Sometimes you have to go back to the start in order to understand who you are and where you’re going.
This is the message behind Lady Gaga’s fifth solo studio album, Joanne. As most Little Monsters know, the album is named in honor of her father’s sister, Joanne Germanotta, who died at age 19 from Lupus in 1974. The Germanotta family’s grief sparked deep generational trauma passed down from Gaga’s father and on to her.
“What was that moment in your life that blasted you so hard, you don’t remember who you were before it happened?” Gaga asks her audience before performing ‘Joanne’ on tour.
In interviews promoting the album, Gaga shares she had to go back to that place in the past, to ask herself why her father was “mean” at times growing up, why he was so protective, and why she found herself drawn to wild toxic men.
As a loyal Lady Gaga stan, I become absolutely wrapped up in each album era, obsessing over every interview, music video, live performance and lyrics. In learning about the album, hearing the record for the first time, and poring through family photographs Gaga shared in the Joanne album booklet, I saw glimpses of myself as a child, remembering moments in my life that blasted me so hard that I couldn’t remember who I was before it happened.
“Why do I think I’m unattractive or unworthy?”
“Why don’t I trust myself?”
“Why do I fall for toxic people?”
I wanted to know where these beliefs came from. So I went back to the start.
I grew up Northern California with my mother, father, and two younger siblings. Born of native Hawaiian descent, I knew something was different about me but didn’t know what. As early as four years old I dissociated myself from kids around me, had no longing to play in the yard, or to hang out with the other preschool kids on the playground. I simply watched the world unfold around me, often times on a bench or a tube slide.
When I was six, I had a dream I was looking into a mirror in our family dining room and watched as long beautiful dark hair sprouted from my head and grew down to my chest. I was beautiful. I felt real. But what I saw in that mirror also terrified me when I woke up. When I tried to talk about my dream, I was told, “That’s disgusting” and “Maybe you should get more active in sports.”
I felt the shame of my queerness as an effeminate young child who was desperate to be seen and known. But to be seen and known for who you truly are in a world that seeks to fix and correct your behavior is not a welcoming notion for a child. I took up acting classes in first grade, joined a piano classanything that could give me the chance to perform. I would stay in the house while my siblings and other kids played outside, just so I could rehearse lip sync numbers to Brandy’s “Sitting Up in My Room” and Meg’s lament on the Hercules soundtrack. It brought me great joy, but it also brought me shame.
By second grade I was told I was “on the path to becoming gay.” In third grade, my grandmother, provided the ultimate outlet for me: hula class. Each Wednesday I would attend her hula class, and while she practiced with the hula troupe, I became the apprentice to Aunty Shawna, who played the Ipu Heke and Pahu Drum for each performance. I took up both instruments without any lessons, and soon became part of the group. It all gave me so much life. The music, the chants, the movements, all happening as I played along with Aunty Shawna, performing at Hula Festivals and shows in San Francisco. Being immersed into my family’s culture meant so much to meit brought me peace, belonging, creativity, and permission to be myself.
But during this time, my parents became born-again Christians and the Hawaiian teachings of gods and goddesses were not in line with their faith. One night, during a hula performance in Oakland, I was pulled from the show. I’m not sure why, and I’m sure it was far more complicated than it appeared, but that night has been burned in my memory forever. Taken to the parking lot, I remember seeing my grandmother run out to the car, panicked. As I saw my grandmother cry, I cried. She was so beautiful.
I wouldn’t be allowed to see my grandparents for a year. No more hula, no more performances. And when we were reunited, no more talk of Hawaiian myths or culture.
From that moment on, I avoided anything artistic or performative. I joined the baseball team but couldn’t last two weeks. I took up Tae Kwon Do. The chess clubanything. I wanted to prove I could present as a boy and a good Christian.
I was hyper-aware of my surroundings and how I was seen. This helped me assimilate in ways that made sense to the world around me. It worked for some time, especially when I entered 8th grade in a new city. No one knew of me anymore or would see me as gay. I could start over. And I did.
It was going great. I started high school, dated a few girls, worked out a bit, but eventually I got tired of hiding. I came out to my parents at 16, around the time Lady Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance” was released.
By this time, they had let go of the reins of devout Christianity. They were accepting and supportive, which was surprising at first, but honestly, once the truth is spoken out loud, it’s much more difficult to avoid or suppress. Coming to terms with who I am and choosing to live in that truth, opened a bright beam of light within. Slowly but surely my parents mindset began to change. They saw I was happier, had more friends, and excelling in the drama club. I won the Mr. High School pageant, was nominated for Homecoming and Prom royalty. I got the lead in the school play my junior year. I was blossoming, energized, and no longer hiding.
But even still, the hyper-awareness remained strong. The shame I experienced for being queer, for not being able to clearly define my gender, or express myself creatively, manifested a routine of self-doubt, low self-esteem and fear. While I was liberated from the secret, my mind was still trained to second guess myself.
