I don’t know if you remember this, but halfway through last night’s Super Bowl, spirits were running high. The Falcons had a 21 point lead, Donald Trump had stormed out of his club’s screening of the game, and Lady Gaga was about to leap off “the roof” of the NRG stadium to start her 14-minute halftime show performance.
She danced. She flew. She flipped. She changed costumes. She danced more. She gave us another iconic Super Bowl performance. She performed the shit out of her biggest hits like “Poker Face,” “Telephone,” and “Bad Romance.” As a musical act, it was incredible. What it wasn’t, however, was political. Not nearly enough for what America needs right now, anyway.
Many of us hoped for the best. For some reason I almost expected Gaga—a woman who campaigned with Hillary Clinton and protested Donald Trump’s election—to go off-script and mention Trump or the Muslim ban or even the wall. She could have said something (that she didn’t release on an album half a decade ago!) that might suggest that she as an artist and a person was not comfortable with the road America is currently going down. She did no such thing. This year, there was no way the Super Bowl was not going to be political, so technically Gaga, giving us 14 minutes of fabulous escapism and a cookie crumb trail of whitewashed inclusiveness is a political statement. It’s just a weak one.
Yes, Gaga did sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a song that is a critique of the unbridled, unrealistic patriotism of “God Bless America.” She did perform her 2011 hit, “Born This Way.” She did belt out the words, “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life,” which surely provided either comfort or discomfort for some people watching the show. I suppose you could technically argue that she did indeed address race with her (still cringeworthy) “black, white or beige, Chola or orient made” lyrics. And, to be fair, she did abide by the statement she gave at a press conference a few days ago:
“The only statements that I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I’ve been consistently making throughout my career. I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality, and that the spirit of this country is one of love and compassion and kindness. My performance will uphold those philosophies.”
Subtlety is not going to make people think twice about racially and religiously profiling people and subjecting them to violence. Subtlety is not an appropriate response to the deeply unsubtle and dangerous things the Trump administration is doing. Subtle, right now, is weak. Subtle is cowardly. If your subtlety gets you praised by conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio for how apolitical and fun your performance was, then there's a problem.
Lady Gaga may have helped reestablish herself as a pop superstar, having given a masterful performance to the biggest audience of the year. But amidst the scattered pomp and circumstance of a Fox Super Bowl that was trying to appease everyone, it felt like she was committing herself more to complacency than she was to resistance. She should have done far more. There's no doubt she could have weathered the backlash.
Let’s not forget that Beyoncé was accused of being racist and inciting violence against police among other things with her Super Bowl performance last year, just for celebrating blackness and black women. Gaga, as a white woman, would almost certainly have been given an easier ride than Beyoncé. She could have used the white privilege she benefits from to take a similarly political stand. Instead of using that power, she recited platitudes of togetherness.
For those of us who hoped for something more, Gaga’s show was a huge letdown. It was a moment in which one of our most supposedly rebellious stars—a woman who, just minutes before she performed, was featured in an ad for Tiffany's calling herself a "rebel"—wound up helping to paper over a chaotic, racist, violent, and hateful political system at just the moment when we needed her to raise her voice.
Gaga’s performance felt surreal not because she was flying over the place, but because, with her decision to be America's unity cheerleader, she felt like she was addressing a different country than the real one that lay before her—the one that elected Donald Trump as president.
All pop culture is meant to entertains us. Some merely tries to give us what we want. Good pop culture, though, keeps us engaged, holds us accountable, and gives us what we need. It's a shame Lady Gaga chose another path.