Sunday night, Lady Gaga entered the galaxy of superior Super Bowl performers when she catapulted trapeze-style all over the stadium through KISS-worthy smoke and explosions, reminding millions why she’s one of the best artists of her generation: She has infectious songs (that she writes), a stellar voice and the woman oozes showmanship.
It was spectacular.
But like many, I waited for the activist Gaga to emerge. She has been outspoken against Donald Trump and many predicted that at some point she wouldn’t be able to resist making a grandiose political statement against the president on the biggest platform imaginable.
That moment never came.
Lady Gaga said at a press conference earlier in the week, “I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality and the spirit of this country as one of love, and compassion, and kindness.”
“My performance will uphold those philosophies,” she added.
And it certainly did. Gaga began her performance by combining Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” with the Woody Guthrie pro-immigration classic “This Land is Your Land” and also the Pledge of Allegiance.
One could parse the underlying messages of what Gaga sang in her Super Bowl opening, as Truthdig’s Juan Cole has, writing “By beginning with Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ and then switching to Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is your Land,’ Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta, 30) engaged in a subtle but very radical critique of the immigration and other policies of Donald J. Trump.”
“Her switch at the end to quoting the pledge of allegiance with the ending phrase ‘with justice and liberty for all’ was a further critique of Trump’s latent white nationalism,” Cole claims. Perhaps, though I think it’s ridiculous to claim Trump is a white nationalist, and have said so.
Still, I’m more interested in what the millions of Americans watching Sunday took away from Gaga’s performance than journalists eager to uncover digs at Trump, as so many pundits grasped for Sunday and Monday.
Most Americans watching, whether they were pro-Trump, anti-Trump, on the fence—or the many more normal people who watch football precisely to escape the inanities of politics—probably saw a perfectly acceptable patriotic performance combining some of our most beloved songs.
One can point to the radicalism of Guthrie’s tune (which was written as a response to Berlin’s “God Bless America” because Guthrie found it too nationalistic), but it still doesn’t change the fact that I also sang “This Land is Your Land” in the fourth grade dressed as a pilgrim. The Star Spangled Banner is specifically about the War of 1812, but that battle is probably not what is on the minds of most Americans when they stand for the national anthem.
No, what Lady Gaga did was something far more effective than what any explicit grandstanding could have ever accomplished. In the midst of a national debate over President Trump’s controversial travel ban, the artist reminded us of our shared values—our openness, diversity and pluralism—through universally loved patriotic anthems.
Many Americans probably knew on Sunday what Gaga was trying to say with her musical message, but it’s hard to imagine most having a problem with the way she said it.
Ivanka Trump loved it.
Finding commonality to make your point is far more productive than simply calling half the country or the president racist. Anyone can do that. That’s easy.
Lady Gaga deserves kudos not only for her stellar performance, but parlaying the message she wanted to deliver in the right way.
“I don’t know if it will succeed in unifying America. You’ll have to ask America when it’s over,” she said at her pre-Super Bowl press conference.
I haven’t had the opportunity to ask America. Surveying 300 million people would take some time.
But I do know Americans seem more disunited than at any point in recent memory. Part of that is Donald Trump’s fault. Part of that is the fault of those who vocally oppose the president in what I consider counterproductive ways.
Yet, anytime anyone on either side of this visceral divide can do something to bring Americans together—or at least not contribute to the disunity—they should, and that’s exactly what Lady Gaga did Sunday night.