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I’ve loved Lady Gaga since I was in a Catholic school skirt curiously, and defiantly, listening to “Teeth” through my earbuds. A lot has changed since November, 2009. For one, when she’s not performing, her and I seem to dress a lot like each other now, and, back in 2009, I never thought that would be a thing. But, so much else has changed as well. Boys, and my own body, are no longer wildly foreign to me, my The Fame and The Fame Monster CDs are under the bed in my childhood bedroom, and suddenly the critics are loudly hinting that the curtain is closing on Gaga. I listened to Joanne. I teared up listening to “Joanne.” I read many of the reviews that circulated during release week. The critics are out for blood. I get it, it’s their job, but I just can’t review Joanne from that objective, callous, place.
When I was in my late teens I was a bit of a wreck. I had a lot of displaced sexual energy, unwarranted shame, and I was taking in an unhealthy dose of anxiety daily. I was striving for perfection, and to do what was expected of me, but come my sweet sixteen my Catholic school education and small town upbringing were clashing with everything that I wanted to explore inside me. Lady Gaga couldn’t have come to the mainstream at a better time. I wanted a strong, brazen, outlandish figure to over-sensationalize what I was after and ready to claw my way towards. Gaga offered a version of the female experience that Avril, Taylor, and others didn’t, and I desperately needed it, because when I was sixteen I didn’t know where to look for the Riot Grrrls. Gaga’s female experience wasn’t dollhouse linear. It wasn’t about settling on terms or for realities. Her music was wildly hedonistic, and unapologetic about it.
Songs like “Love Game”, “Poker Face”, and “Teeth” were a playground of kooky fun that stole intimidation away from sex and allowed it to be reclaimed through wacky expressions like “I'm not lying I'm just stunning with my love glue gunnin'” and “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick”. “I Like It Rough”, “Speechless”, and “So Happy I Could Die” were anthems for harnessing the unique, and wrongfully shamed, feminine power that lies in vulnerability, sensitivity, and tears. “Paparazzi” and “Monster” brought the woman front and center, and made her the most enthralling character of the “searching for a lover” narrative. Ostentatious numbers like “The Fame”, “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”, and “Money Honey”, even though I doubt she’d ever write anything like them now, allowed me to try on for size some of my most laughable desires when I was a teenager trying to find the sexiest “lingerie” at Target with her babysitting money. And my beloved “Alejandro” somehow seemed to simultaneously be about every man in my seventeen year old life: the boy who teased that my tits were flat in gym class, my AP chemistry teacher I had a weird crush on, the boy behind me in French class who I thought maybe liked me, the Johnny Depp poster on my wall, and every man who couldn’t keep his eyes on the road when I walked home from school in my school skirt.
When Gaga talked about wanting sex, she was openly seeking guilt-free pleasure. She defined what that was for her on her own terms, and those terms were never static (as they never should be). What drew me to “Bad Romance” the first time I heard it was its aggressive and unflinching nature. She wanted “your ugly, your disease” and “everything as long as it’s free” when I, at the time, was too tentative to ask a sex ed question about vaginal discharge. It oozed self-respect, because not only was she, as a grown woman, openly discussing her needs, but because discussing her needs was all she was doing. She wasn’t objectifying herself or feeling the need to seduce anyone in the process.
Throughout many of her songs, the male participants were often void of characterization, not saying that this is a great thing, but I am going to say that it is something that my (emo)tional songwriters provided a lot of in the reverse. Gaga was never singing about needing men (or starring in their wet dream), but rather actively choosing them as something you desire for yourself and your lifestyle. Scratch that. You determined if love or sex was something you wanted with anyone regardless of their gender identity or sexuality. The only other time I had heard anything “girl on girl” in a mainstream pop song was in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”, but it was Gaga who lusted after “that lavender blonde” and then “touched [herself].” It was important to me to hear this on a mainstream pop record as I began to explore the spectrum of my own sexuality.
I think contrary to popular belief, Gaga’s catalogue touches on a myriad of desires and a more well-rounded female experience than many other pop icons. In other words, it’s not all about sex. She talks about wanting it all: love, sex, fame, success, social change (especially later on Born This Way, but she was always out on the field), money, fashion, independence, female friendship, and, sometimes, just a drink. In the early days, when she walked out on the red carpet she held her head up high with no man or partner on her right-hand side, and she didn’t wear a meat dress or prosthetics to appeal to that seemingly omnipresent male gaze. She was doing it for her, for us, for me. Men were X’d from the core of that identity, but they were welcome to engage or pursue if they wanted or dared. It shattered the barometer by which my female presence was often measured at that time. You know, if that school skirt was “to the knee”. The eccentric and unconventional get-ups in the beginning of her career were often so void of the traditional understandings of “feminine” that they only enhanced the messaging that your womanhood is for you. “Free bitch, baby.”
By the time Born This Way was released in 2011, I was in college dabbling in lots of new experiences, and many of them a rejection of the very strict code of ethics that I had been raised with. Songs like “Bloody Mary”, “Electric Chapel”, and, of course, “Judas” were therapeutic and empowering with their repurposing of biblical references and imagery. Born This Way started to own “otherness” as something not only beautiful and useful, but as something communal and celebratory. “Don't hide yourself in regret, Just love yourself and you're set, I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way.”
