the mad manifesto of someone addled by celebrity. If you follow the trajectory of her discography, it’s a series of peaks and valleys. The Fame covered the adoration of fame, followed closely by the negative aspects of it—The Fame Monster. Born This Way was the resurgence and affirmation of individuality. And the descent into entirely incomprehensible “genius” is ARTPOP.
In 2014, Gaga released Cheek to Cheek, a jazz album, in collaboration with Tony Bennett. In 2015, she wrote and sang the song “Til It Happens to You” for the documentary The Hunting Ground, exploring sexual assault on college campuses. And in 2016, Gaga released Joanne, discarding the last vestiges of her crazy assembles and opting for something more dirt-road country.
And it takes being in 2016, looking at the full scope of her work to realize that Gaga is not working sequentially. Her discography is not reflective per se of a journey. It’s not trackable, like Beyoncé or Adele. Each album is a distinct and separate artistic endeavor, but work laterally to form an image of Gaga.
Lady Gaga is driven by a deep love for music. On making Cheek to Cheek, Gaga said she was inspired to preserve jazz standards for the next generation. That small remark, preserving music and celebrating music, echoes through her entire opus. In that light, each album could be seen as honoring different styles of music. The Fame and The Fame Monster celebrated dance-and-synth pop. Born This Way evoked rock and roll, heavy metal and disco. Cheek to Cheek was jazz. Joanne is Americana soft rock. Whereas some artists have a gradual shift from genre to genre—Taylor Swift’s evolution from country to pop—Gaga made a concentrated effort to constantly subvert genre expectations.
Lady Gaga doesn’t work sequentially. She doesn’t tell the story of her life like other artists. But each album reveals another layer of Gaga. Her avid adoration with celebrity. Her quick disgust with it. Her desire to leave its clinging embrace. Her sexuality. Religion. Her devotion to her family. They don’t work sequentially because they work laterally. Taken as contemporaneous pieces of the puzzle, they make much more sense; they paint the picture of a musically intelligent, passionate artist who, like many people, has a lot of different sides to her at any given time.