It’s rare that Lady Gaga takes a low-key approach to album releases. 2011 saw her tweet the release date of Born This Way over five months in advance alongside a black-and-white promo image of her naked from the waist down. Just two months later, Gaga released a seven-minute video (in which she donned a series of latex outfits and gave birth to a new race, naturally) for the sledgehammer lead single, which became the first #1 track in history to namecheck the trans community.
Then, in 2013, Gaga performed a handful of demos from then-upcoming album, ARTPOP, as part of the iTunes festival in September before reworking (or, as some argued, diluting) them before the album’s release in November. When ARTPOP finally did hit the shelves, Gaga celebrated with an ArtRave in NYC, a gigantic party streamed online and decorated with Jeff Koons’ gazing balls and the mammoth Lady Gaga statue created by Koons for the album cover. Oh, and she debuted a flying dress – so far, so Gaga.
This time, however, things are unfolding differently. "Perfect Illusion," the lead single from upcoming album Joanne, was released a few weeks ago with only a week’s warning. It did, of course, top the iTunes charts in 62 countries within minutes of its release, but its position has since dropped significantly.
Critics were divided, too. The Telegraph praised it as a “simple, infectiously catchy slice of floor-filling, stadium-cheering pop”, whereas Idolator described it as Gaga’s rebirth as a “rock goddess.” Others were, however, less enamored: The Guardian described her vocals as “heaving sobs, flailing about in search of a melody”, whereas Pitchfork’s review was scathing: the reviewers called the production thin and poorly-recorded before drawing the overall conclusion that “Gaga can just never not be Gaga.”
But what, truly, is Gaga’s signature soundscape? Her biggest hits may been driven by whirring synths, layered electronic production and multiple infectious hooks, but her albums have always incorporated sonic diversity. Born This Way fused techno, rock, heavy metal and even mariachi to impressive effect, whereas ARTPOP saw the star delve deep into disco, R&B, EDM and hip-hop. The rock influences on "Perfect Illusion" should come as no surprise to true fans, nor should the suggestions of acoustic, folk and country references on Joanne – still, it seemed that many were almost expecting to know exactly what "Perfect Illusion" would sound like before it was even released.
All signs point to a complete sonic departure for Gaga – one which has been brewing for the last few years. When ARTPOP was deemed to be a commercial disappointment (despite debuting at #1 with 258,000 sales in its first week), subsequent interviews saw Gaga explaining her fatigue as a result of the music industry’s obsession with sales.
Retrospectively, her 2014 festival appearance at SXSW can be seen as a turning point; dressed in underwear and a white apron, a dreadlocked Gaga rode a bucking bronco whilst artist Millie Brown vomited fluorescent paint over her body in a punk performance piece. Tellingly, during the same performance of "Swine," Gaga screamed “Fuck you pop music, this is ARTPOP!” She also cracked a joke before breaking into a finale performance of hit single "Applause," laughing “Now, because we were told we really have to, we’re going to play a song called ‘Applause’”.
This message of creative rebellion carried through into her in-depth keynote speech, in which she discussed the problematic nature of placing control in the hands of record labels seeking chart hits. “I make music. The second I put it out into the world it gets eaten by a computer and becomes numbers and rankings, it’s terrifying. What we have to remember is that the way we talk about that process, that’s what the problem really is. [When you place] importance on charts, what happens is you start trying to influence the artist towards being successful within that system.”
Now, three years later, it seems that Gaga is staying true to her promise to deviate from songs designed specifically for chart success. All signs point towards Joanne being her most intimate album yet, one designed to reflect her own personal tastes – a brave move which is likely to both endear new fans and potentially alienate an existing fanbase.
The star has always been open about her own personal taste, citing a passion for jazz (explored in her passion project Cheek to Cheek, an album of duets with Tony Bennett), Bruce Springsteen and heavy metal as well as the likes of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson. Now, it seems those more unlikely inspirations will shine through in an album which she described as being born from a desire to “go back to what made me love music in the first place as a child.”
If anything, Joanne should succeed in winning over critics that spent the first few years of Gaga’s career accusing her of inauthenticity. There’s always been a beating, bleeding human heart embedded firmly within the electronic soundscapes of her most successful hits, but many were initially detracted by the spectacular aesthetic that came alongside the songs.
These incredible looks don’t stem from a desire to mask any true character – Gaga has always spoken of her hatred of the question “Who is the real Lady Gaga?” and famously released Born This Way as a response to the constant probing – but a genuine love for fashion. Now, however, the extensive wig wardrobe and towering Noritaka Tatehana heels are on hiatus; her promotional interviews for Joanne have, so far, been conducted in denim cut-offs with metallic accents, tiny cropped tees and a blonde ponytail.
It’s entirely cliché to call the new album "stripped-back" – executive producer Mark Ronson and songwriter Hillary Lindsey have both debunked rumors that the album will be a full-length exploration of either rock or country devoid of Gaga’s trademark hooks. It is, however, alarmingly honest for an artist that was famously reluctant to give details of her personal and private life in early interviews.
Even the album title is pivotal. Not only is Joanne Gaga’s middle name, it’s the name of her deceased aunt whose death sent shockwaves of grief throughout the family. These stories have always been present and have always been discussed – debut album The Fame even had a poem dedicated to Joanne in its album booklet – but never have they taken centre stage in the way they are now.
For an artist often (falsely) accused of hiding behind artifice, it’s inarguable that her new willingness to be vulnerable on record will endear her to a new audience. The chart hits may still come thick and fast and the album will undoubtedly sell millions, but it’s clear to see that Joanne marks a new chapter in Gaga’s career – one which looks likely to endear her to stubborn critics and casual fans like never before.