Reports of originality in pop music have been greatly exaggerated. Lady Gaga has long understood this, in spite of her critics. Since her genesis on 2008’s The Fame, up through her new solo full-length Joanne, Gaga has been a pastiche artist, absorbing the past and present of popular music and reflecting it back at her listeners, often fractured through her preferred thematic lenses of celebrity, fame, and self-expression.
This approach tracks all the way down to Gaga’s stage name, which references a Queen song (“Radio Gaga”) and adds an honorific — “Lady” — that’s most closely associated with drag and cabaret performers, whose stock in trade is pop interpretation. By christening herself “Lady Gaga,” Stefani Germanotta has signaled to the world that her pop artistry is inherently intertwined with the pop artistry of those who came before her, as well as her contemporaries.
Gaga is often dinged for this, usually by pop-agnostic — or pop-hating — listeners who interpret her music as contrived and creatively bankrupt because it dares to directly reference the work of pop, rock, and R&B musicians who have attained bulletproof status in the cultural imagination.
Consider this: It’s all but impossible for Gaga to release a new single without cries that she’s “ripping off” a classic Madonna song: “Born This Way” is “Express Yourself,”; “Alejandro” is “La Isla Bonita”; Joanne lead single “Perfect Illusion” is “Papa Don’t Preach.”
It’s an exhausting line of criticism, not only because it’s so predictable but because it turns on the incorrect assumption that Madonna’s music isn’t also referencing well-established pop motifs. In doing what pop music is supposed to do — reflect popular musical attitudes and tastes — Lady Gaga is frequently accused of somehow disrespecting her chosen musical milieu.
Notably, the title of her new album, Joanne, references the singer as a person over a performer: It’s Germanotta’s middle name, one she shares with a deceased aunt. This signals that Joanne is a more personal album than Gaga’s previous solo effort, ArtPop, which took the singer’s performance art instincts to a frequently irritating extreme. But while Joanne may be more scaled back and personal in comparison to both Art Pop and its (much better) predecessor Born This Way, it’s still a giddy whirlwind of pop pleasure, pain, and performance. In other words, it’s still a Lady Gaga album, regardless of the name on the cover.
Joanne sees Gaga expanding her frame of musical reference — the album has a strong country-music throughline, not to mention some echoes of Gaga’s recent stint in the jazz standards realm with Tony Bennett. The Bruce Springsteen thread she’s been tugging at since Born This Way is still there, as is the Madonna thread she’s been tugging at since — well, pretty much since birth.
Perhaps off-puttingly for Gaga fans who prefer their “Mother Monster” in dance-goddess mode, Joanne mostly forgoes club bangers for big, guitar-driven tracks that evoke arena-rock triumph rather than sweaty dance floor shenanigans. These sounds are fostered through a roster of writers and producers who fall outside the expected realm of Gaga collaborators: Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme, Nashville hired gun Hillary Lindsey (who’s probably best known as Carrie Underwood’s go-to songwriter).
But though Gaga is performing on a slightly different stage this time out (notably, she’s chosen to promote Joanne with a tour of dive bars), she’s still performing as Gaga: a pop omnivore (or in this case, a pop-rock-country omnivore) who chews up and spits out sounds from across the musical spectrum, in service of big, bold, brash, and — let’s face it — sometimes cheesy songs that are unmistakably her.
With all that in mind, let’s take a quick trip through Joanne’s 11 tracks — a very quick trip, as Joanne clocks in under 40 minutes, making it Gaga’s shortest full-length album by a wide margin — to suss out the sounds and artists Gaga is channeling.
Track 1: “Diamond Heart”
What it is: A huge, straight-ahead album opener, establishing heartbreak as one of Joanne’s big themes (Gaga and Chicago Fire star Taylor Kinney called off their engagement this past July), and arena-size rock as its primary sonic milieu.
Representative lyric: “I may not be flawless, but I’ve got a diamond heart.”
Sounds most like: Bon Jovi in “Livin’ on a Prayer” mode.
What it is: Three and a half minutes of musical swagger, with Gaga extolling her own intoxicating charisma in a lyrical conflation of music and sexuality. This is the song where album producer Mark Ronson’s (“Uptown Funk”) influence is most strongly felt: The country- and soul-tinged instrumentation is slightly retro, but the driving, handclap-assisted beat is tailor-made for a Top 40 radio hit in 2016.
Representative lyric: “Get off on me / My body’s got you pleadin’ / Light me up and breathe in / Mirror on the ceiling.”
Sounds most like: Look out, Taylor Swift, Gaga’s coming for your 1989 vibe.
What it is: A stripped-down guitar ballad that eulogizes Gaga’s aunt Joanne, who died at age 19, before Gaga was born. Joanne was an artist and poet, and “Joanne” evokes Gaga’s desire to establish a strong emotional and artistic link between herself and her namesake.
