When our divided nation gave Lady Gaga its undivided attention during a break in Sunday night’s Super Bowl, one of pop’s most dazzling peacocks aimed to heal our injured republic with a 13-minute blast of magic words that began with “God bless America” and closed with “ro-mah-ro-mah-mah-Ga-ga-ooh-la-la.”
Which is to say, she played it totally safe. Yes, there were sci-fi costumes, menacing explosions, a fleet of overcaffeinated dancers and a handful of massive hit singles — “Poker Face,” “Just Dance,” “Bad Romance” and “Born This Way” among them. But for an artist who continues to sell herself as an instigator, Gaga seemed content being a mere entertainer on Sunday night, putting in plenty of effort without taking any significant risks. Like any Gaga concert, her halftime show cultivated a mood of bewildered wowee-zowee that aimed to impress more than surprise.
The Lady herself has asked us to expect more. In fact, during a commercial break a few moments before the halftime show, Gaga appeared in an advertisement for Tiffany & Co., the luxury jeweler, in which the singer declared, “I am a rebel… I always want to be challenging the status quo.” It felt gross. And a few moments later — when Gaga began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance from what appeared to be the roof of Houston’s NRG Stadium — it felt like a lie.
After the patriotic opening remarks, she plunged down onto the field like a glam rock Spiderwoman, suspended by a system of cables, singing “Poker Face” — and when she finally touched down, she marched into “Born This Way,” a melodic celebration of “gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life.” This was as close as Gaga got to making any kind of overt political statement up there, and her basic message of inclusion echoed throughout various commercials that aired during the game.
And when she began to sing “Telephone,” her 2009 duet with with Beyoncé, it was impossible not to flashback to Beyoncé stomping down the field at last year’s Super Bowl, surrounded by a squadron of dancers dressed in Black Panther garb. With a forceful elegance, Beyoncé had set a precedent for what could be done on this stage — musically and politically. By comparison, Gaga whiffed.
Instead of speaking out, Gaga asked a mild question, “How are you doing tonight, Texas? America? World?” She already knew the answer — not great. So she asked another one: “You wanna feel good with us?” For a moment, it felt like she was finally inviting us to her kind of party — one where the doors are open to weirdos, outcasts, freaks and geeks. But as energetic as she appeared up there, it still felt restrained. This wasn’t Gaga’s party. Even through all the airborne pomp and pyrotechnic kablooey, she ultimately seemed like a guest — and one who didn’t want to overstay her welcome.