I moved to New York two months ago in pursuit of a new beginning. I had Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta on my mind when I made my move—the singer songwriter from New York City who would eventually become the pop megastar, Lady Gaga. In August I actually changed my cover photo on Facebook to a picture of her visiting her old Lower East Side apartment with Anderson Cooper, from her 60 Minutes episode in 2011. It was a dramatic gesture that received just a few likes (and a confused comment or two), but the episode strikes me as particularly relevant in wake of the release of Gaga’s latest album, Joanne, last Friday.
In that show, Gaga brings Anderson into her small apartment and cries, remembering when she decided to drop out of school and take the pop scene by storm—at age 19. That was a rough time in Germanotta’s life. She hit up the dive bar circuit with her Stefani Germanotta band, got signed and quickly dropped by Def Jam records, and eventually found her identity through burlesque performances (transitioning to the name “Lady Gaga”), all while fighting an addiction to cocaine. After signing to Interscope Records, she wrote and recorded the album that would change her life—and the world of pop music—forever. Although her music (led by the glamorous chart-toppers “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and “Paparazzi”) was ridiculously successful on its own merit, Gaga became known for her unique and admittedly fun vision of the world, in which anybody could become a superstar if they tried hard enough, if they mastered “the sociology of fame.”
Lady Gaga (then Stefani Germanotta) at the age of 19 performing live at the Bitter End in New York City.
In preparation for the release of “Joanne,” the shapeshifting songstress formerly known as Lady Gaga is taking on a new persona, closer to that woman who lived on the Lower East Side. After donning hairbows, meat dresses, and spacey Koons structures, Gaga has reformed herself in the shape of her aunt, Joanne, with whom the once-born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta shares a middle name. Her twitter handle has changed from “Lady Gaga” to “JOANNE,” and some critics have scoffed at the chameleonic artist, who has, they claim, once again shifted from one exploitative persona to the next. They argue that the rock and Americana stylings of the twangy Gaga in Joanne are but another attention-grabbing addition to the litany of theatrical personas Gaga has taken on in her career: the robotic, planetary intrigue of The Fame Gaga; the fallen, macabre persona of The Fame Monster Gaga; the glitzy, glam rock Gaga from Born this Way; and the mysteriously cold, statuesque presence of ARTPOP Gaga.
But to deny Stefani Germanotta of her theatricality is to deny her careful control over her own career, from the moment “Lady Gaga” was seemingly beamed into the music industry in 2008.
But Joanne Stefani Germanotta (the woman) has been a major force within Gaga’s career from the very beginning—and to deny Stefani Germanotta of her theatricality is to deny her careful control over her own career, from the moment “Lady Gaga” was seemingly beamed into the music industry in 2008. In a 2010 Rolling Stone interview taken at the height of the Monster Ball tour, Gaga mentioned Joanne as a hugely motivating force behind her artistry. Joanne, she explained, was someone she never met: her father’s sister who died at the age of 19 way before she was born. In 2010, Gaga had discovered that she was borderline for a lupus diagnosis—the same disease that took Joanne’s life. “Joanne — I believe that her spirit is inside of me so, you know, my closest friends have told me that it was just her way of peeking in to say hello. I truly believe that she had unfinished work to do and she works through me.”
The age that Joanne died—19—coincides with the same age when the then-Stefani decided to drop out of school and pursue music as a full-time career. Joanne was a writer and painter—but as with most things in the mind of Lady Gaga, Art with a capital “A” tends to encompass visual, performative, and musical mediums. Stefani Germanotta’s career as Lady Gaga, then, can be seen as a reimagination of what would have happened if Joanne had a chance to become a successful artist—the performance art spectacles of her career represent an artistic vision fully realized.
A minimalistic Lady Gaga performing hits off “Joanne” for James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segment.
