This past Friday night, I was sitting in my room with my friends, music blaring out of my knock-off speakers and “Grey’s Anatomy” silently playing on the TV – with subtitles, of course. Fergie’s “Glamorous” was about to end, and I frantically scrolled through my Spotify library for another song. Before I could find one, an advertisement started.
Now, normally when an ad interrupts my Spotify listening experience, I sigh and grumble about how cheap I am, promising myself I’ll subscribe to Spotify Premium soon (disclaimer: I probably never will). This time, though, I jumped about a foot in the air and felt like slapping myself upside the head. Because somehow, I’d forgotten that Lady Gaga was releasing her fifth studio album “Joanne” that same day.
Without hesitating, I followed the advertisement to the album’s streaming page and pressed play. Within five minutes, I was shocked – and completely positive of one thing: The Lady Gaga on “Joanne” is not the out-of-this-world persona we’ve come to know.
- “Diamond Heart”
“Joanne” opens with an energetic bang in the form of “Diamond Heart,” a self-empowerment anthem that bridges the gap between pop music and the folk-ish, Americana vibes that comprise the body of this album. It signals an abrupt switch from the superstar that crafted electropop masterpieces like “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face,” but retains the big, anthemic melodies Gaga is known for. In the fashion of lead single “Perfect Illusion,” Gaga’s vocals are sparsely produced, at their rawest and most powerful. Overall, as my friend aptly put it Saturday night, it’s “the kind of song that you listen to while speeding down the interstate with the top down late at night.” In other words – get out your coolest sunglasses and cowboy boots, if you have ‘em.
The title of this song embodies exactly what it is: good, simple fun. It’s easy to see why it was released as the second promotional single from the album — Gaga starts the song with a raspy “Heeere we go!” and from then on, you can’t help but move your body along as she encourages you to join her in “smokin’ ‘em all.” A twangy guitar line bounces throughout the song, and a sing-along chorus mostly composed of Gaga chanting the word A-YO (is that really a word?) over and over again stands out here; it’s a funky, wonderful addition to any party playlist.
The vibe of the album takes a turn with the first ballad, a raw, emotional ode to Gaga’s late aunt. She’s spoken at length about how much her aunt’s death affected her father and family, and it shows in her touching vocal delivery – which, by the way, was recorded in just one take. Grab some tissues if you’re easily moved to tears, because this’ll do it.
- “John Wayne”
In a spoken word intro that’s just as gritty and fun as the rest of this track, Gaga tells, “It’s like, I just love a cowboy, you know? I’m just like, I just, I know it’s bad, but I’m just like – can I just like, hang off the back of your horse, and can you go a little FASTER?” (That’s four “likes” and five “just”s, if you were curious.) The song certainly lives up to these words, with a rock-and-country-infused energy that almost makes me wish I lived in the country, where I too could toss beer cans off the back of my own John Wayne horse – never mind the fact that I had to google who John Wayne even is, or that Gaga is actually from New York City.
- “Dancin’ in Circles”
Let me preface this by saying that I expected a dance song here. Not to say that I didn’t get one – “Dancin’ in Circles” is perfectly danceable, and you should definitely bring this one to your shower playlist if you like dancing in the shower as much as I do. But with lyrics like, “In the fire I call your name out/Up all night, tryna rub the pain out,” it’s fairly clear Gaga isn’t singing about dancing. That’s right up my alley – I love a good taboo song, even if it’s not as cleverly done as something like Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” – but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Regardless, this song retains the funky, low-key thumping fun seen in many songs on “Joanne,” so maybe pretend Gaga isn’t singing about her Lady and just dance if that isn’t your thing.
- “Perfect Illusion”
Ah, yes. “Perfect Illusion” – the polarizing first taste of “Joanne” that alienated half of Lady Gaga’s fan base and had radio stations hesitating to play one of her lead singles for the first time ever. I loved this song from the beginning, but it remains polarizing; her vocals are very loud and can become grating after a bit, but the production behind the song is truly immaculate. It’s one of the weaker tracks on the album, but it’s still a solid pop track.
- “Million Reasons”
There’s not much to say about this track, in all honesty. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching ballad lamenting a lover’s inability to compromise carried by a gentle piano melody. Gaga’s never been known for her ballads, but this could change that – released as the first promotional single from the album, it’s performing well enough that her label would be foolish not to at least consider making it the second official single from “Joanne.”
- “Sinner’s Prayer”
“Sinner’s Prayer” starts with a killer bass line and dark lyrics, but slumps at the chorus. It’s an easy-listening song with clear country and western influences, and it’s executed well, but it’s a bit hard to remember among so many other standout tracks.
- “Come to Mama”
Lady Gaga gets slightly political with “Come To Mama,” a foot-tapping, happy little track that finds the songstress lamenting the divisiveness of our modern world. With lyrics like, “the only prisons that exist are ones we put each other in,” Gaga gives us a glimpse into her philosophy of love and coexistence – and wouldn’t it be nice if the world was as wonderful as the one Gaga asks for here.
- “Hey Girl”
One of the most anticipated tracks from “Joanne,” “Hey Girl” finds Lady Gaga singing back and forth with Florence Welch, the magnificent voice and principal songwriter behind Florence + The Machine. The track continues the theme started in “Come to Mama,” encouraging female empowerment and solidarity. Unsurprisingly, the song’s sound is just as amazing as its message – something straight out of the ’60s/’70s that manages to sound both nostalgic and current.
- ” Angel Down”
“Shots were fired on the street, by the church where we used to meet/Angel down, angel down, but the people just stood around,” Gaga croons on this glittering, somber ballad, which she recently revealed on Twitter was inspired by the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. Its message about unnecessary and unpunished violence (read: police brutality) is profoundly important and heartbreaking, and it’s one of the most beautiful tracks on this album – which is saying something.
By the end of “Joanne,” I was still shocked, and still completely positive that the Lady Gaga on “Joanne” is not the same woman who changed the face of pop music late last decade. She’s still the same person, of course – but now, she’s stripped back the theatrics and costumes to reveal the girl she’s always been underneath it all. Who is that girl? To me, she’s an ambitious, supremely talented and strong woman from Manhattan who’s grown to a point where she can make personal music and put it out into the world. To you, it may be someone else. But objectively, this is a raw, honest album made by a woman who was at one point the most famous person in the world – now aged 30, having received nearly every accolade for being an all-around outstanding musician. And that shows in the music. This is an album with no expiration date, with themes that resonate personally and relay important messages. In some ways, it’s exactly what you’d expect from Lady Gaga five studio albums into her impressive career – and in others, it’s exactly the opposite.
Contact Dante Laird at dlaird2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.