Lady Gaga took her first Super Bowl halftime performance literally and seriously — but not very figuratively, as one might have expected from the woman who once gestated in a gigantic translucent egg. There was little fantasy; it was all amiable, admirable hard work. The 13-minute spree, laced with escalating acrobatics and pyrotechnic zaps, diligently answered the who, what, where, and how of the speculation leading up to her performance, but it never quite answered why Gaga was taking the stage in 2017. Instead, red and blue drones flashed in our faces, announcing a bouncy victory set predominantly comprised of songs that were released before 2010.
They were well-choreographed, beautiful drones that coalesced into a flag behind her. Dangling on the edge of the NRG Stadium's roof, glittering in her starman's best, Lady Gaga conspicuously blessed the start of her show with a potpourri of patriotism. Gaga has sung to America before at this casually nationalistic gaming event; last year, her big-haired and big-hearted delivery of the national anthem was thick with originality and theatrical touches.
But this year, Gaga went more generic. Her prologue provided a safeguarding contextual frame, doling out ideology options for most types of Americans. Feeling alienated by the secular tide? The proud Catholic offered "God Bless America." Not a fan of blind patriotism or God? Then "This Land Is Your Land" was just for you. The prerecorded prologue satisfied some notion of "making a political statement," a desire that had been inarticulately foisted on the singer in the weeks following the NFL's announcement that she had been booked. What could Gaga say in a matter of seconds that would ring louder than her decades-long pop advocacy for the Downtown outcasts, the offbeat "little monsters" who have gravitated to her during her eyeliner-and-cigarettes, "free bitch" reign? "One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all!" she cried out before swan-diving into her routine. But only the upside-down contextual framing of a festering Trump presidency could make the conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance register as anything close to contentious.
The artistic statement Gaga made was equally calculated. The moment she landed on the main stage, it was clear that she was doubling down on well-practiced stadium pop. We were going to get The Fame. For a time, it was 2010 again. A strenuous medley of her early dance hits ensued: "Poker Face" for the Texas reference, then "Born This Way" for the uplifting message of "inclusion" she'd promised before the show. A synchrony of purple-eye-shadowed dancers — men and women, black, white, and brown, voguing to the anthemic track — easily contrasted the inherent bro-iness of the night. Since releasing the track in 2011, the singer has been convinced that "Born This Way" is her activist opus. But its earnestness rang passé even when the song was first released. It was her clubbier offerings, specifically "Telephone" and "Bad Romance," that seemed to more adroitly represent the spirit of her fans. Those songs' sly cultural relevance in queer circles seemed to sail right over the heads of the Tomi Lahrens of the world, those who don't deal in subtleties.
The interplay of technical and couture elements in Gaga's performance was dramatic, even if a certain category of viewer had likely seen much of it before. Some came from the repertoires of other artists: Gaga's harness-assisted leaps across the expanse of the stage are a well-worn diva trick, regularly used by Pink and Beyoncé. The keytar solo, a quick moment of playful absurdity during "Just Dance," and exaggerated silver makeup satisfied a mandatory '80s drag requirement. Of course, Gaga borrowed heavily from her own archive of style, too. The Versace leotard and the shock-blonde ovoid hair signaled a return to the early-aughts glitz campaigns before her Tony Bennett years. Her dancers wore alternately architectural and billowing looks taken from the "Alejandro" and "Bad Romance" videos of yore. And by delivering pitch-perfect executions of Laurieann Gibson's iconic, model-stiff eight-count choreography for "Bad Romance," Gaga proved she could endure the grueling physical test that is the halftime show without error.
Gaga's transition into pop eldership has been awkward at times. Her Super Bowl show was intent on demonstrating her founding Downtown-kid dogmas to 100 million viewers, even as the circumstances of the past decade have vaunted her north of St. Mark's Place. "I am a rebel," she sensuously argued a few minutes before the performance began, in a commercial for Tiffany & Co. Any star has to negotiate where they'd like to end up on the authenticity scale after they've secured a certain level of fame. Because Gaga's idea of realness held space for costume, she could always claim that she was messaging out to the world who she really was. She was so many people.
After the show, Gaga announced the Joanne world tour on Instagram. Yet the lower-key, country-styled album she released last fall rarely appeared in her halftime set. The one exception: As a sort of rest stop before her grand finale with "Bad Romance," Gaga propped herself up at a piano for the accessible intimacy of "Million Reasons." Joanne has surpassed 2013's militantly conceptual Artpop to become the most divisive project in Gaga's archive. I'd wagered that if the singer wasn't going to make a spectacle out of straightforward political talk, she might court controversy by stripping down her stage, fake-strumming an acoustic guitar, and singing the title track. She might have touched an urgent relevancy that a retrospective survey set just can't inspire, even if she had alienated other viewers.
Or maybe she could have invited Florence Welch to accompany her on "Hey Girl." But Gaga performed the show alone, only ever referencing the previous waves she's ridden, the earlier looks she's made iconic. She was excellent, no doubt, making every mark and grabbing every note. And she's not the only singer to perform alone on that stage. Prince did, as did Michael Jackson, who famously paused for a minute and 45 seconds on the stage before he performed in 1993. The pause incited all sorts of emotions from the crowd. Gaga's performance needed such a moment. She's proved her athleticism. We know she can command the attention of an entire stadium audience. But can she bask in it?