Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanne’ – A Case Study in Re-branding

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Lady Gaga’s 4th album, Joanne, dropped last week, debuting at number one on the Billboard charts with more than 200,000 copies sold so far.

However, the critical reaction to it has been mixed.

Critical Reception

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The Washington Post’s Chris Richards criticism of Joanne is so complete (“muddled,” “bland,” a “medium-sized bowl of who cares”) that he believes it calls Lady Gaga’s entire prior persona into question:

“What if all these fantastic characters that Gaga has played – meat-frock maven, alien pod hatchling, estranged David Bowie cousin – were mere disguises for a careerist with no greater goal than her own success?”

Pitchfork Media’s Amanda Petrusich agrees, noting, “Now that her peers have caught up to her visual provocations, Lady Gaga seems less like an audacious pioneer than one among many, and Joanne feels tentative, an affront to the Gaga of yesteryear.”

“Her repeated and earnest disavowal of anything remotely normative was (and remains) plainly empowering for anyone sitting at home alone in her room, feeling like a true weirdo.”

“It’s hard to overstate the value of that work as a public service—every generation’s freaks elect a champion, and Gaga was tireless, proud, and wholly devoted to the job.”

In contrast, Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield calls Joanne Gaga’s best album in five years (since Born This Way), and calls it:

“an old-school Nineties soft-rock album, heavy on the acoustic guitar: Meet Lilith Gaga, who goes for both the incense-and-patchouli hippie vibe of Sarah McLachlan and the cowgirl glitter of Shania Twain.”

But even this review skirts the razor’s edge of damning with faint praise.

The problem?

We fans don’t listen to Lady Gaga’s music expecting ‘90s Lilith Fair folk rock.

Musically, we listen for dance tunes with a solid beat – There’s a reason her first break-out hit was called “Just Dance.”

Secondarily, we tune in for the weirdness, the freak show – the videos that stick it to the man and gleefully thumbing her nose at the status quo. “Paparazzi,” “Alejandro,” “Telephone.”

Lady Gaga and Me – a Bad Romance

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Lady Gaga first came to my attention for her music, as I heard some of her hits on the radio long before I saw any videos or realized her passion for performance art.

In 2010 I was in New York for business for several weeks. During that stint, “Bad Romance” was my theme song. I literally awoke in a corporate apartment and listened to it every morning to psych myself up for work that day.

Fast forward to a week later and it’s 1:30 am – I’m dancing to “Bad Romance” in an Irish Bar on the lower East side, the financial district. It’s surreal to realize that I’m surrounded by Wall Street investment bankers getting down – the average annual income of the bar patrons easily exceeds $200,000.

2011 – I see Lady Gaga perform in Washington, DC – The Monster Ball tour. The seats are on the side, so I can see backstage. I can observe the difference between the still-nervous performer (backstage) and the Lady Gaga persona she adopts as soon as she crosses the threshold.

All in all, while her music is amazing, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s a work in progress – trying to emulate Blonde Ambition-era Madonna, and knowing she falls flat.

Entreaties to call anoint us, her fans, as “Little Monsters” seem desperate, even as the costume changes and set pieces enthrall.

And then of course, comes the show stopper – “Born This Way.” Anthem or not, we all knew what my then boss said aloud: “I liked it better the first time, when it was called ‘Express Yourself’” (by Madonna).

But none of this dissuades from the point: I’m a fan, and Lady Gaga deserves her place in the pop pantheon.

My View

The negative critics are judging Lady Gaga too harshly, and ignoring the long tradition of artists reinventing themselves, to say nothing of occasionally exploring different musical genres.

More to the point, to laud Lady Gaga and put her primarily for her performance art rather than her music is to do her a disservice. It ignores that she is, and always has been, an amazing singer as well.

While Lady Gaga’s weird performance art and unabashed willingness to let her freak flag fly arguably cemented her reputation as a pop icon as much as her early songs themselves, to criticize her now for releasing a quiet, “normal” album seems disingenuous to me.

For one – there’s precedent. David Bowie proved himself an enduring rock icon long after shedding his Ziggy Stardust persona.

Rush, still touring now after more than 40 years, has evolved their music from concept album weirdness in the ‘70s (2112) to radio-friendly jams in the ‘80s (Moving Pictures) to pure rock in the ‘90s (Roll the Bones) and beyond.

Even Justin Timberlake was laughed at when – fresh off his ‘NSync days – he admitted a love of hip hop. He then broke the mold – and announced himself as a true pop star – with “Justified.”

It turned out that J. Timberlake may just have been a serious pop star all along, but one who had been slumming it in boy band purgatory.

How heavy is that?

The Evolution

Even if you don’t believe that artists regularly (and should) reinvent themselves periodically, the larger point is that Lady Gaga’s always been the freaky persona of the artist hiding beneath.

Don’t believe me? Here are two proof points:

1. Her Tony Bennett collaboration

I contend that Lady Gaga teamed up with Tony Bennett because she grew up listening to his music and idolizing him.

This wasn’t the action of a calculating pop star, but of a musician who was fan-girling over an established singer of an entirely different ilk. it’s like Michael Jackson partnering with Paul McCartney on “The Girl is Mine,” or Nicolas Cage marrying Elvis Presley’s daughter.

2. The 2014 Oscars

Lady Gaga shocked many a year and a half ago when she performed a medley of songs from “The Sound of Music” at the Academy Awards, in recognition of that film’s 50th anniversary.

The songs were performed not only before a television audience of 100,000 people, but also for Julie Andrews herself, who was in the audience.

The surprise expressed in the days that followed basically boiled down to “we didn’t know she could sing.”

Conclusion

For those who have been paying attention, Lady Gaga has long exhibited her true artistic talent alongside her freak performance art persona. The difference is “Joanne” is just the first large-scale evidence of it for the masses.

To the critics who have maligned “Joanne” as a mundane work that points to Lady Gaga’s having merely played the role of freak ambassador over the last decade for commercial gain, I disagree.

Even if it does herald a fundamental shift, perhaps “Joanne” simply represents the evolution of an artist who was so groundbreaking and influential a decade ago that the path of weirdness forged by her is now commonplace.

In this crowded environment, perhaps the most surprising and “punk rock” move possible was just this –producing an acoustic soft rock album.

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