Representative lyric: “Every part of my aching heart / Needs you more than the angels do.”
Sounds most like: A lot of singer-songwriter guitar ballads, to be honest, but the country twinge to “Joanne” has more than a little Neil Young behind it.
Track 4: “John Wayne”
What it is: A cowboy-lover fantasy. A dance-country beat, driven by Homme’s rowdy guitar, underlies Gaga’s professed desire for a “real wild man” to take the place of regular men and their “city games.”
Representative lyric: “Blue-collar and a red-state treasure / Love junkie on a three-day bender / his grip, so hard, eyes glare / Trouble like a mug shot.”
Sounds most like: Homme’s work on this track definitely evokes some Queens of the Stone Age spirit, but the country-bad-girl vibe of the lyrics and performance calls more strongly to contemporary female country stars like Carrie Underwood and (especially) Miranda Lambert.
Track 5: “Dancin’ in Circles”
What it is: Gaga’s version of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”: an exorcism through dance. Musically, there’s quite a bit in “Dancin’ in Circles” that evokes Gaga’s 2010 hit “Alejandro,” but there’s a concerted funk vibe in the percussion that takes it in a slightly different direction.
Representative lyric: “Baby don’t cry, baby don’t cry / Dancin’ in circles, feels good to be lonely.”
Sounds most like: There’s a lot of genre mashing going on in “Dancin’ in Circles,” but it all comes together in a way that most strongly suggests The Sign–era Ace of Base.
Track 6: “Perfect Illusion”
What it is: The lead single off Joanne is a fluid metaphor for any sort of relationship/interaction that prioritizes artificiality and performance over human connection. Lyrically it’s a bit of an enigma, but musically it’s an anthem all the way.
Representative lyric: “I feel you watching me / Dilated, falling free / In a modern ecstasy / Where are you, ’cause I can’t see you.”
Sounds most like: As mentioned above, Gaga has come in for criticisms that “Perfect Illusion” is a “Papa Don’t Preach” rip-off — but anyone who truly believes that clearly needs to listen to more Pat Benatar, because she is all over this track.
Track 7: “Million Reasons”
What it is: The best of Joanne’s ballads, a country-rock tune in which Gaga cuts open her heart and lets it bleed all over a mournful piano line. This is the most traditional, and effective, of Joanne’s breakup songs.
Representative lyric: “Every heartbreak makes it hard to keep the faith / But baby I just need one good one, good one, good one...”
Sounds most like: There’s a dash of Elton John in the piano and some Springsteen in Gaga’s delivery, but ultimately “Million Reasons” sounds more like an Adele song than anything else.
Track 8: “Sinner’s Prayer”
What it is: The purest distillation of Joanne’s country music fixation. “Sinner’s Prayer” is a collaboration with Father John Misty, who brings a touch of his lilting, pastoral sound to what’s otherwise a fairly simple “I’m a heartbreaker, and I’m sorry for it” song.
Representative lyric: “Hear my sinner’s prayer / I am what I am / And I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man / But you, but you.”
Sounds most like: There’s a lot of classic country in the mix here, but the loping instrumentation seems like a fairly pointed Ennio Morricone homage.
Track 9: “Come to Mama”
What it is: A glam-rock strut of a song with a fairly simple — but very Gaga — message: Love each other. Half of “Come to Mama” is dedicated to an extended breakdown that features Gaga’s signature vocal belt soaring over an insinuating saxophone line that evokes her sax-seasoned hit 2011 “Edge of Glory.”
Representative lyric: “Dude in a lab coat and a man of God / fought over prisms and a four-day flood / Well, I say rainbows did more than they’ve ever done / So why do we gotta fight over ideas?”
Sounds most like: A sonic battle between Queen and Elton John, backed by the E Street Band.
What it is: A duet with Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, a woman’s empowerment anthem whose lyrical message boils down to, “I got you, girl.” Gaga and Welch’s respective belts play extraordinarily well together, but both also know when to pull back to give “Hey Girl” a more complex range of emotions.
Representative lyric: “Hey girl, hey girl / We can make it easy if we lift each other / Hey girl, hey girl / We don’t need to keep one-uppin’ each other.”
Sounds most like: Hall & Oates, full stop.
Track 11: “Angel Down”
What it is: A mournful, spiritual ballad inspired by the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. “Angel Down” is Gaga at her most heavy-handed, and it’s unlikely to be anyone’s favorite song on Joanne, but it functions as a stately, somber coda.
Representative lyric: “Shots were fired on the street / By the church where we used to meet / Angel down, angel down / Why do people just stand around?”
Sounds most like: Sad Bruce Springsteen.
Joanne is now available everywhere, in both physical and digital formats.