After a week of listening to it, Lady Gaga’s “Joanne” still sounds like a medium-size bowl of who cares. That’s surprising, even though it shouldn’t be. The Lady’s previous albums each came with their share of vanilla lumps, but usually with cherries on top, too — maraschino megahits to distract us from the fact that pop’s leading wild thing makes lots of blah music.
To our retinas, she was never dull. Lady Gaga’s flamboyance turned heads, but it also radiated deeper messages about freedom, affirmation and empowerment. When she presented herself as larger-than-life, her fans felt a permission to be themselves, and that’s a beautiful thing. But on her patently austere new album, Gaga’s music has never sounded more conservative, lightweight, unctuous or uncentered — it’s as if she’s gotten lost inside her truer, blander self. Considering that this superstar once strode across the world’s biggest stages with the valiance of a freak, she now seems to be exuding the quiet desperation of a fraud.
The difference is important. Freaks lead. Frauds follow. Freaks want out. Frauds want in. Freaks are truth-tellers. Frauds are attention-hounds. Freaks are driven by their weirdness. Frauds perform weirdness for the delight of strangers. Freaks are tenacious. Frauds are thin-skinned. Freaks are in it for life. Frauds are in it for laughs — and when the party’s over, they can always move back home to Connecticut and start studying for the LSAT.
That isn’t an option for true freaks, who are gnarly by nature and are always risking something. Their strange magnificence invites ostracism, insult, humiliation and alienation. Frauds risk very little. In fact, their performative freakiness is simply a means of achieving greater security through affection, praise, admiration and acceptance. (When freaks receive those positive responses, it’s cosmic serendipity. See: Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ramones, Kate Bush, Prince, Bjork, Young Thug, et al.)
In pop music, fraudulence is only offensive if you uphold freakiness as the most reliable measure of honesty. Will Oldham — who performs folk songs as Bonnie “Prince” Billy — is a good example of how that works. His ballads aren’t honest because he’s a Kentucky-raised punk strumming Appalachian melodies on an acoustic guitar; they’re honest because Oldham’s lyrics are so transparent and unrepentant about the funny business that goes on inside his skull. Setting your most freakish thought bubbles to melody takes a lot more courage than singing about heartache, loneliness or the plight of the American autoworker.
Oldham is great, but I’m not suggesting that white guys make for the most consummate freaks in popland. It’s the opposite, really. White men continue to enjoy the most security in our society, and because fraudulence doesn’t require much risk, Caucasoid fraud-bros are all around us. Among the most irritating to materialize in recent memory is Father John Misty, an obsequious indie-folk carpetbagger whose zany-smug lyrics about sex and cynicism help to posit him as a bit of a cad. When the New Yorker recently invited him to give a public talk in Manhattan, the singer greeted the audience by saying, “I cannot believe you guys bought tickets to this.” A fraud move for sure, but also something he might consider saying at the outset of every Father John Misty concert.
Because frauds sometimes run in packs, Gaga recruited Fr. Misty to help write a couple of songs for “Joanne” — the hammy “Sinner’s Prayer” and the glammy “Come to Mama,” unimaginative ’70s throwbacks, both. And although Gaga has somehow found a way to make ham and glam feel like musical austerity measures, it doesn’t necessarily make her dislikable. It only makes her boring.
Here’s something that makes her dislikable: her response to a review of “Joanne” in the New York Times that accused the singer of sounding less than inspired. On Twitter, Gaga replied, “how far must ANYONE need to [fishing pole emoji] 4 inspiration & write a song re: the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin as I did w/ ‘Angel Down.’ ”
Yikes. Gaga was referring to one of the deeper cuts on “Joanne,” an overwrought, oversung ballad about gun violence that never specifically mentions Martin. And was the angel that Gaga was actually singing about a reference to another Times story about how the late Michael Brown was “no angel”? Either way, Gaga appears to believe that “Angel Down” was created with such righteously woke intent, it should put the rest of “Joanne” above reproach. Which is disgusting on a few different levels — leveraging a human life against a bad review, for one.
And so this muddled little album — and its subsequent thud — have thrown Lady Gaga’s entire endeavor into question. What if her altruism has been opportunism all along? What if her magnanimous esteem-boosting was just empty-calorie prattle from an overdressed motivational speaker? What if all these fantastic characters that Gaga has played — meat-frock maven, alien pod hatchling, estranged David Bowie cousin — were mere disguises for a careerist with no greater goal than her own success? Here’s the freaky truth: These questions probably wouldn’t matter if she’d given us something good to sing along to.