Every entertainer likes to be subversive — to push the envelope and surprise their audience. At a time when Hollywood has made itself insufferable with its increasingly hysterical political commentary, Lady Gaga shocked the world simply by entertaining it.
Expectations were sky-high before the Super Bowl LI halftime show; what would Gaga — one of Hillary Clinton’s top celebrity supporters — say or do in this, the first halftime show of Donald Trump’s presidency? How could she possibly top Beyoncé’s politically-charged tribute to the Black Panthers from last year’s game?
“This performance is for everyone,” Gaga coyly told reporters in Houston on Saturday, refusing to divulge her plans. “I want to, more than anything, create a moment that everyone that’s watching will never forget.”
And yet there was barely a whiff of partisan politics at all during the pop star’s entire 12-minute set, not even a requisite “Resist,” or “Love trumps hate.”
Opening with a mash-up of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” from the roof of NRG Stadium under a cloud of pulsating red, white and blue-colored drones, Gaga literally dove into the building and straight into a collection of her greatest hits: “Poker Face,” “Just Dance,” “Born This Way,” “Telephone” and the grand finale of “Bad Romance,” all delivered on-key (a rare feat given the amount of dancing she was doing) and reasonably well.
It was a mesmerizing performance, filled with the kind of expert showmanship that only very confident artists can pull off. It reminded me, if only slightly, of Prince’s pageantry and light-filled 2007 halftime show in Miami, in which the late artist, ever the consummate entertainer, ran through a collection of Bob Dylan and Tina Turner covers before hoisting his guitar high for a rousing rendition of “Purple Rain,” in the middle of an actual downpour.
Gaga did her set, and then it was over. No raised fists, no inappropriate language, no threats, no protests. No hysteria. She walked off the field after an epic exit in which she dropped the mic, caught a football and dove offstage, and then that stage was reset for what was to become one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NFL.
It is not unlikely — given the current political and cultural climate in America — that Gaga considered going the protest statement route, and then decided against it.
After all, it is now firmly established that the endless political grandstanding has gotten celebrities absolutely nowhere. It rarely ever feels authentic, especially coming from people who earn more money in an hour for flashing their ass on TV than most Americans will earn in a lifetime. And even when it does feel authentic, millions across the country are bound to disagree. Conservative media, including yours truly, have made a cottage industry of pointing out exactly how clueless and out of touch celebrities are when compared with ordinary people. Just ask Hillary Clinton and her celebrity army how the last election worked out for them.
And consider Beyoncé’s halftime show. For months afterward, the conversation was focused almost entirely on the blatant anti-law enforcement message she preached from America’s biggest stage, and now, a year after the show and despite liberals’ claim that everybody loves Beyoncé!, half the country now hates Beyoncé. Her show led police groups to boycott her concerts, even as she audaciously used a police escort to get to the game (and later cashed in on the anti-cop sentiment by offering her very own line of “Boycott Beyoncé” merchandise at her tour stops).
More division. More disconnection between law enforcement and the people they serve and protect. All in the name of “love” and “tolerance.”
Or consider Madonna at last month’s Women’s March on Washington, where she casually suggested to the tens of thousands of activists in attendance that she had often thought of blowing up the White House. What did that do for us? Or Meryl Streep’s hare-brained speech about morality at the Oscars, as if Hollywood is somehow the great arbiter of moral behavior. The only thing Streep’s speech accomplished is that conservatives can no longer enjoy Kramer vs. Kramer in the same way again.
The bottom line is this: the best way to unite more than 100 million Americans with wildly disparate political views is to refrain from making any political statements at all.
That Lady Gaga was the one to buck the trend freaked out plenty of entertainment journalists and commentators. Could this be the same Gaga that hopped on a sanitation truck outside Trump Tower in the pre-dawn hours of November 9, defiantly holding up a “Love Trumps Hate” sign in a show of silent protest?
After the show, Los Angeles Times writer Mikael Wood wrote that the collection of hits Gaga played Sunday night “sounded like objects of distraction, catchy baubles meant to entertain us in the absence of a broader message.”
That sentiment was widely shared among Hollywood journalists, as a cursory look around the Internet revealed on Monday morning. Gaga missed her chance to say something useful, something revolutionary. This would have been The Moment, the chance to break through and show America just how stupid and wrong it was for electing Donald Trump president. Gaga would have found the key.
To which I say: good grief. Pop songs are by definition catchy baubles meant to entertain us, and if Lady Gaga wanted to show off her maturity as an artist by performing a collection of her greatest hits (and converting some of the skeptics), then so be it.
In the meantime, go masturbate to Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech and dream of better days.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum