Named for an aunt who passed away before Lady Gaga — as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta — was born, Joanne and its marketing hint at the kind of intimacy that has so far been absent from Gaga’s music. Since her dance-pop singles began raking the charts in 2009, Gaga’s career has been a floor show, all glitter and gimmicks and flashbulbs and props. Her new getup of pink cowboy hats and crop tops and short jorts is no less constructed. It’s another costume, and like many actors, Gaga seems most herself while playing the latest iteration of her own character onstage.
If the sound of Joanne, Gaga’s fifth album, diverges from her discography so far, its mode of operation doesn’t. These are big, expansive pop songs, ballooned with enough air to embrace everybody in their range. Gaga hired musicians outside her usual circle for this round, like producer Mark Ronson and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, but she’s still aiming for her same vision of universality. She sings about romantic disappointment on the claustrophobic whirlwind “Perfect Illusion” and the tearful ballad “Million Reasons.” She sings about group sex on “A-YO.” She catches a ride with the wrong dude on the stomping “John Wayne.” The album’s mournful title track paints the pains of loss — not her loss, not the loss of Joanne, just loss. Gaga describes it in the simplest terms. “Girl,” she wonders, “where do you think you’re goin’?"
Gaga’s vocal range, which is large and shaped by years of musical theater and formal training, encompasses belts, hollers, growls, screams, and croons. She has a vibrato wide enough to lead a camel through. And yet, in the last seconds of Joanne, Gaga trails off. Her words lose their usual crispness. The only word that surfaces from the murk is “angel”; the song, written about the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, is called “Angel Down,” a phrase that Gaga repeats throughout its somber chorus.
Joanne’s closer doesn’t invoke Trayvon as a character so much as it calls upon Trayvon as a symbol, whose death, among others, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Gaga’s choice of words supplies a remedy to the newspaper pundits and social-media commenters quick to mark murdered black men as “no angels,” to dredge up the sins they supposedly committed in life in an attempt to justify their premature deaths.
As “Angel Down” closes, Gaga’s words recede into themselves — as if she’s stopped putting on a show and lapsed into prayer while the tape runs out. But her prayer is itself a show; Gaga tells us so. The deluxe edition of Joanne concludes with a demo version of “Angel Down,” which contains no murmurs. Over unvarnished instrumentation, Gaga sings louder and with more force than she does on the song’s final studio cut. The whisper, like the rest of Joanne’s flourishes, was a choice made in post.
Like the soundtrack to a musical disembodied from its players, Joanne works better if you plug the details of Gaga’s story into its blank spots. “Joanne,” already lovely, turns gutting if you think about Gaga’s dead aunt, who passed at age 19 from lupus after being traumatized by a sexual assault. The verses of “Diamond Heart” gain more power if you cast them in the light of Gaga’s own history of survival: “Some asshole broke me in / Stole all my innocence,” she sings as her 17-year-old self, go-go dancing to pay the bills between singing at open-mic nights. It helps that we know she survived, that the strength of her voice, the diamonds in it, carried her all the way here. She’s earned the triumph, the melodrama.
In the album’s biggest moments, Gaga breaks from her past and leans to the future — the ongoing trajectory of this broken world and her vast, unflinching love for it. If “Born This Way” was a balm for the queer kids under her wing, then “Come to Mama” opens her arms even wider to anyone who will listen. Written by Father John Misty, the song comes to life in Gaga’s powerful tone. It sounds great, even if most of its lyrics play on paper like “Get Together” thrown in a tumble dryer. Gaga only nears the specifics of contemporary American suffering on one line: “The only prisons that exist are ones we put each other in.”
Her girl-power duet with Florence Welch is no less vague: “We can make it easy if we lift each other,” they both sing. It’s hard to hear that line and not think about how Gaga described Joanne’s production team as a “boys’ club” she was able to sit in on, how in interviews she cast most of her praise on the men who worked alongside her. Within the song, though, Welch and Gaga do lift each other, singing in solidarity as though the music world’s broader power structures were temporarily dimmed outside their window.
All Gaga can really do, she does within the spaces of her songs and her performance. There’s little doubt that she’s eased the burdens of being queer for many young Americans, and with her Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” she shot one more crack through the silence around sexual assault. Gaga’s activism is performative, but performance is her language. It’s where she knows she can do good.
She wants more good, though, the kind that reaches everyone. What her music foregoes in detail, it makes up for in ambition. But no one woman can love hard enough or deep enough to fix the world. “There’s gonna be no future / If we don’t figure this out,” Gaga sings on “Come to Mama.” She reaches wide and finds no answers. Her essential humanity undercuts the breadth of her will, and Joanne joins the rest of her music as a record of her failure to heal it all — to be everything to everyone.