What does 'Joanne' mean for Lady Gaga's career?

Lady Gaga's latest gimmick: just being herself.

The metamorphic pop star (born Stefani Germanotta) has forged a career out of infectious dance anthems, eccentric characters and attention-seeking stunts, from her notorious meat dress at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards to her lavish "eggmobile" at the 2011 Grammys.

But by the time she trotted out a flying dress and vomiting painter to promote her 2013 album, Artpop, the public had grown weary of her antics. The critically derided effort sold 1.4 million copies, according to Nielsen Music, making it her worst-selling solo album to date.  (By comparison, her next lowest seller, 2011's Born This Way, moved 3.8 million.)

Which may be why with fifth album Joanne (out Friday), Gaga, 30, has scaled back the pageantry and doubled down on authenticity: naming it for her late aunt, donning slightly more modest ensembles (T-shirts, denim shorts and cowgirl hats) and showcasing her newly countrified sound at intimate dive bar shows.

"She's an artist who's in transformation and really looking to explore other things," says David Bakula, Nielsen Entertainment's senior vice president of analytics. "Look at the outfits she wears; look at the different personas that she's had. She's always pushing the edge of creativity."

With Artpop, "she had gotten so drunk off her own Kool-Aid," says Billboard senior editor Jem Aswad. "It seemed like she was believing a lot of her own hype and there was pressure to top herself. She is still a megastar, but bringing her down a peg and a little closer to earth are positive things for her long-term career."

Her reinvention started back in 2014 with Cheek to Cheek, a jazz duets album with Tony Bennett, and continued into 2015 with a showstopping The Sound of Music medley at the Academy Awards. She has since won a Golden Globe for best actress in a limited series for FX's American Horror Story: Hotel, earned a best-original-song Oscar nomination, honored David Bowie at the Grammys and sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl, which she'll headline Feb. 5.

"If she hadn't done Cheek to Cheek (or) American Horror Story, she'd be in a much worse position," Aswad says. "There's a lot riding on (Joanne), and if it's even just good and not great, she can look at it as launching the next phase of her career. How that next phase starts depends on this."

Which is where Gaga could hit a stumbling block. Despite admirable, if not rapturous, reviews from critics, snarling first single Perfect Illusion made its debut at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last month and has since plummeted to No. 95. Promotional track Million Reasons, released earlier this month, started at No. 76 and has sold a mere 15,000 downloads.

Both songs are a vast departure from the imaginative pop she honed on 2008's The Fame and 2009's The Fame MonsterIllusion is a disco/alt-rock hybrid co-written with Mark Ronson and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, while Reasons is a country-tinged ballad written with Nashville songwriter Hillary Lindsey.

"It's challenging when an artist changes the sound," Bakula says. "You have a longstanding fan base that is going to come and get it very early. But once you get past the first week of album sales, that's when you're really developing the new fans. Is she now speaking to fans she wasn't speaking to before?"

Joanne features other unexpected collaborators such as Beck, Florence Welch and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, casting a wide net that could catch fans of other genres. But the music's quality will ultimately determine long-term success.

"If this album's good, she's relaunched," Aswad says. Illusion isn't "as strong as some of her other songs, but it points in the right direction. I don't think she's going to alienate any fans with this that she didn't already with Artpop. Even her more casual fans want to welcome her back."

 


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment