Lady Gaga’s halftime show at Super Bowl LI wasn’t the showstopper that last year’s performance by Beyonce was, and it certainly wasn’t as provocative as the pop singer has been in the past. But as a display of acrobatics, technical coordination, and Americana, it soared.
As drones floated above the stadium like patriotic fireflies, Gaga sang bars from “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” before leaping, like a bedazzled Peter Pan, into the air above the stage, flipping and gyrating in her trapeze-like supports from one perch to another.
And yet, though the spectacle was appropriately breathtaking, Gaga’s 13-minute long performance lacked an iconic moment or emotional button; weirdest of all, it didn’t even feel contemporary. Gaga came onto the music scene with her 2008 album “The Fame,” featuring singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” and followed it up with a couple of years of fascinating and dense singles. Since then she’s faded into an odd habit of dusting off her dance shoes to perform dated-feeling diva numbers — not infrequently with the legendary Tony Bennett. Gaga began and ended her Super Bowl set with songs released before 2010 — “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” — and of the seven songs she performed, only one, “Million Reasons,” was released in the last five years.
This may have contributed to why Gaga’s show felt like a vision of the future from a decade ago. The costumes and staging made for a shiny disco ball of stage; Gaga herself wore bright, reflective silver and steel, except for one moment where she donned on a spiky gold jacket. It looked like an MTV exec’s idea of what Y2K was going to look like, not 2017 America.
|Lady Gaga flies into the Super Bowl halftime show in Houston. Dave Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock|
Furthermore, while Super Bowl halftime shows are the natural home of gimmicky concert tricks, Gaga’s set was so packed with technical flourishes that it was either distracting or — worse — outpaced the actual performance. The drones in the sky were matched by hand-held LED torches in the audience — lights that changed colors apparently according to programming, while the crowd on the field moved in choreographed waves. It was beautiful, especially in aerial shots; during “Million Reasons,” Gaga played on a circular piano as the lights coalesced around her. It was a triumph of staging — but a dud of a number, a slow soulful ballad that no one has ever heard before, but it’s the recent release that justifies Gaga’s presence at the 2017 Super Bowl.
Perhaps it is fitting for the mood of the first several weeks of 2017 that Gaga’s performance seemed like a paean to 2008. In the run-up to the show, there was much speculation that the bisexual Gaga, an avid and vocal Hillary Clinton supporter, might voice the widely held frustration with the Trump administration in some form or another. Bets were taken. Ultimately, though, Gaga took the smarter route of commentary through sheer existence, asking the audience to accept her sexualized gyration and her country singing, her racially diverse backup dancers and her ballad about her love for God. But because the performance was overall a little weak, it still felt like a missed opportunity.
“Born This Way,” Gaga’s anthem for gay rights, has aged poorly — the song rhymes “chola descent” with “you’re orient,” which is both ethnically and grammatically offensive, and includes the adjective “transgendered.” But even a problematic love letter to queer acceptance would have been worthwhile, at a Super Bowl Vice President Mike Pence was attending… if it had been the showstopping final number. But that honor instead went to a family-friendly “Bad Romance,” Gaga’s 2009 hit, performed by a mass of dancers wearing deconstructed football uniforms.
Gaga has always been a highly stylized performer, but more than ever, Gaga’s aesthetic in her Super Bowl performance felt like a parody of contemporary pop, not a force that pushed it forward. Worst of all, she appears to have willingly sanded down the politically charged subtext of her own art into a commodified piece of Americana that could be experienced without being truly understood.
Right before Gaga started singing “Million Reasons,” she addressed the crowd in Texas with an odd mission statement: “We’re here to make you feel good.” The singer who released the album “Art Pop” has chosen one half of that phrase over the other. Perhaps pop makes you feel good. Art chooses to say something.