Lady Gaga's Halftime Protest Was Politics Done Her Way
In the hours since her athletic, unrelenting, GIF-worthy Super Bowl extravaganza, Lady Gaga has been widely praised for her entertainment value and impressive show of talent. But her political messaging has been a hot topic of debate for many a blog post and editorial think piece.
Was the Lady's performance political? Political enough? Conservative bloggers and commentators have been heaping on the kudos for what they perceived as her restraint when it comes to Donald Trump.
Congratulatory tweets from Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Ivanka Trump would suggest Gaga must have kept it neutral.
But as many have already pointed out, though her performance lacked the pointed messaging of Beyoncé's Black Lives Matter endorsement, Gaga sent a subtle protest message in the midst of what she hoped would be a unifying performance. You almost can't blame people for having it zip past their heads like a flying dress — Lady Gaga is not exactly known for subtlety.
When she opened the halftime show with "God Bless America," there was no doubt a fair share of eye-rolling and even disappointment from liberal corners of the country.
A song celebrating America's grandeur and exceptionalism rang hollow merely a week after airport protests railed against Trump's disruptive travel ban. This is a new American reality, where the president's foremost adviser is a hero of the white supremacist movement.
Liberal America wasn't looking for a cheerleader Sunday night; it was searching for someone — anyone — to take the world's biggest stage and affirm that their vision of a progressive America was still alive and kicking hard.
Just when it felt like Gaga might fail to address the tangerine elephant in the room, she undercut the optimism of "God Bless America" with "This Land Is Your Land," a song written by prolific Depression-era protest singer Woody Guthrie, which he wrote in direct response to "God Bless America." Guthrie thought Kate Smith's song had failed to acknowledge the poverty plaguing American society at the time. The unabridged version of "This Land Is Your Land" includes this stanza, eerily appropriate in the first days of the Trump era: "Was a high wall there/That tried to stop me/A sign was painted, said "Private Property"/But on the back side/It didn't say nothing/This land was made for you and me."
Those lyrics were plastered on protest signs across the nation in the immediate aftermath of Trump's executive order to ban Muslims. Add to this nod another wink, as Guthrie famously wrote a scathing song about Trump's father, in which he criticized the elder Trump's penchant for denying black people housing at his properties, a practice the Donald would also be investigated for decades later. Ivanka, like much of America, appears to have missed Gaga's subtle slights.
Would her protest have been more effective had she sung the censored verse of Guthrie's song? Perhaps. It also would have alienated many of those watching, which might have limited its effectiveness. Gaga's approach to activism has never been confrontational; it's aspirational. Instead of singing about the America she sees, she describes the America she dreams.
Part of the program during her theatrical Monster Ball Tour was an extended monologue about her dismissal of reality in favor of a crafted fantasy world. "I hate the truth," she'd say. "I hate the truth so much that I prefer a good dose of bullshit any day."
Part of the reasoning behind Lady Gaga's indirect protest style is no doubt her perceived position of privilege. Gaga is a white, thin (bottle) blonde from an upper-middle-class family who grew up on New York's posh Upper West Side. Her privileged exterior disguises the myriad struggles that fueled her insistence on portraying herself as an underdog punching up: bullied teen, sexual-assault and eating-disorder survivor, and recovering cocaine addict.
She's spoken candidly about her personal struggles, but though she's come out as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and even closed her last album with a moving eulogy for Trayvon Martin, she seems to understand she can be an ally without talking over those fighting racial injustice.
Openly bisexual, Gaga has always felt comfortable speaking on LGBTQIA issues. Her pop-star tenure began at a time when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was still the law of the land and half a decade before the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality.
Her protests against these unjust laws were also nonconfrontational, and their effectiveness was debated. There was the time when she took soldiers discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as her dates to the VMAs. That was the same year she shocked the world with her meat dress, a more obtuse protest of the policy. When a soldier dies, she explained, it doesn't matter if he's gay or straight — there's nothing left but the meat on his bones.
It was a protest like those of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which were similarly mocked and maligned at the time. Critics thought stunts such as their 1969 Bed-In for Peace did little to quell the dropping of bombs in Vietnam. Gaga is a fan of John and Yoko's protest performance art and has become a close friend of Ono and her son Sean Lennon.
It was in the meat dress that Gaga premiered the a cappella chorus of "Born This Way." She sang the song again on Super Bowl Sunday, surely the first time the word "transgender" has been heard on such a platform. A halftime celebration not of football, but of oddballs and queerness, in a venue that typically venerates toxic masculinity felt revolutionary. Pioneer transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox noted its significance on social media.
So it was surprising to see the immediate reaction to the politics of the halftime show be so muted. Maybe it was because Gaga did not utter the name "Trump."
Lady Gaga sang, "No matter gay, straight, or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I'm on the right track, baby/I was born to survive," at a time when trans women of color are murdered at high rates. Gay-conversion-therapy proponent Vice President Mike Pence was even looking on. Yet many observers criticized her show for being "apolitical." That was either an oversight or a testament to how far the culture at large has grown to recognize LGBTQIA Americans as part of the family. God Bless America?
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