Lady Gaga is known for crazy outfits (meat dress, Kermit the Frog) and memorable award show entrances (everyone remembers the egg!). Her tantalizing lyrics often aren’t safe for younger ears, and she is well known for her sexuality and pushing the limits on religious respect. Her antics, while entertaining, have left me wondering if what she’s doing is all for show. Underneath all the costumes, who is the real Lady Gaga?
Her previous three albums, although similar in their dance-pop sound, have been starkly different in theme and ideals. Her first album, The Fame Monster, showcased themes of money and the hardships of fame, coupled with dance hits like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” Her second album, Born This Way, was full of songs about sexuality, love, and pride, with songs such as “Born This Way” and “Edge of Glory.” ArtPop, her third album, was a slew of songs about aliens, art, and fashion, with songs like “Venus” and “Donatella.”
Beyond her pop albums, she has also explored jazz with her fantastic duet album Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett. She was able to show off her impeccable vocal ability and gained respect from skeptics and critics alike. Even though she’s received much respect for her voice through the release of Cheek to Cheek, and earned Grammys for her pop hits on The Fame Monster, she hasn’t been an artist known for writing albums with vulnerable lyrics (save for her tracks “Dope” on ArtPop and “You and I” on Born This Way). That is, until her most recent album, Joanne, dropped, and Gaga traded in her euro-dance pop sound for a more soulful, country, rock flavor. In Joanne, my personal favorite pop star showcases the beauty of vulnerability so desperately needed during a time when people often choose to hide what they’ve experienced.
Lady Gaga’s real name is Stefani Angelina Joanne Germanotta, named after her father’s sister. Her new album’s namesake is her deceased aunt, who died at the age of nineteen of lupus. Gaga said before her Dive Bar performance in New York City that lupus, an autoimmune disorder, was spurred on after a horrific sexual assault that Joanne wasn’t able to heal from. With Joanne as her inspiration, Gaga has created an album less manufactured and more honest than her previous albums.
The title ballad of this album beautifully captures the pain one feels when losing a loved one. Gaga cries out for Joanne to stay on earth while she’s slipping away into eternity, in a way that everyone who has lost a loved one can relate to. Death is not fair, and its aftereffects last a lifetime. Another beautiful ballad on the record is “Million Reasons,” where Gaga pleads with God before a breakup to give her any sign to stay with her fiancé. The heartache is palpable in the lyrics. Her final ballad on the album, “Angel Down,” is a call for us to pay attention to and fight against the injustices going on around us, and was specifically inspired by the Trayvon Martin case.
My favorite track is “Grigio Girls,” a total girl anthem showcasing the strong bonds of sisterhood. I’ve learned after listening to it many times that she wrote this song for her friend Sonia, who is currently dying from stage four breast and brain cancer. The opening track, “Diamond Heart,” harkens back to when Gaga was a go-go dancer as a teen who was sexually abused, wanting to break out of that lifestyle but only able to find her worth in what she is paid. (Gaga has confessed to being raped in a TimesTalks panel discussion). Her first single, “Perfect Illusion,” is all about putting her expectations on someone to be whoever she’s dreamed them up to be, but then the realization hits that what was dreamed up was totally fake—a dangerous pitfall many people make when they have a crush on someone, worshipping ideas rather than knowing the person for who they really are. While plenty of other songs on the album are fairly explicit, I can’t help but rejoice in Gaga’s vulnerability on the majority of this album.
I believe Gaga is inviting her fans to be honest about their experiences in life, to live their truth, and to find healing from pain. I may be over-spiritualizing, but I can’t help but see God’s grace in her life through the writing of this album. Isn’t this how God wants us to be—completely honest and open about what pains us, our struggles, our fears, and our triumphs? Truth sets us free, and it’s inspiring to listen to Gaga share her heart and soul with the world. It has personally challenged me to be more honest with God in the things I struggle with. While I’m currently suffering from my own bouts with daily physical pain, I find strength while listening to “Grigio Girls” and can take a moment to rejoice in the sisters I have around me. I’ve been encouraged while listening to “Million Reasons” to be honest with God about the sins and trials I’m struggling with, instead of skirting around the true ugliness that I’m dealing with—physical pain, anxiety, and shame over my doubts and fears. “Diamond Heart” reminds me to see the beauty in all people, just like Jesus had compassion on the prostitutes and impoverished.
Gaga has outdone herself with Joanne. She’s finally removing the masks and giving fans and critics alike a look into her pain and frustrations with the world. It is an inspiring album that hopefully will give a voice to people’s pain. Give the album a shot. It is challenging and uplifting, heartbreakingly honest, and beautiful.