The Failure of Lady Gaga's Patriotic Rebrand
Now that we've had time to live with Lady Gaga's all American persona, can we all agree the pivot wasn't the best career decision?
Just when you thought Lady Gaga couldn't do anything more to shock you, she's "come out"—specifically, as a patriotic American. Up to this point in her career, she's been known for her audacious style, both in her public persona and her craft. An aggressive champion of individualism and self-expression, the primary message of singles like "Born This Way" heralded her entry to LGBTQ icon-hood in the pop music canon; her "Little Monsters" (the affectionate nickname for her most zealous fans), thrived on embracing the mantra. But her recent Americana rebrand has resulted in a complete flattening of the Gaga sound, aesthetic, and the essential meaning of her performance art. Indeed, Joanne, her fifth album, has seen a total rejection of the Gaga from days past.
The persona she's adopted for this cycle has been a tepid departure when considering her previous creative heights; Pitchfork's Amanda Petrusich referred to it as "tentative" and "an affront to the Gaga of yesteryear." Forget the avant-obsessed Gaga you thought you knew: now she's a tempered, kinda-rebellious but in a stylized fantasy way that she imagines red-blooded, corn-fed, rural American women to be. A country-focused, guitar-and-vocal-heavy album, Joanne asserts its intention with the very first words on album: "Young wild American." The visuals associated with the Joanne follow the same tangent: Lady Gaga in a cowboy hat, riding a motorbike, swilling beer, shooting guns, dancing on the hoods of cars in front of American flags. Claiming to be "strung out on John Wayne" is a strange digression from the days when Gaga would sing, "Jesus is my virtue and Judas is the demon I cling to"—not to mention the sexy, blasphemous, BDSM-homoeroticism of "Alejandro." Unlike the latter, "John Wayne," seems to revel in, rather than specifically challenge, the cultural tropes it invokes.
Granted, the homoeroticism isn't all gone: the video for "John Wayne," similar to her clip for "Judas," features sexy men in leather on motorcycles as Gaga chases after them. But the men of "John Wayne" are outwardly violent, smashing bottles against Gaga's head and brandishing weapons as they drunkenly joy-ride. Gaga's denim cutoffs and leather corsets lack any symbolic relation to the narrative beyond contextualizing her as an abused victim of rural American masculinity, glorifying rabid machismo and taking cues from Quentin Tarantino's road-rage thriller Death Proof. (That specific stylistic debt might be owed to the clip's director, Jonas Aklerlund, who also helmed Gaga's Tarantino-esque videos for "Telephone" and "Paparazzi.")
In the "Million Reasons" clip, Gaga juxtaposes her "real" self against Mother Monster: the real Gaga drives through the desert wearing a trucker hat, while the other Gaga hangs lifelessly on a rack in her dressing room. In some ways, this casting off of her previous persona is a personal liberation. The Guardian's Caroline Sullivan wrote that the rebrand spoke to the artist's "awareness that her music had been eclipsed by an image that was spiralling into parody." As Gaga bellows in her beautiful, husky voice, "Can't you give me what I'm needing," it's clear that she's looking for something. Likewise, in "Perfect Illusion" Gaga confesses that she's "Tryin' to get control," suggesting that the changes to her image are carefully calculated, and while they might not question cultural mores, she's certainly questioning herself.
Vogue's Janelle Okwodu calls this "the radical normalization of Lady Gaga," which can be applied to nearly every aspect of her persona. She's swapped Alexander McQueen Armadillo boots for Alexander Wang denim cut-offs, and the dramatic looks of her Artpop era for trendier fare; instead of walking the runway for Thierry Mugler, she's front row at Tommy Hilfiger. Okwodu suggests that, as highly visible icons like Beyoncé and Solange create art out of their own extreme style choices, Gaga's reach for normalcy is actually what's avant-garde. "If 'Look at me' fashions are the new normal," writes Okwodu, "a true provocateur has to react against that."
But while Joanne grapples with "Who am I?" rather than "Look at me!," the accompanying aesthetic seems overly rooted in the status quo: easy-to-digest ubiquity that blends easily into the background like cultural camouflage. So why, after spending so long building an iconic visual and artistic legacy, is Lady Gaga now backing down?
It's obvious from the Lady Gaga canon that she doesn't do anything by accident. Indeed, her near-constant reinvention and experimentation is the consistently compelling thing about her act. But whereas in the past, where blisteringly addictive generational anthems were there to catch her when she fell from the various eggs and horses and meat dresses she was carried in on, Joanne doesn't have the same aural magnetism. It's a decidedly mediocre album for Gaga—"John Wayne" and "Perfect Illusion" play like watered-down amalgams of past bangers, and not in a good way. From start to finish, there's an inconsistency in story and style, and the gorgeous vocals on "Joanne" and "Million Reasons" aren't enough to save it from the head scratchingly banal wannabe party hits and detritus filling the gaps between them.
It's odd because Lady Gaga doesn't seem to have creator's fatigue—her energy and passion seem as unbridled as ever in both her live performances and her dedication to this new persona. Perhaps she was motivated by the idea that we'd now be living in a world in which an all-American rebrand would seem kitschy; but the current political climate openly seeks to repress the inclusive mentality Gaga's championed in the past, so the rebrand merely scans as complicit. That doesn't mean that she is complicit in Trumpism, or that Americana is necessarily a bad thing, but that Gaga's conscious branding choices are unconsciously slipping her into line with the new status quo. It's entirely likely that her rebrand has just been a whole unfortunately timed thing that's ultimately out of her control.
In Hilary's America (Gaga was a vocal champion for the Clinton campaign), the rebrand might have have been read as kitchsy. But instead, the new normal rails against inclusivity, and the subtext of Gaga's rebrand gets blurry. Whereas in an alternate reality we might have read the new Gaga as reaching out to Middle America, attempting to pass the "Born This Way" torch from the coastal elites across the Mid-West, now it's possible to read the changes in her image as simply pandering. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that Gaga is pandering—she's always been a fierce patriot championing the radical ideal that America is for anyone to make what they want of it and themselves, regardless of gender, race, religion or orientation—but it does mean that at a time when cultural consumers are looking for big conversation starters and artists with messages of defiance, Gaga isn't delivering what she has in the past.
Maybe her political passivity at this year's Super Bowl Halftime show shouldn't have been surprising—but after Béyonce took to the field last year with dancers donning Black Panther-esque outfits, many expected that Lady Gaga, who even has a track on Joanne called "Angel Down" about Trayvon Martin's murder, would say something. Instead, opening with a rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" might have been the only vaguely provocative moment in the show—even though the gesture was tempered by an American flag made of stars in the background. The toothless performance was Lady Gaga at her most decidedly apolitical; it could've meant anything to anyone, from the most zealous gun-toting patriot to her own Little Monsters.
Granted, the Americana rebranding move isn't new in pop, especially when you consider the many parallels that Lady Gaga's career shares with Madonna's. The latter's Americana turn took place in the early 2000s, when she followed up her 2000 cover of Don McLean's "American Pie" with 2003's American Life. It didn't take, though: whereas 1998's Ray of Light sold 4.3 million copies in the US, American Life only sold 680,000. As Joanne's sales (170,000 in the U.S.) already lag behind the mostly maligned Artpop (758,000) and even further behind Born This Way (2.4 million), this might be a case of pop history repeating itself—and further proof that for boundary-pushing artists, digressions into traditional red-white-and-blue patriotism isn't exactly a selling point.