NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Lady Gaga rose to fame with her shock-inducing outfits and remains the seventh most followed person on Twitter, but on her sober new album, she admits an unease in the era of social media.
“Joanne,” the now 30-year-old singer’s first solo album in three years, marks a shift from the glam synthpop that made Gaga a club sensation to another retro sound – unadorned soft rock, with forays into country.
The singer who once said that she lived for the applause takes up weighty issues including Black Lives Matter, the movement triggered by a series of killings of African Americans.
Gaga said she wrote “Angel Down,” a grim ballad with a siren-like guitar backdrop, after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida as he walked home with iced tea and candy.
“I confess that I am lost in the age of the social,” Gaga sings. “Angel down, angel down / But the people just stood around.”
Gaga, in an interview for the album’s release Friday, said she felt compelled to speak out in turbulent times after talking to black fans who are “terrified when they hear sirens.”
“How could I possibly make an album about twerking my ass in a club?” she told Apple Music’s Beats One radio.
“It feels empty, it feels irrelevant. When I go into the studio at this point in my career, I can’t possibly just sit and think, oh, what would be just fun?”
Going country for a cowboy
“Joanne,” however, is still very much an album about Lady Gaga. The title track is a reference to her aunt who died at age 19 after a struggle with lupus and became the namesake to the future star, whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.
Set to an acoustic guitar reminiscent of 1990s pop ballads, Gaga asks her late aunt to stay on Earth and, with rising forcefulness in her voice, sings, “Girl, where do you think you’re going?”
Gaga, a gay icon who has long championed the rights of sexual minorities, is at her most surprising on “John Wayne” in which she finds herself yearning for a traditionally macho man.
To a country twang, the native New Yorker known for her open bisexuality sings longingly for a man like the film cowboy – “blue-collar and a red-state treasure.”
If Gaga is alluding to her attraction to Taylor Kinney, the strapping actor to whom she was until recently engaged, she is more direct on “Diamond Heart,” a likely reference to her ring which she showed off last year on Instagram.
Gaga sings that she has become resilient enough thanks to her strong-armed father – “A cruel king made me tough / Daddy’s girl, never good enough.”
“Joanne” is the latest step in a steady career reinvention of Lady Gaga, who in her first phase became as known for her music as for her outfits that ranged from giant tentacles to a dress of raw meat.
Gaga in 2014 released an album of pop standards with now 90-year-old crooner Tony Bennett, who became her mentor as they went on tour together.
“Joanne” features a slew of famous collaborators including producer Mark Ronson, known for blockbuster hit “Uptown Funk.”
For all of the introspection on the album, “Joanne” is also about finding connection.
On “Grigio Girls,” another country-tinged guitar ballad, Gaga reflects on her wine-imbibing nights with a friend fighting cancer.
On “Hey Girl,” a duet with arthouse singer Florence Welch with a Prince-like funk beat, Gaga sings of partying in New York until sunrise.
But whereas once she would have exhorted “Just Dance,” for the more mature Gaga, a night on the town is instead an occasion for female bonding.