THR Web Features   /   February 6, 2017

Mom, Apple Pie—and Lady Gaga

Leann Davis Alspaugh

YouTube still of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI performance

What was edgy about Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl show? Was it singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a protest song that as Vanity Fair noted includes verses such as “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?” Or was it, as the New York Times observes, dropping in a line from the Pledge of Allegiance? Not really. What made Gaga’s much-anticipated performance so surprising was its wholesomeness.

Perched on what appeared to be the upper edge of Houston’s NRG Stadium in a two-piece silver body suit and boots, her face adorned by a cat-eye mask of jewels, Lady Gaga gave a show that was unabashed Americana. Her first words were “God bless America” from “America the Beautiful” followed by a few lines from Guthrie’s classic and then this line from the Pledge of Allegiance, “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” That last with a winning smile before plunging to a tower on the stage below.

Amid smoke and blasts of fire, she declared to cheers from the crowd “I wanna hold ’em like they do in Texas” from “Poker Face.”  Next up was the massive hit “Born This Way,” a self-esteem anthem that serves as the unofficial theme song for the gay community. Amid the checklist of identity groups is the line, “I’m beautiful in my way / ’cause God makes no mistakes.” After two more songs, she slowed it down with “Million Reasons,” catching her breath and working the crowd with the assurance that “we’re here to make you feel good.” In this country music-tinged ballad, Gaga calls on the Lord in prayer, asking to be shown the way. At one point, she sent a spontaneous shout-out to her parents—“Hey, Dad! Hi, Mom!” The dancers reappeared, now in modified football gear, and parted for Lady Gaga who had exchanged the silver jacket for a white, shoulder-pad-like top. “The Super Bowl is what champions are made of!” she shouted before launching into the show’s finale “Bad Romance,” every good girl’s dream of love with a bad boy. Climbing up a ramp, she threw down the mic—as close as a singer can come perhaps to smashing a perfectly good guitar—caught a football and jumped out of sight.

Sure, there were the usual girls-just-want-to-have-fun sentiments. There were energetic dancers, outlandish costumes, and some spectacular aerial drone footage (a half time show first). Especially noteworthy were the dancers: not all had athletic physiques nor was everyone wearing the same costume and makeup. Gaga’s songs are jejune at best, but she is a diligent singer with real natural gifts. (Her vocal coach, Don Lawrence, described her in a recent Wall Street Journal article as “the most spot-on singer I think I’ve ever worked with.”)

Clocking in at around thirteen minutes, the Super Bowl show was much shorter than a standard concert, but the intensity of the event, the expectations—will she say something political?—and the pressure from the network, the NFL, and viewers made it a demanding performance. How much was Gaga paid? Nothing. The league pays only for expenses and production costs. Of course, the chance to perform before more than 100 million viewers is enough to turn the head of any superstar.

How refreshing that Lady Gaga simply performed. She didn’t use her time in front of the cameras to be more than what we wanted her to be. (To be clear, Gaga has used her fame to make political statements as when she donned the notorious meat dress in 2010 to protest the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy.) Her message of positivity and inclusivity—one about which she has been single-minded since the beginning of her career—tempered the Super Bowl hype with a surprising element of humility. For what must be scores of people—dancers, musicians, production crew, personal staff, accountants, seamstresses—Lady Gaga is the reason they have a paycheck. The fact that she can express gratitude and call on something—or someone—greater than herself is not what we’ve come to expect from celebrities. All of this is not to say that Gaga is without ego or foible. No one becomes an entertainer for reasons less than a towering need for adulation and fame.

But her sense of the occasion was exactly right. Her understanding of the influence of a sports event pop music show on the fate of nations—precisely zero—gave everyone a chance to enjoy the spectacle and to appreciate her formidable self-discipline. If Gaga’s Super Bowl performance was in essence one big commercial for herself (and Pepsi), so be it. What can be more American?