Since releasing her breakout album ‘The Fame’ in 2008 (and its subsequent reissue/deluxe edition hybrid, ‘The Fame Monster’ in 2009), I think it’s fair to say Lady Gaga has been one of the most talked about music artists on the planet. Her songs have topped charts the world over, her image and fashion style has spawned countless columns in magazines, and she’s been an important voice in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, among so many other things. In 2019, she remains in this position, arguably the biggest Pop star on the planet right now, currently still riding the wave from her starring role in the Oscar-nominated movie ‘A Star Is Born’, for which she herself is also nominated for ‘Best Actress’. Not to mention the fact that she’s currently still in the very early part of her Las Vegas residency, performing her brand new ‘Lady Gaga Enigma’ show. It’s fair to say everything about Gaga is huge.
Yet, whenever I think about Lady Gaga, I often find myself asking whether that’s necessarily true? You see, there’s a certain piece of her work that I really love and which I believe deserves far more love than it seems to receive now. I think it’s arguable that even at the time of its release, in spite of high chart positions likely brought simply by her name being attached to the album, it’s an album that was perhaps unfairly forgotten about by the public at large after a handful of listens. The album I’m talking about is, of course, 2016’s ‘Joanne’.
As an album, I personally think ‘Joanne’ is spectacular, depending on the day you ask me I may even tell you that it’s my favourite Gaga record. It features a much more stripped-down sound on a far more consistent basis than Gaga had tried before – that is to say, whilst she’d done a few more simple songs production and instrumentation wise in the past, this was the first time she did so for a full album – and to my ears at least, she basically nails it. Take the album’s first single for example, ‘Perfect Illusion’. Upon its release, whilst widely enjoyed, it seemed to get a very mixed reaction. As an entry point for this album, I think it works brilliantly. To me, it’s what would happen to a typical Gaga single, such as ‘Applause’, if written in the style that permeates the ‘Joanne’ album, and I think it works perfectly. But I will submit to the argument that as a single, it’s perhaps not as memorable as any of the singles Gaga had released previous, or even since. And I think this fact leads onto a bigger point…
I think the main reason that ‘Joanne’ appears to have been left aside by the wider consensus of people is that the songs released to radio didn’t seem to have much in the way of staying power. ‘Million Reasons’ is the song that has perhaps seeped into the public conscious the most, being played live by Gaga on dozens of TV shows and at award shows. It makes sense, it’s a piano ballad with easy lyrics to get your head around for a sing along, and it’s also a song that means a lot to Gaga herself, by her own admission. But this aside, the singles really don’t seem to have been picked up as much. Sure, Gaga fans (Little Monsters as she affectionately calls them) love the songs, but perhaps the problem is just that the songs don’t work as singles so much. Looking at the official videos for the 2 songs mentioned on Youtube, at time of writing ‘Perfect Illusion’ has 129 million views, and ‘Million Reasons’ has 178 million views, both of which are numbers that are no mean feat. However, if we then take a look at the numbers for ‘Shallow’, the breakout song from 2018’s ‘A Star Is Born’, these numbers start to pale. ‘Shallow’ was uploaded at the end of September 2018 and has 282 million views. When you remember that the ‘Joanne’ videos were uploaded in 2016, it only makes their numbers pale even more.
Now this is just one angle to look from, and it’s an admittedly more negative one. I do personally think the lack of immediate singles is the BIG reason than ‘Joanne’ appears to have been left by the wayside by the general public. It’s always been true that Pop music is all about the big single to bring the fans in for the album, but in more recent years, the last 5-10 especially, Pop music has imploded in on itself a little, and become far more a game of having a huge single for people to talk about and stream for a week before they move onto the next big single. And that definitely feeds into the issue at hand. So perhaps the reason ‘Joanne’ appears underrated to me at least is more a failing of the music industry’s current model for Pop music? A model in which albums, for the most part, just constitute songs to act as filler and padding in live shows between the big moments? I’d certainly like to think so. Because aside from the lack of singles, as an album I think ‘Joanne’ is superb!
Let’s be fair, Lady Gaga’s singles collection is mega. She’s had more hits than most, if not all, of her contemporaries. But I’ve always been an album guy. And whilst it may not have much that radio was in a hurry to play, as an album ‘Joanne’ works on so many levels. The tone and style are consistent, whenever I listen to the album I can vividly imagine being in a car driving down an old desert road close to sunset, and it’s a perfect setting for the music. On top of this, I think the songs are all pretty great too, from opener ‘Diamond Heart’ to closer ‘Angel Down’, there’s barely an off moment. The penultimate track, ‘Hey Girl’ sees a duet between Gaga and Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine). ‘Come to Mama’ has something of a throwback sound to the 50s that would make it sound right at home in the disco scene in ‘Grease’. For my money too, ‘A-Yo’ may even be one of Gaga’s best songs in her arsenal. And on top of all this, the stripped back sound of the album really allows Gaga’s vocal and songwriting talent to shine.
I hope that history is kind to ‘Joanne’. I hope that it doesn’t completely fall through the cracks whenever Gaga releases her next album. But above all else, I hope that Gaga realises that, whilst the music from the album isn’t as omnipresent as most of her previous stuff has been, it’s still an album loved by so many people. Her Vegas Enigma show only has 1 song from Joanne in the setlist, and I think that’s really sad, and I hope it’s a stylistic choice rather than a choice dictated by any potential belief that the songs won’t be as well received.
I also really hope that anyone reading who hasn’t given ‘Joanne’ a listen in a while will stick it on today. And even more importantly, anyone who has never listened to it will go and give it a shot ASAP. It’s a Pop album that I genuinely think can work for all types of music taste. It’s not out to transcend genres, but the songwriting at hand is brilliant, and there’s at least a little something for everyone to sink their teeth into.
By Matt Dobbie