Queer Shoulder to the Wheel: The Pervasive Politics of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl Halftime Performance

By Carie Schneider

Lady Gaga, in a rooftop preamble to her halftime show at Super Bowl 51, sings to the America she wants to bring into being. Her medley of patriotic song snippets, woven in with the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, works like an apostrophe to “One nation under God.” The drones flanking her, in the sky, evoke the red and blue color scheme of the corporate logo of the show’s sponsor, Pepsi, but are also deployed politically. Gaga sings a couplet from Woodie Guthrie’s socialist anthem “This Land is Your Land.” The drones begin to change from a field of white stars to vertically divided swaths of red and blue. When Gaga sings “this land is your land,” half the drones turn red. At “this land is my land,” the other half turn blue. This was a not-particularly subtle illustration of the polarization of “red state” and “blue state” identities. The divided red and blue drones swirl up, and then unify into the image of the American flag. The flag is conjured up through the performative utterance of the last stanza of the pledge of allegiance, which, like a mantra, makes physically manifest that which it praises. The words “liberty and justice for all” bring red and blue together, into a hopeful pluralistic unity for the flag. This is the message of Gaga’s entire performance: Only liberty and justice — for all — will bring us together.

Lady Gaga’s halftime show was a raucous dance party to demonstrate what that kind of liberty and inclusion might look like in practice. Whether or not Gaga would have played a different show during Obama’s presidency is an empty counterfactual. She performed into the chaotic arrival of Trumpism, and in its face, she sang Woody Guthrie and insisted on her gay queer anthems. This was literally days after televised clips of protesters circled social media, singing Guthrie at airports across the nation in defiance of Trump’s Muslim ban. The politics were there, whether the alt-right trolls praising Gaga for “keeping it professional” recognize them or not.

By Monday morning, a few reviews had appeared praising Gaga’s political subtlety, with “This Land is Your Land,” and recognizing her diversity-embracing hit “Born This Way,” but the vast majority of media outlets described the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show as somehow non-political or “playing it safe” (Washington Post: “Lady Gaga Avoids Politics at Super Bowl Halftime Show”; The Guardian: “Heavy on Hits, Light on Politics”; New York Times, “No Controversy, Lots of Glitter”). Of course, Beyoncé’s stunning halftime show appearance last year can be considered to have set the bar for “making a political statement” at the Super Bowl. Beyoncé sang “Formation” at a historically specific moment, under America’s first black president. She refused, in doing so, to imagine that Obama’s existence alone was “enough.” But Gaga’s performance can’t be read backwards into a different history, even if when she was first hired, not wearing a meat dress might have qualified as “playing it safe.” Gaga’s halftime show was steeped in American imagery and political rhetoric from the outset, and in the face of Trumpism, her imagery and rhetoric carry the political weight of their moment.

Gaga’s high-flying flips, suspended in the air, demonstrate an obvious sort of freedom, but her choice of songs for the medley performance also evoke the concept of liberty. Crowds of happy dancers leaping about to lyrics such as “just dance — don’t be afraid” carry a message of personal, individual liberty in a time of threat to the LGBTQ community, where “Just Dance” appears as part of a medley of Gaga’s gay-club favorites. As if this wasn’t an obvious enough evocation of a specifically queer liberty, “Born This Way” was the first song Gaga sang after “landing” on the stage. She performed two minutes of the song with her full cast of backup dancers. Several reviews focused on the inclusion of “Born This Way” as the “only” or “most” political aspect of the halftime show, often in a tone that dismissed the song’s importance, as Slate’s review does: “The most overtly political moment of the show — if you can call singing the standard lyric of a 7-year-old chart-topper political — was ‘Born This Way,’ with its explicit shoutout to LGBT people and the existence of various racial and ethnic identities.” This smacks of the liberal dismissal of “idenitity politics” and LGBTQ issues that has been in response to Trump. But while that lyric may have once been a tepid feel-good sentiment, in context, it’s no longer tepid. Pence is in office. Our nation no longer has a neutral way to be reminded that queer folks exist, and that people of different races and ethnicities are, in fact, people. What were once generic and uncontroversial corporate messages about diversity and inclusion now create controversy and spark boycotts on the right. From a Budweiser commercial about the company’s immigrant founder to Audi’s pledge about equal pay to an obscure lumber company’s narrative about crossing the border, the controversies were thick on the ground at Super Bowl 51.

Continuing in the Gaga tradition of heavy-handed visual rhetoric, at one point she held a glowing scepter evocative of Lady Liberty’s torch. Maybe it was an unintentional allusion; maybe not. After a week of total media saturation with Liberty images (consider the recent New Yorker cover featuring the snuffed torch) it’s hard not to make the connection. The light devices held by the audience members on the field resemble the torch of liberty even more closely; making mass participation a vital part of the light show of American democracy.

The last two songs of the set — rough-relationship anthems “Million Reasons” and “Bad Romance” — might seem to stray from the overarching theme of personal liberty, but remember, the performance addresses America itself. So the political message here is once again clear: there are “a million reasons” why we might want to leave America right now. Given these last two weeks, Gaga sings to a nation divided: “I bow down to pray / I try to make the worst seem better.” America is giving many of us “a million reasons to walk away.” One of the top Google searches in Arizona last month was “how to emigrate to Canada.” But despite these million reasons to give up on America, we “just need one good one to stay.” And as she walks down off the stage, Gaga finds her one good reason in a group of young people of color with fabulous hair. She reaches out to hug them at the end of the song. Subtle it was not.

America, we want your love, even though the relationship is rocky. We want it so much we “could write a bad romance.” This final song of the show seems to summarize Gaga’s vision for bringing America together: It’s going to be weird, it’s going to be queer; it’s going to be a struggle, so put on your bedazzled shoulder pads! This was her Ginsberg America “Queer shoulder to the wheel.” You and I, A Bad Romance, we’ll have to dance our way towards liberty and justice for all.

 

Header image via Arnie Papp

 

Leave a Reply