Artpop was released my junior year of college, and apart from pointing out that the album did a pretty great job of putting side by side highly sexed tracks about sexual encounters and tracks that were a kick-in-the-face to sexual assault, all I’ll say about it is that I will never forget when my friend and I were in her car after the last final of the term and “Applause” came on the radio. That was a great moment hearing a song come on the radio that was solely about (female) achievement.
The lionizing of pop stars does have its hazards, but the positive influence that pop stars like Gaga can have is undeniable when it comes to being a gateway for a young person without many role models, or a kid who just needs an addictive beat to stop their pain. But a lot of it was theatrics then. A costume, a confidence, I wanted to slip on. I've grown so much since then.
To be honest, I hadn’t listened or thought much about Lady Gaga until the release of “Perfect Illusion,” and the first whisperings about the coming of Joanne. I was a bit crestfallen when I heard the first single. It sounded like her, but where was the zaniness, the fantastical imagery, and the quippy lines I had grown to expect? I wasn’t so use to it missing from high-power numbers like this one. When I heard “Million Reasons” during the Bud Light Dive Bar Tour, and heard Gaga dedicate it to all the men in her life (including her father), I was thoroughly ready to ignite my teenage affection for Gaga and call the first single a fluke. “Million Reasons” was the type of cathartic (maybe melodramatic, but who cares?) quasi-Gaga-ballad that I have always cherished (like “Dope” and “Speechless”). The track is a reflection on love, and I too, now, in my mid-twenties find myself looking over my shoulder at my early twenties like a woman in a train waving her handkerchief about to take off, bags packed. At the time that I had heard “Boys, Boys, Boys” by Gaga there were no men in my life, but eight years later I now have so many men that have come in and out that “Million Reasons” isn’t even long enough to be able to reflect on each one.
After listening to Joanne from start to finish, I enjoyed the cowgal dive bar queen act, but not much of the album resonated with me in the same way that her previous work had at the time I was consuming it. Although, as Gaga stated crystal clear in all the promo surrounding this album, it wasn’t written for me. It was written for a new audience, and for a consumer profile that I no longer fit into. I might not be able to draw as much from this particular body of work because of it’s heavy folk/country influence, and the fact that I have elsewhere to turn now for music that addresses the quagmire of life. However, as I started reading the reviews of Joanne that were everywhere I began to get a little irritated. My newsfeed was a living breathing example of how the world is trigger ready to shoot you down. There was a pretty startling amount of acrimony against an artist who made an attempt to reach a new crowd through a new sound and wardrobe. It seemed everyone wanted to bring into question Gaga’s relevancy.
I definitely see this record as an attempt and an experiment. In regards to themes and subject matter, I think the beacon is being carried on with Joanne. I hope that another wave of youth will listen to a song like “Dancin’ In Circles” and bask in the glory of a song that is talking about female masturbation at its core. I think a song like “John Wayne” has the potential to have the same carnal effect “Love Game” had on me, and “A-Yo” might present the novelty that “Just Dance” did when I didn’t know what it was like to be in the club at 1 AM.
Like her music, Gaga’s presence in the mainstream meant a lot to me when I was younger, and I believe that it does now as well. As a teenager, I was always eager to grab the Gaga cover from the checkout line end caps or watch YouTube clips of an appearance on Ellen. As far as relevancy goes, Gaga seems to be acutely aware of the influence she can have when the camera is on her, and in this way she is demonstrating her relevancy as a public figure. Many critics are calling Joanne one of Gaga’s most personal, however, I think Gaga has been making strides to use her larger than life fame to send down-to-earth messages over the last two years. For example, her performance of her song “Til It Happens To You” at the 2016 Oscars, her openness with her struggle with mental illness and her efforts to help in debunking the current stigmas around mental health, her mourning alongside all of us after the tragedy in Orlando, her brave and encouraging open letter about her PTSD, and her inclusive, yet political, halftime performance at this year’s Super Bowl are all examples. As a woman diagnosed with PTSD and who consistently struggles with her own issues with mental health, Gaga’s utilization of her platform has felt like a supportive arm around the shoulder. Societal tolerance comes from the top (person with the biggest mega phone) down, unfortunately.
It probably isn’t the favorite of many, but “Dance In The Dark” has always been one of my favorite Lady Gaga songs, because when I was in high school, it reminded me that I’m just one out of a long tradition of women who dissent from the norms, and are not always liked for it. If Joanne can assist another much younger woman who is just starting to explore and question, to “Find your freedom in the music, Find your Jesus, find your Kubrick,” I hope it does. Sometimes pop music is more than just club bangers and catchy insincere “feel better’s”.
During her acceptance speech at Glamour Magazine’s 2013 Women of the Year Awards, Gaga said something that I’ve always thought to myself - things won’t really change until the covers of the magazines change. So even though she thought her skin was “too perfect”, hair “too soft”, and maybe that she shouldn’t have been on the cover at all, in a world where these covers still exist and these idols are still created, I’m glad she was on a few of them.