‘Joanne’ Is A Conservative Pop Album For A Conservative Year
Pop music in 2016 was a battle between radical paradigm shifters and risk-averse slam dunks. The beginning of the year felt like a new era. Kanye West upended the album rollout process by chronicling it in real time on Twitter. Rihanna proved she wasn’t just a singles artist, crafting a surprising and surprisingly subtle portrait of an artist in flux. Beyoncé doubled down on the secret visual album with Lemonade, an LP that managed to mix identity politics, autobiography, myth and far-flung influences into the year’s most impressive and rewarding release. Then Frank Ocean confused everyone with his visual album-as-commentary-on-visual-albums followed by a proper album that defied all notions of what his Channel Orange successor should sound like.
Simultaneously, though, a very conservative pop narrative was taking hold, and this isn’t just a soured look back in the wake of Trvmp’s win. The Chainsmokers’ two-note blast of bland, “Closer,” topped the Hot 100 for 12 weeks, and Drake’s “One Dance” was next with a 10-week run, despite (or boosted by) the fact that it just capitalized on the latent dancehall-lite sounds that already dominated pop two summers ago. Drake was also the year’s most-streamed and highest selling artist thanks to his least dynamic album, which also happened to be the least challenging of all the blockbuster albums this year.
Want me to keep going? There was no clear-cut song of the summer because all the candidates sounded the same. Rihanna got a huge hit by jumping onto the twee-DM bandwagon with Calvin Harris on a song that was secretly written by MOR pop godhead Taylor Swift — who is the reigning Grammy Album of the Year winner and was the highest paid musician of the year. J. Cole released another album that will surely go platinum with no features, and it has a song about folding clothes. And in 2016’s radical-conservative pop puzzle, the center piece was Lady Gaga becoming a gal with a guitar.
Joanne was billed as a drastic departure, and on the surface, Gaga did seem to strip away the artifice and put the “real” artist on display. But after digesting Joanne for a few months, it now seems that she was merely going through the motions of some old rockist tropes: that the most authentic music involves guitars, and that the singer-songwriter is the pinnacle of artistic honesty. Really, Gaga just out-conservative’d the other conservative pop successes of this year by channeling 1976 rather than 2016.
In the past, Lady Gaga looked to the cutting edge of synth-pop, Euro dance clubs, glam rock and electronic music for inspiration; this time, her primary influences were Bruce Springsteen (whose legacy she already tapped into on Born This Way) along with folk, country and show tunes. And possibly even Sam’s Town. But, for all the talk about Joanne’s country and rock collaborators, the songs just weren’t as genre-fied as advertised. We got Gaga half-committing, the glam-pop queen play-acting to get some street cred based on tired rock ideals. Look at how Beyoncé showcased Jack White’s blazing rock instincts while making them feel forward-looking, then see how Beck and Josh Homme just sort of…exist…on Joanne, hardly even registering without the album credits alerting you to their presence.
In a weird way, Childish Gambino’s latest album provides a useful comparison. On Awaken, My Love!, Gambino distanced himself from his prior output by mining a more “authentic” era. Like Joanne, the album is musically conservative because it mimics retro genres associated with more “feeling” — in this case, he eschews rap/R&B in favor of classic funk/soul. Since he left no trace of his old self in the new (vintage) material, the result is an unexpected career swerve that challenged his listeners. Joanne, in comparison, feels like a superficial transformation that was just a shortcut to “authenticity.”
Now, I realize with Gaga’s level of stardom maybe she can’t do something as jarring as a complete genre detour. Then again, she did exactly that with Cheek To Cheek, and she’s been a challenging and subversive act for most of her career. So there’s no reason Joanne couldn’t have been bolder in its conservatism, whether it was maybe a twangier effort, or a moody pop-rock hook machine in the vein of Night Time, My Time, or even if Kevin Parker pushed more of his psych swirl onto the LP. This isn’t to say Joanne is bad, and surely Gaga should get some credit for having the guts to do a guitar-heavy album in this day and age. But, man, a rockist album from a poptimist hero, that’s a radical proposition! It’s a shame Lady Gaga never followed through on it.