In a moment of candid exasperation during a 2015 speech at Yale, Stefani Germanotta—or, to her less-familiars, Lady Gaga—confessed, “I have had to make decisions like, why am I unhappy? Okay, Stefani/Gaga hybrid person, why are you unhappy? … I don’t like wasting my time spending days just shaking people’s hands and smiling and taking selfies. It feels shallow to my existence. I have a lot more to offer than my image.” Seven years earlier, she had released the triple-platinum ode-to-image, The Fame. Two years later she wore the meat dress. Now, she’s feeling the hangover from her identity-performance’s high. Fame was a poker face,1that prevented the world from seeing the person behind the pseudonym. Living that false image couldn’t beat unhappiness, but authenticity can, and it’s that authenticity that shines in her self-searching, latest album, Joanne.
Joanne rockets between ballad and rock, funk and blues, country and dance pop. And the protagonists seem to vary as much as the genre. It kicks off with the “young, wild American” of “Diamond Heart” and finishes with the meek seeker of “Angel Down.” Each facet of her life gets to tell its story. The journey is, as Good Morning America’s Michael Strahan points out in a release-day interview, raw and authentic: there’s moments of lost innocence and erotic desire as well as signs of genuine faith and political concern. This juxtaposition can feel incoherent, but coherence and authenticity hardly ever go hand in hand. Gaga’s complicated like all of us. We’re just hot messes of love seeking meaning and fulfillment.
The album’s title is a nod to the roots of this mess. Joanne was Joanne Germanotta, the singer’s aunt who passed away at 19, a decade before her niece was born. Gaga, née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, literally carries that tragedy with her. Authenticity begins with coming to terms with origins, and she can’t escape the haunting of her own name.
“Girl, where do you think you’re going’?” She howls over and over in the title track. With the sheer willpower of her voice—and she has a lot of it—she still can’t bring her aunt back. We’re trapped in her distress until her mourning finds some resolution in the bridge: “Honestly, I know where you’re goin’/And baby, you’re just moving’ on/And I still love you even if I can’t/See you anymore.” Anguish and grief become calm acceptance. It’s that faith in her aunt’s living on that heals her.Lady Gaga’s disorienting longing for her heavenly aunt’s presence, however, doesn’t have anything on her frenzied quest for love in this world. She confesses that she can only find it imperfectly. It’s as constant ecstasy is a “Perfect Illusion.” She’s looking for some “John Wayne” who can quench her thirst for a love that thrills. She claims that he made her “high like amphetamine” yet admits that maybe he’s “just a dream.” Strong emotions of angst and frustration show up in both voice and instrumentation. If Ke$ha’s love is a drug, then Lady Gaga’s drug comes with a crash. Stymied love hurts. It wounds the soul and leaves its mark. Is lasting love even possible, the distorted guitars ponder, or is it all just a passing high?
Lest despair have the final word, she follows the real-but-resentful “Perfect Illusion” with the heartfelt and hopeful, “Million Reasons.” Gaga refuses to give into desperation; instead, she holds out for the possibility of love. Her lover2 has given her a million reasons to “quit the show.” The piano is somber. The harmonies hurt. The drums dwindle and fade. Yet somehow, she needs “just one good [reason] to stay.” The reward is worth the risk. “Lord, show me the way!” she cries with her weapon of a voice that pierces through the “worn out leather” of disillusioned love. No surprise then that “Million Reasons” is the most popular of the album’s tracks on iTunes.3 Its exhausted lamentation strikes a chord with an America that has so many reasons to give up hope. Lady Gaga has the courage to acknowledge her fear and reach through it.
It’s this authentic hope as a response to hurt that connects the despondent Lady Gaga back to Stefani Joanne. Joanne, in name and in song, is a reminder of the “could-be” that’s simultaneously the hurt of the past and the possibility of the future. She meditated on her name to find authenticity and ended up crafting an alchemy of loss into hope.