In bedazzled hot pants, looking like some sort of sequined alien elf, and perched in genderqueer androgynous glory on the roof of a football stadium, Lady Gaga belted out “God Bless America,” sang a few phrases of “This Land Is Your Land,” and recited the unity statement: “one nation under God…” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then she jumped off the damn building.
This is Lady Gaga’s America. And it’s the one I’d like to think I live in.
Beyoncé might come! (She did not, thus making Gaga’s choice of “Telephone” in the medley a cruel tease.) She’ll enter from the roof! (She did, descending suspended from wires that continued to whisk her through the sky like the star of the best drag queen production of Peter Pan you’ll ever see.)
She’ll get political! (She sort of did.) She won’t get political. (She also sort of didn’t.) And, my favorite, she’ll perform a satanic ritual. (Unless you count the witchcraft required for her to dance like that in those fabulous high-heeled boots, sorry, Alex Jones, she did not.)
What did happen was a high-energy one-woman show that soared on the star power and conviction of its tireless performer, whose vocals somehow never sounded better than during what amounted to one of the most athletic Super Bowl halftime shows we’ve seen.
More, the performance was akin to Gaga, nearly a decade after her debut with “Just Dance,” planting her rainbow flag atop the mountain she’s spent her career climbing, leading her parade of fans—the outcasts, the outsiders, the rebels, and, yes, the gays—on the march up.
On the biggest stage any performer—any human, really—can have, at a traditionally conservative showcase in front of a traditionally conservative audience, at a time when our culture is careening down a spiral of divisiveness, exclusion, fear, and hate, Lady Gaga very pointedly used her own position as a cultural lightning rod to electrify a message that was pro-gay, pro-unity, pro-feminist, pro-weirdo, and pro-fabulous. At a time when we need it the most.
Did Lady Gaga keep politics out of her performance, or was the spectacle’s entire existence its own political act?
As we brace for what we assume will be the inevitable Fox News backlash to whatever “dangerous” or unpatriotic messages they might parse out of Gaga’s halftime show, it’s clear that everything on a public stage is now also political.
The political climate has cast storm clouds of thunderous conversation over the entire country. Anyone who steps out in it is basically a political storm chaser. And Lady Gaga? She’s typically leading the charge.
Like everything Lady Gaga does, the political undertones to her performance were admirably earnest and annoyingly heavy-handed. Having light-up drones move into an American flag formation while you recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Powerful, if schlocky.
Knowing how polarizing even just her image tends to be made the opening its own baiting—and perhaps even confrontational—act. The insinuation that she, dressed like that, purports to represent America is enough to blow gaskets through certain parts of the country. You almost couldn’t hear the chorus of “Yaaas!” from gay bars around the nation through the whistles of steam coming out the ears, Fred Flintstone-style, of traditionalists.
But yet there she was, her hair teased, her thigh-highs sparkling, and her troop of background dancers in unison behind her as she belted with unbridled glee the lyrics to “Born This Way”: “No matter gay, straight, or bi / Lesbian, transgendered life / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive / No matter black, white or beige / Chola or orient-made / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to be brave.”
At a time when gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, minority rights, and civil rights at large are at risk, when LGBT struggles and queer violence, depression, suicide rates, and acceptance continue to dominate political and cultural conversations, it meant something for Lady Gaga to sing those words on that stage in front of so many eyeballs.
It made some of us feel seen, and, even if briefly, safe. Empowered, perhaps. Maybe it made some of us angry to hear those words in this venue, a venue that some believe should be stripped of political statements. Maybe it made some of us annoyed that Lady Gaga just singing that song was going to inspire insufferable “What Does It Mean?” critical dissections like this one, and maybe it annoyed some of us that Lady Gaga didn’t do more with her platform.
Perhaps, but Lady Gaga, both with her National Anthem last year and Super Bowl performance on Sunday night, is a vital reminder that all those people listed in her song are also patriots. That patriots can wear bedazzled hot pants and theatrical-as-hell makeup. That you can like dancing to Lady Gaga’s music in thigh-highs and also enjoy football, and our country.
It was a quietly subversive performance that made a loud impression. Lady Gaga's biggest political statement was simply being herself, and a reminder for us all to keep, at all costs, doing the same.
But beyond “saying something,” Lady Gaga put on a show—and a helluva one at that.
A reminder of just how unrivaled she’s been this past decade in terms of pop music excellence, she breezed through a medley of her best hits: “Poker Face,” “Born This Way,” “Telephone,” “Just Dance,” “Million Reasons,” and “Bad Romance.”
She attacked each with the fatigueless ferociousness that has defined her career, transitioning between aerial tricks and complicated choreography to playing the piano and the keytar, all while letting it rip with full-throated clarity.
She staged one of the most artistically cohesive halftime shows, too, with a clear aesthetic—part rock concert, part underground alien dance party—that unified the entire set, building to a “Bad Romance” finale that had flames billowing behind her as she unleashed her own fire vocals from atop a rising platform.
We’d all be lucky to have half the conviction for anything as Lady Gaga has when she’s tackling a live performance, a confidence that translates almost to a hunger when she begins sinking her teeth into a set. It’s contagious and energizing, perhaps explaining why we were somewhat breathless by the time she didn’t just drop the mic at the end of the show, but literally throw it down. Such a showboating gesture has never been more earned.
It was actually rather inspiring to listen to Lady Gaga talk about the goals she had for the performance at a press conference last week.
“Music is one of the most powerful things the world has to offer. No matter what race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender that you are, it has the power to unite us, so this performance is for everyone. I want to, more than anything, create a moment that everybody who’s watching will never forget—not for me, but for themselves,” she said.
This whole political statement debate? “The only statements I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I have been consistently making throughout my career,” she said. “I believe in a passion for inclusion, I believe in the spirit of equality, and [I believe] the spirit of this country is one of love and compassion and kindness, so my performance will uphold those philosophies.”
It’s one thing to hear that, and another to watch it unfold over the course of 13 minutes on TV, fatigued from another week of horrifying headlines and cultural frustration that’s long passed its boiling point. Who knew how much we’d need Lady Gaga right now?
“Essentially, that kid that couldn’t get a seat at the cool kids table and that kid who was kicked out of the house because his mom and dad didn’t accept him for who he was? That kid is going to have the stage for 13 minutes,” she said. “And I’m excited to give it to them.”
And we needed to receive it.