A rumor about Super Bowl halftime rippled through entertainment circles last month after anti-Trump protesters roiled the nation’s capital and other cities around the country. The whispers were that the NFL requested that featured performer Lady Gaga stash her political thoughts as a Hillary Clinton supporter during America’s most-watched television show.
After all, the most memorable recent image of the flamboyant artist and activist was outside Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan the day after the election. In a funereal dark halter-top and pants, with an American flag cascading down one leg, Gaga stood on the step of a trash truck holding with one hand overhead a sign that read, “Love trumps hate.”
The NFL immediately dismissed the gossip.
On Thursday, Gaga promised to be true to herself during her 12 minutes on the country’s most-viewed stage.
Another musical act selected to play the Super Bowl suggested that the whisperers were all wet anyway, and that the NFL, wracked earlier this season by Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, never considered escaping the heat of our current political climate.
Before country star Luke Bryan croons the “Star-Spangled Banner,” cast members from the every-award-possible-winning play “Hamilton” are slated to sing “America the Beautiful” — at the invitation of the NFL. The actors’ presence, especially if it is coupled with certain lyrics of a 19th century poem, stands to be the most impactful political statement in the game.
After all, one of the more stunning moments in the weeks following the election was Vice President Pence’s visit to see “Hamilton.” Pence was serenaded with boos upon arriving at Richard Rodgers Theatre just off Times Square. And as the curtain call came and he and his entourage began to depart, Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, called for Pence’s attention and, upon getting it, read Pence a statement from the cast imploring Pence and the new administration not to ignore people of color.
The moment elicited a tweetstorm from the man who picked Pence to be his running mate. President Trump went to Twitter, where he dismissed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play that won 11 Tonys — one shy of the record — as “highly overrated” and demanded an apology.
Still, on Sunday, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones — the trio that played the Schuyler sisters in the original Hamilton cast — will anoint the Super Bowl with a song that became a permanent part of the Super Bowl’s wrapping of patriotism in 2009.
Their mere presence, announced well after the election and the Rodgers Theatre dust-up, is more of an upbraiding of the new administration than anything Gaga, who was invited months before the election, is likely to do. It should be noted, too, that NFL boss Roger Goodell probably hasn’t forgotten that he also has been a target of Trump’s skewering.
“Hamilton” undoubtedly includes some whitewashing of history with a hip-hop theme that has recast Hamilton as something he really wasn’t: an abolitionist utterly repulsed by slavery. As the historian Michelle DuRoss reminded, Hamilton’s narrative was more complex than the play reveals. The woman he married, Eliza, played by Soo, was the daughter of a New York slaveholder for whom Hamilton, who studied law, helped arrange some dealings.
But the play “Hamilton” is celebrated mostly for a number of things that seem antithetical to the Trump campaign and actions his administration has taken thus far. With black and Latino actors playing roles one would expect reserved for white thespians, it champions people of color while President Trump just assembled a cabinet that is the least diverse in more than 30 years. The play reminds that this nation was founded by people who felt they had little power in governing, not unlike many people who’ve staged protests since the inauguration.
It touts a theme with bipartisan appeal — former vice president Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton have praised the show — while Trump this past week suggested that his party’s senators should blow up voting rules to pass a Supreme Court nominee against debate from across the aisle.
And the song the women will sing also is a challenge to the new administration. Unlike the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which Kaepernick’s protest revealed to so many was rooted in pro-slavery ideology, “America the Beautiful” was written by a Christian socialist, Katharine Lee Bates. A building at Wellesley College, where she taught English and wrote poetry, carries her name.
When Bates wasn’t teaching, she was a volunteer at a Boston settlement house for — of all people — immigrants, whose lives in Boston’s slums and sweatshops she hoped to improve.
She was an internationalist but didn’t believe the United States’ burgeoning power ought to be used to — how about this? — bully the rest of the world.
Her “America the Beautiful” was written in 1893 after she visited Pikes Peak in Colorado, which inspired the famous opening:
“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
But in between that and the ending we usually hear, she included lyrics that rarely get sung. They reflect a vision that her country not seek military incursions around the globe or suppress speech and protest against such by its citizenry and — how about this? — its press. They desired that the robber barons of her era — whom today she would undoubtedly see as billionaires such as Trump and some members of his cabinet — to be less parasitic.
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!”
Indeed, Bates wrote phrases that we all need to hear Sunday. They were cries for social justice, which so many of the protests we’ve witnessed of recent seem to echo.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.