This week, Lady Gaga landed her fourth No. 1 album with Joanne, making her the female artist with the most No. 1 albums this decade.
Which is huge! And well-deserved — Joanne has been rightfully lauded by critics and listeners. One of the most interesting things about both the record and Gaga’s newest persona is how the latter is almost nonexistent. For what seems like the first time in nearly 10 years, the singer’s music and performances are simultaneously stripped down, personal, and energetic. Her live shows on the limited-engagement Dive Bar tour were a return to her stomping grounds, with Gaga playing small shows at small venues in the same way she did years ago. Only now we know who she is and what she’s capable of, and that makes her latest incarnation even more special.
As the 2010s have progressed, the flawlessness we once demanded from our pop stars has lost its luster. We’ve clued into the grueling realities of boy-band stardom and reconsidered our investment in solo superstars’ radiant perfection. These days we celebrate humanness in our heroes, whether via the painful honesty of Beyoncé’s Lemonade or through Adele’s recent revelations about her postpartum depression. So it makes sense that watching Lady Gaga rely solely on her talent has resonated in such a profound way. Where she could tour stadiums, spring for special effects, and adorn herself in even more meat, she’s chosen not to (at least for now). Instead, she’s just like us: sweaty, dancing, vulnerable, and alive, celebrating her most personal album by evoking unforced, unfaked emotions.
She’s not the only one heading in this direction. While Gaga has used her recent shows to crowdsurf in cutoffs, we’ve begun to see more and more artists gravitate toward minimalism in the name of keeping it real. Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour sees him towering over crowds on a suspended stage like a god, but he’s ultimately just a man tethered to a platform, standing alone with no Wow™ factor to do the work for him. Elsewhere in pop, Alessia Cara earned kudos for doing something similar, performing her music in “regular” clothes and relying on her lyrics and voice — as did Adele, whose onstage banter serves as a co-star to her remarkable voice.
That’s not to say that more over-the-top performance styles are dead, or that to wear costumes or to dance or to shoot fireworks from your bra like Katy Perry is a bad thing. (If you want to do that, dare to dream!) But it is a testament to what we, as listeners, seem to be craving right now. Where large-scale productions like Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour or One Direction’s On the Road Again tour (R.I.P.) targeted and exploited our senses, it seems we’ve begun to question the magic that made those spectacles work. Thanks to the accessibility of musicians through social media or behind-the-scenes featurettes, we’ve gotten a chance to peek behind the curtain enough to know the ins and outs of stadium-scale art and how impersonal it can be. Now we want to see the real (or “real”) versions of our heroes. We want their realness to make us feel less alone, to make our own dreams feel attainable. We want a sense of intimacy, whether it comes from knowing they’re onstage in a jean jacket any of us could buy, or seeing them stage dive into the masses so they’re right there with us, or hearing them open up about anxiety or personal struggles that we can relate to, like Zayn and Kid Cudi.
That kind of honesty can be a lot to ask from artists, but it creates real stakes in their work. We crave a deeper connection with musicians, and we pay closer attention to their music when they give us that connection. We want to feel like they’re our friends — even if we’ll never really know if said realness is part of a larger, less obviously stagey persona. Although, for the record, whether it’s sorta sensationalized or completely legit, I’m totally down to be friends with Joanne.