I doubted myself in college and in relationships. I couldn’t see myself as pretty. I didn’t see myself as worthy of living a life I wanted to live. When I started going to gay bars, I would feel wildly uncomfortable and antisocial, like I was too hideous to even socialize there. I felt as if the life I wanted wasn’t made for me but instead for someone else. It’s like I was receiving dreams and messages in the wrong body, in the wrong lifetimeand I had no choice but to respond with, “Sorry, universe, you have the wrong person.”
I was desperate for validation. I sought it out through sex, relationships, social media, and especially in my career. I was looking for a sign that read, “You are loved, you are worthy” everywhere else except within myself.
I still ran rampant with wounds and false programming that I had never unlearned or healed, because I forgot where I had buried it. I forgot it existed. It was just my reality.
Joanne is all about asking where our negative thoughts and behaviors come from, where that pain is rooted and healing it.
In “Diamond Heart” Gaga goes back to the start to tell us her story: “Young wild American, lookin’ to be somethin’” recalling painful moments that shaped her in lyrics like “a cruel king made me tough” and “some asshole broke me in, took all my innocence” all while proclaiming her hunger to be a star. “I may not be flawless but you know I got a diamond heart” is a beckoning lyric to the soul, something that resonated with me deeply, helping me understand that even through the messiness of life, we can always return to that place within us that’s pure–diamond like and heavenly. This inspired me to embrace my Hawaiian middle name that I had nearly forgotten about: Manulani, meaning “heavenly bird.”
“John Wayne” is a parody of the wild men she’s drawn to, and her addiction to unstable romances. Gaga’s written about deep longing for men who were bad for her in songs like “Paparazzi,” “Bad Romance,” and “Judas,” but with John Wayne you can tell she’s writing from a place of self-awareness and clarity knowing exactly her patterns in relationships and where it comes from. The most freeing thing about “John Wayne” for me is she isn’t blaming a lover or hopelessly longing for them like in “Paparazzi” (“I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me”). Instead, she’s showing that she, too, is wild, these relationships awaken her own darkness that attracts these men.
Embracing my inner darkness empowered me greatly. I used to sulk and obsess over someone, thinking I needed their love, feeling absolutely helpless and broken. But in seeing my own darkness, I released victimhood. I released the thought that I am not in control. I too crave a real wild man, but I am wild and powerful also.
Ending the Joanne era by releasing a piano version of the title track felt like a release. In the music video, there’s a lightness to it that strongly contrasts the chaotic wild nature of the Perfect Illusion video. In Perfect Illusion, Gaga is fighting to break free from her demons, literally grappling with a microphone cord, dancing in the desert to find the truth. In the Joanne video, you her in flowy gowns, wandering through forests and sitting at her piano. You get the sense she’s now freed now, she’s made peace with the past, said goodbye to the ghosts that haunted her and stepped into the light.
While the Joanne era at times was considered a pandering to Middle America with its stripped back visuals, cowboy hats and country pop power ballads, it actually helped me to go back and heal the trauma and shame of growing up queer and exploring my gender identity.
The truth is, coming out doesn’t automatically free you from the shame of being queer. For me and many LGBTQ people, the ideas that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t worthy of love, or even worthy of pursuing our passions, comes from feeling out of place at a young age, of not feeling represented in media, not feeling affirmed by your peers or family.
Returning to the place that changed me forever is how I was able to recover the truth of who I am and my purpose in this lifetime. As I healed my past, I began to see some of the blocks in my path begin to fade away, allowing the light to guide me to freedom. I let the person I saw in the mirror in that dream come back to me. I allowed them to be seen by wearing wigs, putting on makeup, taking up artistic endeavors, and put an end to my toxic relationship patterns. This not only brought me closer to myself, but even closer to my family and the love we share for each other.
Instead of seeking validation from my bosses, Instagram, or men I fell for, I began to seek it from within, in honoring the dreams that little kid had playing the Pahu drum and learn how to honor that. I found guidance in spiritual thought leaders like Gabby Bernstein, Glennon Doyle Melton, and Oprah. I reconnected with my family history, my Hawaiian roots, and my talents I held so far away through meditation, forgiveness and cutting ties with toxic relationships. The resentment I had toward my past, the bitterness I held on to for so long without even realizing it, has faded. I feel more present than ever before, I’m clearer on what I want, I allow myself to be seen in ways I never thought I could. I allow love into my life and don’t hold such a jagged guard up like I used to.
Now, when shame returns and says, “Who do you think you are? You’re a fool.” I remember the root in which shame came from and know within myself, it is not real. It is normal to have negative thoughts about ourselves. It’s part of human nature. But one of our greatest missions in life is to no longer believe in it.
“What was that moment in your life that blasted you so hard, you don’t remember who you were before it happened?”
Go back. Remember. Forgive. And become yourself.
Lady Gaga photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images for Live Nation/Header image byTarik Carroll