Lady Gaga delivered a Super Bowl halftime show that was so tame Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted about how much he loved it. Many fans that predicted she would “go off” on President Donald Trump. Instead, she opened her show standing on the roof of Houston’s NRG Stadium singing “God Bless America” while drones formed a light-up American flag behind her. Gaga was spreading a message of “hope.” It was a subtle political message, but subtlety and hope aren’t going to cut it in the United States of America when a garish man is turning the Oval Office gold.
Gaga became a household name in 2008, the same year then-Senator Barack Obama won the presidential election. As Obama rode the slogan “Hope” to victory, Gaga’s debut album The Fame dominated the Billboard charts in part because of a similarly optimistic message. “Just dance,” Gaga sang on her first single, released in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. “It’s gonna be OK.” She was, in some ways, to Obama what Britney Spears was to her fellow Southern Christian-turned national disaster George W. Bush.
But 2017 is very different America than the one Lady Gaga rose to prominence in. We’re living under a president who won the election based on a doomsday message about “American carnage.” Throughout his campaign and in his inauguration speech, Trump riled up the right with his descriptions of war-like “inner cities” and mothers struggling to eat. Many Americans have questioned Trump’s illustration of the US. (The unemployment rate hovers around five percent according to the Labor Department, and crime has declined over the last few decades.) But since he signed controversial executive orders including a ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Trump’s opponents have illustrated the nation as nightmarishly bleak. There were calls for Migos to headline the Super Bowl, but something like Insane Clown Posse seemed more fitting. Everybody is feeling apocalyptic. Well, everyone except Lady Gaga, who remains stuck in the Obama era.
After “God Bless America,” she nose dove into the stadium and flew around the audience, a stunt that would have seemed spectacular if P!nk hadn’t been performing acrobatics at award shows since her 2008 album Funhouse (and it hadn’t been pre-taped to accommodate her drone-spangled banner). Gaga then sang a medley of her Obama era hits: “Edge of Glory,” “Poker Face,” “Just Dance”—you know the rest. With only one song from her most recent album Joanne, Gaga crafted a set list as if she was a nostalgia act, not a contemporary singer who plumbing the past for inspiration.
During “Born This Way,” Gaga led audience members as they held lights in the air in a choreographed fashioned as she sang about how people should love themselves whether they’re gay or “chola or orient-made.” Gaga later walked through the audience and held onto a girl covered in glitter. The rehearsed inspirational vibe reminded me of celebrities’ ill-advised appearances at Hillary Clinton campaign rallies.
Most of all, though, Gaga failed at the Super Bowl because she left so much unfulfilled potential on the football field. In the age of Twitter outrage, most pop stars have strayed from controversy in recent years, but Trump has proved polarization is still one of the best marketing tactics in America. Gaga could have provoked like the pop stars of old to make a political statement against Trump’s policies which go against her LGBTQ, people of color, and millennial fan base. She could have released a song called “American Carnage,” mocking Trump, and poured blood on an American flag. She could have had two gay Mike Pence impersonators kiss each other, knowing the notoriously homophobic Vice President was in the audience. She could have just defended refugees in a one-line speech. She could have just acknowledged that something here is wrong. There would have been no blowback for her. Her pop foremother, Madonna, made a career out of controversy with only one misfire, 2003’s Iraq War protest song “American Life.” Where 72 percent of Americans approved of the war in 2003 according to Pew Research, 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump according to a recent CNN/ORC poll. Trump and his trolls may have tweeted against Gaga dissing him, but most of her fanbase would have celebrated her.
Last night, Gaga could have adapted into being the pop star for the Trump era. She of all pop stars—the musical theater kid who wore an outfit made of Kermit the Frogs and goes by the name Lady Gaga—was made to mock, offend, and write pop songs tuned to the Trump era. Instead, she chose to remain trapped in 2008.