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Lady Gaga’s Existence Is Political. So Is Her Work—Including Her Super Bowl Halftime Show

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that last night’s Super Bowl wasn’t political. Yes, it was also a fantastic game to watch from an analytical perspective; we got to see plenty of drama and record-breaking plays. But America’s current political climate underpinned the rest of the night’s proceedings.

Hamilton‘s original trio of Schuyler sisters added “Sisterhood” to their rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Several Super Bowl commercials this year had an undeniable anti-Trump slant. President George H. W. Bush performed the game’s opening coin toss, while Vice President Mike Pence gave him a standing ovation from the stands. Throughout the game, TV cameras would return again and again to Pence, a VP known for his extremist conservative viewpoints, particularly with regard to LGBTQIA Americans.

And then there was the Super Bowl Halftime Show, featuring Lady Gaga, an openly bisexual musician who is no stranger to activist causes. As just one recent example, she took part in the “It’s On Us” campaign against sexual assault. Vice President Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens To You” at the Oscars last year; that was a song written about the singer’s own experiences as a sexual assault survivor. Last night, Biden tweeted in support of Lady Gaga’s halftime show, calling her his “friend,” and reminding everyone of her activism work in that particular field.

Lady Gaga’s halftime show was also rife with progressive messages, some subtle, and some blatant. She began with a message that I’d characterize as subtle, by singing the opening lines of Jewish refugee Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song which came into the public eye in America during Hitler’s rise and got positioned as a peace anthem of sorts. In 1940, Woody Guthrie criticized that interpretation of the song and wrote his own response to it, titled “This Land Is Your Land.” Last night, Lady Gaga melodically transitioned from singing the opening lines from “God Bless America” into then singing some lines from “This Land Is Your Land.”

It’s worth noting that Guthrie’s song has become a protest anthem across the nation once again. At the marches I’ve attended since Trump won the election, “This Land Is Your Land” has remained a favorite for participants to sing as they walk. I don’t know if Lady Gaga is familiar with that history, but she might be. She might also know that Guthrie wrote a song called “Old Man Trump” about Donald Trump’s father and his racist policies. We can’t be sure of that, unless someone asks her.

What we do know, however, is that Lady Gaga is deeply familiar with the political influences of her own songs, given that she’s spoken at length about those influences. For example, she’s stated that her “whole career” is a tribute to David Bowie, who was also an openly bisexual musician. Her androgynous, glitter-packed fashion choices in her performance last night certainly reflect that influence, and the songs she chose also serve to remind the audience about Lady Gaga’s own proud existence as a bisexual woman.

Take her very first song of the evening: “Poker Face.” Lady Gaga has previously stated that this song was about her experiences as a once-closeted bisexual woman, and how she fantasized about women secretly, hence the “Poker Face” theme. It seems to be no accident that Lady Gaga would begin her performance with that song, then transition into “Born This Way,” an anthem that openly highlights her support for her fellow queer folks: “No matter gay, straight, or bi / Lesbian, transgender life / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born to survive.”

Once again, this was an event with VP Mike Pence in the audience. I wonder how he felt about all of those lyrics, hm? I wouldn’t expect him to know the meaning of “Poker Face,” but “Born This Way” is as blatant as it gets.

After “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga followed up with “Telephone,” a song that ordinarily features the indomitable Beyonce (but I guess she’s probably busy). In any case, “Telephone” is a dance anthem about not bothering to pick up a phone call from a dude because you’re busy dancing. The original music video for “Telephone” features Lady Gaga kissing a woman and then helping Beyonce poison her controlling boyfriend. At the end of the video, the two women drive off together in the sunset. It’s got sapphic undertones, to say the least.

Speaking of dance anthems, “Just Dance” came next; it’s Lady Gaga’s debut single, and it’s probably the most frothy and least risky of all of her tunes. She sang the refrain (while simultaneously playing the keytar), then made her way to a piano where she sang “Million Reasons,” a song from her new record. It’s a more stripped-down and emotional track that reminds me a little of “Til It Happens To You” in terms of tone. Lyrically, it sounds like it’s about Lady Gaga wanting to quit music entirely, since there are a “million reasons” to leave such a difficult life behind. Critics have theorized that the song is about PTSD, and the singer’s own attempts to find a path in her life and to refocus on what’s important to her.

To bring her performance in for a big finish, Lady Gaga changed into a football-inspired glittery outfit featuring linebacker shoulder-pads (androgyny plus glitter: kind of her thing). She sang “Bad Romance” as the closer—a bit of an ironic choice, since many have theorized that the song is about Lady Gaga’s roller coaster relationship with the music industry, although she’s simply said that the song is about “being in love with your best friend.” (One might even say that music itself is her “best friend.”)

By concluding her show with “Million Reasons” and then “Bad Romance,” it does seem as though Lady Gaga might have some mixed feelings about re-entering a new phase of public scrutiny, thanks to having done such a bombastic halftime show. She’s re-entering the music industry, but not without reservations, and not without sincerely considering how to go about it.

As for whether any of these messages were intentional, well, I’ll leave you with this statement from Lady Gaga herself, made before the performance (via USA Today):

“The only statements that’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I have been consistently making throughout my career. I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality and the spirit of this country. It’s one of love and compassion and kindness. So my performance will uphold those philosophies.”

Whether you like Lady Gaga’s music or not, there’s no denying that it’s always been a personal undertaking for her, as well as deeply considered and methodical. She’s great at performing catchy pop hooks, to be sure. But she’s also been a fierce advocate for her own status as a sexual assault survivor and as a bisexual woman working in an industry that tends to chew up and spit out female songstresses as quickly as possible, without caring about them as human beings. The music video for “Million Reasons” hammers home that struggle, I think:

Is Lady Gaga political enough, though? Should she be even more daring than this? Are her statements too 101-level, too feel-good, too vague? Perhaps so. I’ve heard those criticisms, and I don’t disagree. She’s a far cry from Woody Guthrie in terms of her overall lyrical content.

However, I think it’s important to keep pointing out that Lady Gaga’s work comes from her own personal experiences, and that in and of itself is daring. Especially if you’re performing that work on a national stage, while deeply bigoted members of the Trump administration watch. Existing and surviving and succeeding is political, in that environment. More power to her, for that.

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).