B+ any other year; C+ this year. You could talk me up to A- any other year and down to a C- for this year. Lady Gaga chose to conduct her Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show as if the year 2016 had barely happened, a humane decision from both her perspective (October’s Joanne was a weird and bold and occasionally quite splendid record that is nonetheless not a flop only because her last record was a much bigger one) and the audience’s perspective (all those “this is election night all over again” tweets as the Falcons started blowing it took their toll). Gaga mostly stuck to the hits, she hit the marks, she marked time in a bizarre sociopolitical circumstance that called out for something much weirder and/or bolder. She took no risks, artistic or otherwise. I liked it quite a lot, in the moment. She may come, in time, to regret it.
Gaga remains a priceless combination of loopy and imperial, otherworldly and distinctly American. She kicked off the halftime show with a quick a cappella three-car pileup of “God Bless America,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and the Pledge of Allegiance that likely neither energized nor mollified whomever it was supposed to energize/mollify. Then she glided in on a Peter Pan harness and stalked the stage dressed like a glittery and deranged Final Fantasy villain who can withstand, like, 50 meteor attacks. Nobody combines “workmanlike” and “avant-garde” with more giddy aplomb; Gaga’s set was a Mad Max: Fury Road carnival of oddball futurism (nice circular keyboard and Human Mic Stand) drizzled with old-school theater-geek sweat. It all looked pretty cool and slightly bizarre, as you hoped it would. (Though her drone-based lighting scheme and much-threatened roof leap weren’t filmed quite adeptly enough to justify the fuss.)
As you were probably also hoping, she stuck to, in some cases, nearly 10-year-old hits that expertly relived Reagan-era synth-pop glories. No shocks here, set-list-wise: “Poker Face” into “Born This Way” into “Telephone” into “Just Dance,” letting each song breathe, the pace impressively unhurried for a wind-sprint occasion that usually lends itself to manic medley action. “Telephone” was legitimately great, an earworm of Tremors proportions bolstered by the ultra-rare Actually Impressive Backup Dancing. Pretty rad, even without the much-hoped-for Beyoncé cameo. Athletic and super visceral. Showing a lot of heart out there. With all due respect to Tom Brady, Gaga would’ve made the tackle on that pick-six.
And yet you could feel the clock winding down. As the old expression/curse goes, “May you host the Super Bowl halftime show in interesting times.” The only question that mattered leading up to this was, “Will she do something super goofy and political?” and the answer was no, no she would not. She did finally nod to Joanne with “Million Reasons,” a chest-pounding piano ballad that she threw herself into with the usual gusto, an intimate moment amid all the galactic pomp and circumstance. Her half-acknowledgement of current events was when she sauntered through the fray as the song wound down, embraced a non-white crowd member, and bellowed, “Why don’t you stay.” Which is a little too coy from someone whose whole gig is launching the very notion of coy into the sun.
I don’t know what I wanted here. Not even an outright Trump denunciation or anything — just some acknowledgment that the world is a very different place now that the biggest, baddest Fame Monster of them all is calling the global shots. The most political song on Joanne is “Angel Down,” a way goopier piano ballad that is very explicitly about Trayvon Martin, and it’s hard to imagine a Super Bowl Sunday staging of that that doesn’t come off monumentally wayward. You can see Gaga’s calculation here. Whatever your political feelings, it’s exhausting to think that every major cultural event for the next four years will be viewed through the same prism — you can make the argument that playing this straight was the craziest move of them all. Her “Stick to sports!” is “Close with ‘Bad Romance’!”
But Gaga is so wily, so volatile, so outspoken, so fearless that it’s especially sobering to realize that this moment sobered her. (The NFL was apparently ready for pretty much anything.) She wore weird outfits, pranced around a cartoon-nightmare fantasia, kept herself in a feral crouch even while playing piano, and sang pretty great songs pretty convincingly. “The Super Bowl is what champions are made of” is a fine bit of stage banter coming from her, an empty cliché delivered with just the right amount of cornball zeal. Her mic-drop/bleacher-plunge closing flourish was super dumb and very satisfying. You can talk yourself into this. Any risk she’d have taken would likely not’ve been worth it. But it’s disheartening to watch someone with so much heart (and guts and spleen) stare down a moment of this magnitude and blink.