Is Lady Gaga's "John Wayne" About Taylor Kinney? The Song Has Universal Appeal
Glad tidings, pop music enthusiasts. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 48 hours, you'll probably be aware that Lady Gaga's new album Joanne is here, and it's the lobster-hat lover's most personal offering yet. And you know what "most personal album ever" means, right? Lots of lyrics that could feasibly be interpreted as being copied straight out of the pages of Gaga's journal, that's what. It's been an eventful year for the star, with her separating from her partner of five years, actor/model Taylor Kinney, in July. So, if you've been listening with this fact in mind, you might wonder is Lady Gaga's "John Wayne" about Taylor Kinney? Obviously, I'm no mind-reader and this is all interpretation, but I'd say... yeah, probably.
The song follows the romantic but doomed love affair that a woman has with a man who symbolizes everything that's so sexy — and toxic — about Americana. It suggests an affair that's intensely passionate and emotional. And it's not like I've been eavesdropping on Kinney and Lady Gaga's phone calls, but let's face it: you don't stick through thick and thin with someone for half a decade if you think they're just sort of OK. Arguably, we can see Kinney's influence in two factors: the way the song's male lead is described and the emotion evoked by the song. Let's examine both.
The Male Lead
The premise of the song is that Gaga's so over slick city dudes and she wants a cowboy. We hear this in the pre-chorus when she sings:
Every John is just the sameAnd I'm sick of their city gamesI crave a real wild manI'm strung out on John Wayne
While, admittedly, Kinney hails from what technically falls under the definition of a city — Lancaster, Pennsylvania — he's not exactly your typical city-slicker. He's a college dropout, who spent a year in Hawaii learning to surf and skydive before he moved to LA to pursue his dreams of acting. He also rides a motorcycle, and maybe that's the inspiration behind the last two lines of the song's intro:
Can I just like, hang off the back of your horseAnd can you go a little faster?
So far, so rugged. However, I'll concede there is one line which works against my interpretation: "Blue collar and a red-state treasure." Since blue collar work refers to manual labor, and Kinney is predominantly an actor, this doesn't fit the bill. Similarly, Pennsylvania is one of the more politically neutral states. Whether you're looking at elections on a gubernatorial, presidential or senate basis, the results have been divided fairly evenly between the two parties when counting the last 10 elections in each category. So this line does suggest there's a possibility Gaga is just inventing this character or basing him on someone else.
The Emotion The Song Describes Is Intense
Still, not to be prosaic, but, if you're writing an album you yourself describe as personal and it describes an intense, doomed relationship, could it be possible that you're maybe taking inspiration from the relationship that you've been involved in for the last five years? It's not unlikely. I mean, look at the above. Even in her statement to the world that they're at least temporarily separating, Gaga uses the "s" word: soulmates. She clearly had all the feels in the universe for Kinney.
As such, lines like "Two lovers, headed for a dead end," "Love junkie on a three-day bender," "He called, I cried, we broke" all sound like they could be describing their connection, one that was incredibly powerful, but ultimately didn't end with a happy ending.
Ultimately, I believe Gaga is doing what good writers do — starting with a person she knows to give the song heart and emotion, and tweaking finer details to make the male lead fit the broader narrative she's constructing about doomed love affairs and the masculinity of Americana. Would "white collar and a half red, half blue state treasure" sound so catchy? Of course not. So let's give Gaga snaps for creating a song that's both intensely personal and universal all at once.