By Hayden Wright
She’s So Unusual was the name of Cyndi Lauper’s first studio album and the phrase on everyone’s lips when Lady Gaga dropped her debut single “Just Dance” in 2008. It’s fair to say that a generation of mainstream pop listeners had never heard (or more importantly, seen) anything like her. Teens and young adults who knew nothing of New Wave and missed disco by 30 years were assaulted by Eurotrash decadence, synthesizers and provocation that doubled as performance art.
In the final months of the second Bush administration, Gaga had a progressive sound for a progressive moment in American culture—but the message wasn’t there yet. Her favorite subjects: Vanity, fame, paparazzi, money, boys, disco sticks. Gaga’s stunts got bigger, her Alexander McQueen footwear less practical, and her video for “Bad Romance” set the standard for viral traction in a new media landscape. Stars like Katy Perry, Kesha, Rihanna and even Beyoncé moved in on her dance-pop territory. Was the Lady Gaga bubble doomed to burst, or was she too big to fail?
Related: Quit Comparing Lady Gaga to Madonna
Both, in the best way possible. Our cultural memory caught up to us: What once sounded fresh seemed derivative and even “reductive.” Something resembling Lady Gaga fatigue set in. Critics retroactively projected Gaga’s influences onto Gaga herself, and her second album Born This Way was the first of two that played primarily to her base, the “Little Monsters” who craved an affirmative message—absent on The Fame, but abundantly present in her offscreen persona. For a sophomore effort, Born This Way integrated the parts, highlighted her versatility, and spawned enough radio hits to keep her near the top of the game—but the game was much more crowded in 2011 than in 2008. Then came the experimental Artpop.
“Experimental” is the kind of compliment you give an album that doesn’t move commercial mountains. In that way, Paula Abdul’s “Vibeology” and Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess were “experimental” records. Artpop played so specifically to Gaga’s fans that it seemed to cut the mainstream out of her audience, and yet, somehow felt impersonal. When “Applause” is the most memorable single from your last album, it’s more of a polite golf clap. Artpop lives for the applause the way Jeb Bush lives for the applause, if you catch my drift.
In Radio.com’s Fantastic Queens and Where to Find Them, we caught up on where Gaga stood early this year. Since Artpop, she’s added “Golden Globe-winning TV actress,” “Oscar-nominated film songwriter,” and “Tony Bennett’s GRAMMY running mate” to her resume. That brings us to Joanne, Gaga’s fourth studio album in her own right. The trappings and straight-up traps of Early Gaga are swapped for a back-to-basics, unvarnished, musicianly rock album we all sensed was coming—breathe a sigh of relief, it’s here.
These are the standout tracks on Lady Gaga’s Joanne:
“Hey Girl” feat. Florence Welch. When Hillary Clinton wants to look extra tough on Wall Street, she stands next to Senator Elizabeth Warren. When Lady Gaga wants to prove her folk-gypsy-rock cred, she invites Florence Welch to duet. That’s just politics, folks. It helps that “Hey Girl” is a lackadaisical synth track that takes both talents slightly out of their element to produce something bouncy and unexpected.
“Diamond Heart.” The title sounds like a Sia song, the intro sounds like a Tom Petty song, but rest assured, the chorus is pure Gaga. If you questioned the wisdom of her key change on “Perfect Illusion,” “Diamond Heart” is a listener-friendly rock track (with electro elements) that will be all over clubs once the right remix comes along.
“Angel Down.” On Joanne there’s not a moment of minor-key drama Lady Gaga passes up, and “Angel Down” lives somewhere at the intersection of Johnny Cash and Meat Loaf. There are gorges of grief and glimmers of hope as Gaga balladeers the tragedy of her fallen angel; She revealed the song was written with Trayvon Martin in mind. The circular lyrics are folky and allow improvisation and emotion to bring this number home.
“Grigio Girls.” We got a preview of Country Gaga on Born This Way via the Mutt Lang-produced “You and I,” but on Joanne, Gaga commits whole-hog. (Pinot) “Grigio Girls” tells the story of an older mentor (perhaps her late aunt Joanne, for whom the album is named) who teaches Gaga how to bounce back from heartbreak, disappointment and self-doubt. The “tough girls on the mend” track should come with a coupon for Ben and Jerry’s, and is probably a case of art imitating life.
“Come to Mama.” When in doubt, chain yourself to Tony Bennett for one year and work with the guy who produced “Valerie” for Amy Winehouse—that’s Mark Ronson. “Come to Mama” is a whimsical throwback song with doo-wop charm and total commitment to the era it’s channeling. The vocals and songwriting are so authentic and devoted that nobody will cry “gimmick” at the sound of this bluesy, soulful phonograph.