With 'Joanne,' Lady Gaga Releases Her Most Intimate Album Yet

With 'Joanne,' Lady Gaga Releases Her Most Intimate Album Yet

The artist's latest body of work represents a journey of healing and maturation, both personally and musically.

The artist's latest body of work represents a journey of healing and maturation, both personally and musically.

Text: William Defebaugh

Today, Lady Gaga releases her fifth studio album, Joanne—a complex record that, much like her last, is likely to raise many questions among mainstream listeners. Its undeniably rock- and country-infused sound and aesthetic would appear a marked departure for the pop maverick, whose early work brought dance music and theatricality—infused with sermons of inclusivity and self-love—to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist.

In listening to early snippets of Joanne, and hearing Gaga talk about the album and its inspirations, I couldn’t help but be reminded of German philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke, whose words Gaga has tattooed along her inner arm, loosely translated to: “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?"

When put into the context of Gaga’s career, this translation can be read as a blueprint for understanding her many transformations over the years. Gaga could have put out another pop album after 2013’s ARTPOP, but she didn’t. Why? Because she had another story to tell, and it’s the duty of the artist to follow his or her muse. She found her muse in jazz, and put out an album with Tony Bennett that showed as much artistic conviction as it showcased her musical expertise and raw talent (elements from Cheek to Cheek can be heard on the new record as well, with tracks like "Just Another Day"). As Rilke points out, it’s this same drive that must push a writer forward.

In the case of her latest opus, Gaga found a muse in Joanne, her aunt after whom she was named, who died at 19 years old due to complications from Lupus disease after being sexually assaulted. In exploring this trauma, Gaga describes the album as not being conceptual, but rather cathartic—allowing her to bring some peace to her family. While pain has always had a presence in Gaga’s work, Joanne is the first time we see her bringing its source front and center (most evident in the title track, and "Million Reasons"). This is mirrored in her new, stripped down aesthetic as well: she’s shed her outré ensembles—her armor—leaving herself entirely exposed. Again, this recalls the words of Rilke, who once posited that, “Everything terrible is something that needs our love.” With Joanne, Gaga has taken her family’s tragedy and performed the ultimate healing act: she showed it love.

The story of Gaga's aunt is not the only one of pain and healing on the album, as she revealed at the second installment of her Dive Bar Tour with Bud Light on Thursday night at The Bitter End in New York City—a bar she's been playing at since she was 15 years old. Before singing "Grigio Girls," she took a humbling moment to explain that it was written for her friend Sonja Durham, who is currently suffering from stage 4 cancer: "One night and all the girls had gotten together. Sonja wasn't there, but it was because sometimes we needed to get together without her so we could cry, 'cause we didn't want her to see us cry... So we formed this pack with each other, that when we needed to, we would call together the Grigio girls, and cry it out. I hope that this message spreads, to spread love and compassion, and to not be afraid of deep things, because people are suffering and they need to know that you care."

Even in a stripped down setting, Gaga is never one to do anything halfway; with this album, she’s asked her fans to refer to her as Joanne. Her various characters inevitably draw questions of authenticity, prompting listeners to wonder about what's real and what's not. This happens because it has become a conditioned part of the human psyche to imagine ourselves as individuals: one person, one identity, in which we are expected to reconcile all of our various contradictory impulses and characteristics. But what if we weren’t one person inside? What if we were many? What if we thought of ourselves, each of us, as a world that’s as diverse as it is vast? This is Gaga: she has learned not to limit herself, instead exploring and celebrating every crevice of her characters. Her music videos, her outfits, her personas—Joanne included—are all glimpses into her internal world.

When understood this way, Joanne can be seen as a culmination of sorts, of Gaga becoming a woman and growing into her selves. This is the journey that most of us face: we are all made of contradictions, and maturation is about accepting that we are more than our ascribed labels, that we are their sum. So why, then, are artists—who are meant to be the ultimate experimenters—not allowed to do the same? Why must a pop star stay within the rigid confines arbitrarily set by the music industry?

Joanne represents Gaga's most personal record yet not because it reveals the "real" her—each of her releases reflects a different side of her, and should be read as authentic reflections of who she was when she made them—but rather because it relies most heavily on her universal experiences: her pain and her suffering and her growth as not only a musician but a human being. The result is an album that is perhaps more relatable than anything she's put out previously, proving that the realism in her work does not take away from its artistry. With Joanne, she drives home the point she’s been making since day one: that her work is about her life, and her life is art. As Rilke said: “Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it.”

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