6:36pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Lady Gaga's Super Bowl LI Halftime Performance Is Confrontationally Apolitical
I think there was a sense or a fear or an anticipation that Lady Gaga was going to use her Super Bowl LI halftime performance to do something overtly political.
I'm not sure what we were looking forward to. Did we think she was going to come out bedecked in raw meat or in some alien egg, or that she was going to deface a picture of our president or some American iconography?
Instead, Lady Gaga did what was probably the most political thing she could have done: She spent 15 minutes being Lady Gaga.
Gaga came out and she did an entertaining multi-song set that was simultaneously as confrontational and engaged as her music always is — when you do "Born This Way" at an event with Mike Pence in the crowd, the message is inescapable — but also a set that treated and acknowledged the event that she was performing at in a way that was campy and entertaining and sincere.
If you were holding your breath for special cameos, you were probably let down by Gaga's performance. There were pre-show rumors that Beyonce might make a second straight halftime cameo, but the expectant mom-to-be was absent, as were any other duet partners. This show was all Gaga.
You also were probably disappointed if you were there for the stunts, because the wire work that saw Gaga dive from the top of the stadium, opened just for her performance, to a platform and then down onto the stage was easily the worst part of the set. On Twitter, there was speculation that the wire dive was pre-filmed and if it was pre-filmed, how could it have been directed with so little inspiration, and if it wasn't pre-filmed, how do you film the moment with so little inspiration and immediacy that viewers could doubt its liveness? You're in a stadium with probably more cameras per foot than any other location in America, with visible drones everywhere, and you can't get a close-up or any sort of swooping medium-shot to accentuate her movement? Come on.
It's too bad, because the weakly presented dive took attention from Gaga's earnest introduction in the stadium's upper reaches singing "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land" as stars formed an American flag.
That use of "This Land Is Your Land" was probably the perfect/fitting Gaga choice, as Woody Guthrie's anthem is both aggressively political, but also part of the musical tapestry of the country, the kind of thing that resonates with a target audience, yet also has aged into being sacred enough that few on the right have the nerve to complain about it.
After she was lowered awkwardly to the stage, and detached from the wire that had people making negative comparisons to Pink, Gaga just delivered a varied, but also straight-forward, performance running through both greatest hits and more recent songs.
"We're here to make you feel good," she said early in her set. It was, of course, that and more.
Gaga joined her dancers for a tightly choreographed take on "Born This Way." It was fun. She acquired a keytar for "Just Dance." And then, just when it seemed like everything was going to be uptempo and Gaga's singing and musicality would be secondary, she slowed things down with "Million Reasons," which she performed largely at her piano and, at least ostensibly, might even have been singing live (something we don't even really expect from our Super Bowl entertainers anymore). The whiplash inherent in the transition from the celebration of inclusiveness and individual identity that is "Born This Way" to the celebration of prayer and spirituality that is "Million Reasons" is the whiplash inherent in Lady Gaga, and she wasn't going to compromise one side or the other just because she was in front of her largest audience ever. The whole set was gay-forward and family-forward and America-forward and Gaga-forward.
One of my favorite things about Lady Gaga has always been the combination of arty pretension and likable humility, and the in-song shout-out to her parents was a perfect moment along those lines. She's also good for a blending of arty pretension and sheer goofiness as evidenced by the costume change that left her wearing shiny hot pants and boots, but also a fashion-show version of football shoulder pads surrounded by dancers half-dressed for the runway and half-dressed for the Super Bowl huddle.
Ending with fireworks and with Gaga catching a thrown football, the performance never felt like it was trying to be too cool for the Super Bowl or too cool for the fans who were watching because they were too drunk to change the channel between halves of an increasingly less-competitive game. (NOTE: This was submitted with the score 28-3 for the Falcons. Ha.)
To rephrase the onstage patter, Lady Gaga seemed to be saying, "I'm gonna try to entertain you as many different ways as I can by being exactly who I am." That's pretty much exactly what she's always said in her music itself and in every public appearance throughout her career.
Basically, anybody expecting anything else out of Lady Gaga's Super Bowl performance hasn't been paying attention to Lady Gaga.