Joanne is the opposite—it’s an album from the career Germanotta would have had without the fame. When I first heard the title track off the record “Joanne” last Friday, I didn’t hear the critical complaints against an inconstant woman. I simply heard a woman singing to her now deceased aunt, musing about the possibilities that were cut off when Joanne lost her life at 19. “Joanne” sounded, not only eons away from Gaga’s own brand of darkly produced pop music and the tropical house kick of 2016, but like an acoustic classic from a bygone era—as if the song itself were an attempt to reach into the past.
“Joanne” is a song written in response to the words of Joanne Germanotta, as taken from her poem that Gaga published in the liner notes of her very first album.
Aside from being quite beautiful, “Joanne” is a track that can easily silence the critics, proving that that Gaga’s latest foray into Americana is authentic to her core, and that the record is the essence of Stefani Germanotta herself. This is because “Joanne” is a song written in response to the words of Joanne Germanotta, as taken from her poem that Gaga published in the liner notes of her very first album, The Fame, way back in 2008.
The poem is called “For A Moment” by Joanne Germanotta. It begins with the following text:
Yesterday, I took a walk in the rain
The cool refreshing droplets splashed on my cheeks.
And walked, And walked,
Not knowing where I was going.
The narrator continues with a pastoral description and an encounter with a jovial rabbit who reminds her of a funny old man. She encounters a family of ducks, and ducklings “dancing to the music of the rain tapping the water.” Then the narrator comes to a clearing in the woods. The poem ends as follows:
And for a moment…
I was the only living creature around.
The cool refreshing droplets splashed
On my cheeks. I turned,
And walked, And walked,
Knowing where I was going.
Joanne starts her poem not knowing where she’s going, makes a turn, and ends on the right path. In Gaga’s “Joanne,” the artist sings “Girl, where do you think you’re going?” in a gentle lullaby voice on the first chorus. Gaga is singing directly to Joanne through the words of her poem. Where was Joanne going? Did she know that she would die before this poem was ever published, by her niece who made it past the age of 19—past the “turn” or the trials and tribulations of the music industry in an attempt to push through her dreams?
This is the toughest bit to handle—did Joanne really know that she would lose her life at the age of 19? By the end of the poem, Joanne concludes that she knew where she was going. Gaga concludes similarly in her song: “Honestly, I know where you’re going, / And baby, you’re just moving on.” This is Gaga laying her aunt to rest once again; she’s just “moving on.”
Joanne and Stefani are one and the same, with the latter taking over where the former left off.
And yet, Joanne represents a revival of this spirit—it attempts to realize the type of art that Joanne Germanotta could have made in style, if not form. The album and the title track reanimate that choice that Gaga made at age 19, and that Joanne never had. Both experienced a moment in time of utmost importance; Joanne’s was right before her death, and Stefani’s was right before rebirth. Although this resuscitation might seem theatrical to critics, it is the closest we may ever come to the 19 year old behind the Gaga—the Stefani who swept the Lower East side with vaulting ambition eleven years ago. It is, like many of Gaga’s personas, a way to get closer to a representation of the entire woman. Joanne and Stefani are one and the same, with the latter taking over where the former left off.
After listening to Joanne, I look at my cramped Brooklyn apartment a bit differently. My room is rather small, and I share it with an old friend from college who is pursuing a career in theater. The floor is littered in my music magazines, records, studio headphones; music has been playing for several hours through my speakers. There are crumpled pieces of paper under my bed—ideas scrawled quickly in the night and left behind. I feel the moment more heavily now; it all seems worth it.
“My name is Lady Gaga and I’m a singer songwriter from New York,” the now infamous popstar relayed to her audience at a small Nashville outfit—part of her scaled down, Bud Light-sponsored dive bar tour, just a few weeks ago before her triumphant return to the Bitter End in New York. She took a look out at her thousands of fans packed into the bar, perhaps looking back on that moment when she decided to become something new, something bigger than herself, eleven whole years ago.
“Tonight, call me Joanne.”