It’s been the question debated by pop fans seemingly from the second Lady Gaga was revealed as the halftime headliner for Super Bowl LI: Which of her new songs is she actually going to play? After all, the gig was announced in the midst of the promotional blitz for Gaga’s fourth official solo LP Joanne, as Mother Monster’s advance tracks were trickling out to increasingly lukewarm reception. Despite a series of commercial placements, late-night TV renditions and cleverly constructed visuals for those songs, none of ’em have reached anywhere near the pop ubiquity of previous Gaga smashes.
Barnstorming lead single “Perfect Illusion” debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and never bettered its initial ranking, follow-up power ballad “Million Reasons” failed to climb higher than No. 52 and the SNL-performed party jam “A-Yo” similarly missed the chart’s top half, peaking at No. 66. On this week’s Hot 100, to be revealed in full on Tuesday, none of these songs appear, with “Reasons” — hanging on at No. 96 the week before — the last to drop off. “The NFL will almost certainly demand a career-spanning medley when she headlines the Super Bowl halftime show this February,” wrote Chris DeVille of Stereogum in his underwhelmed assessment of Joanne‘s commercial potential, “because the billions of viewers are not even going to recognize these Joanne tracks.”
He’s probably right — but it also might not matter that much. Career-spanning medleys are par for the course for Super Bowls and have been for some time now; no halftime headliner since The Who‘s legacy rock last-gasp in 2010 has touched on fewer than a half-dozen songs over the course of their performance, and none of those set lists have even been half-composed of new material. When Coldplay headlined the show last year, their recently released A Head Full of Dreams LP hadn’t seen any singles setting the U.S. charts on fire: “Adventure of a Lifetime,” the set’s pop radio-geared lead single, had barely even grazed the top 40 of the Hot 100 before their performance. But they mixed in a little bit of “Lifetime” after Mylo Xyloto smash “Paradise,” they blended Dreams closer “Up&Up” with beloved sing-along slow jam “Fix You,” and the lack of universal recognition for the new songs hardly felt that conspicuous.
Of course, Coldplay’s show had the boost — perhaps ultimately to the band’s own detriment — of guest spots from two of the world’s biggest pop stars, a crutch that Gaga will apparently not be leaning on for her own performance. But she can still look to one of those two headline-stealers for an example of how to make her post-Joanne gig a triumph. Lest we forget, when Beyoncé played the world’s most-watched intermission for the first time in 2013, her career wasn’t in a totally dissimilar place to where Gaga’s is now. Her previous album 4, released a year and a half earlier, had drawn positive reviews and sold respectably, but had relatively minimal crossover impact — “Best Thing I Never Had,” the LP’s highest-charting single on the Hot 100, even peaked one spot lower than Gaga’s Joanne best, tapping out at No. 16 in August 2011.
Did The Queen’s lack of recent crossover success put a damper on her performance? Hardly. She didn’t over-emphasize her recent material, but she didn’t bury it, either. She began with an intro that touched on the instrumental bombast of “Run the World (Girls)” and the vocal fireworks of “Love on Top,” a pair of 4 singles, before launching into her 2003 breakout chart-topper “Crazy in Love.” From there, she showcased “End of Time” — a scorching 4 highlight that was never really even promoted as a single in the U.S. — and then returned to the classics, dipping into her early Destiny’s Child catalog as well as solo standards like “Halo” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Ultimately, it was awesome, because it was Beyoncé: A superstar performer at full power, equally scintillating playing fan-favorite deep cuts and universally beloved chart-slayers.
And that’s really all Gaga has to be. If she chooses to dwell on Joanne material, she certainly has the material to fit the surroundings — despite their frosty reception at radio, “Illusion” and “A-Yo” both have hooks and beats large enough to fill two NRG Stadiums, and “Reasons” could be a set closer to get 70,000 lighters and/or cell phones waving in the air. If she hoped to dig a little deeper into Joanne, the rock throwback opener “Diamond Heart” could sound great out of the gates, the dancehall-inflected “Dancin’ in Circles” would be an interesting change of pace, and if she really wanted to make a statement, the heavy-handed Trayvon Martin tribute “Angel Down” would certainly make for a provocative finale. She could just touch on a couple of them to pique viewers’ interests without losing their attention, or she could save one for a showcase spot to demonstrate why it deserves to be catalogued alongside her classics.
But point is, if Gaga’s on her game, and she plays enough of the early hits to remind audiences why she was once (and not all that long ago) the brightest star in the pop galaxy, it won’t really matter which combination she decides to go with. Even though it’s shifted to more current artists in recent years, getting to play the Super Bowl Halftime Show is still closer to a lifetime achievement award than a crown of contemporary supremacy, less an assessment of your place in the current pop hierarchy than a commendation of your general worthiness among the greats of your era. Gaga deserves that much, certainly, and if she shows it on Feb. 5, expect the snarking about the relative chart peaks of her set list to be as quiet as it was for her “Telephone” partner four years earlier.