In the days leading up to Lady Gaga’s performance at Super Bowl LI, rumors swirled about the tone of the set. Would she go at the president as a powerful advocate of Hillary Clinton and the LGBTQ community who watched the Trump administration narrowly miss signing a “religious freedom” order that appeared to legislate discrimination on ecumenical grounds? “Show up in an egg or meat dress or whatever,” right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren pleaded on Twitter on Saturday night, “just for the love of God, don’t make it political.” Yet on Sunday night, the actual show was a lightning-fast medley of gems from Gaga’s decade-long campaign of dance-pop (and lately, pop-country) excellence that appeared to stick to the hits while sprinkling in social commentary so subtle that conservatives on edge about a protest gesture failed to catch on. Tomi even thanked Gaga afterward for going a different route from “last year’s divisive Super Bowl halftime performance.”
A word about last year’s halftime show: Beyoncé did so well that I’ve forgotten it was actually Coldplay’s show. This one didn’t quite match up. After a lifetime of training for the gig, Bey is a tighter singer and a more effortless dancer, and the use of both in unveiling the black-pride anthem “Formation” made for an unforgettable exercise in pop activism. What Gaga brings to the table is a palpable sense of excellence achieved through practice. We don’t get to see Beyoncé struggle. We do see Gaga trying, and when she nails it — which is most of the time, to be fair — victory doesn’t feel inevitable, as it does with Bey, so much as labored over, fought for. Ten years ago, Lady Gaga was a quirky, downtown, pop-burlesque performer with a gift for the piano. Tonight, she was a pop veteran zipping through her catalogue on the biggest stage in the country, at one point squeaking out an elated “hi mom, hi dad” in front of a hundred million viewers.
What Gaga brought tonight was showmanship, with a focus on physical performance rather than a transfixing, wild outfit, in the same way that she did in the rollout of her underrated 2016 country album Joanne. Early on, that meant pyrotechnics and suspension-cable flight during “Pokerface,” a maneuver that would’ve wowed more if we hadn’t already seen the likes of Chris Brown and P!nk pull it off half a dozen times before. When Gaga touched the ground is when the show took off, as she zoomed through a lengthy dance routine. The army of backup dancers flanking and carrying her through hits like “Born This Way,” “Telephone,” “Just Dance,” and “Bad Romance” gave the show a musical-theater feel, but when it came time for Joanne’s “Million Reasons,” all we needed was soft lighting, a piano, and her voice to move the show along.
“Born This Way” was a highlight, and a bit of well-placed politics. Broadcast on a national stage this weekend, the lyric sheet’s message of peace across boundaries of race and gender feels like a pointed critique of two weeks of political jingoism dividing the nation. What’s more, the very deliberate positioning of flamboyant male dancers vogueing in lavender capes front stage at one of America’s biggest guys’ nights out felt downright disruptive. The message of “Born This Way,” as well as the show at large, is that sometimes simply being who you are in this country, joyfully and brightly, is an act of disruption.
That said, if you’re looking for the good Trump shade, note that the first minute of the show featured Gaga singing “God Bless America” intercut with a bit of folk legend Woodie Guthrie’s 1940s peace anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie was an outspoken opponent of fascism and Nazism, and he also wrote a little jam called “Old Man Trump” (whose line about the Donald’s father, real-estate baron Fred Trump — “I suppose that old man Trump knows just how much racial hate he stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts” — speaks for itself). Coincidence? I think not.