The day after Lady Gaga’s halftime show at Super Bowl LI, everyone can at least agree on one thing: She was vocally excellent, and it was entertaining as hell. But one thing Gaga stans and cultural commentators can’t seem to agree on is whether Gaga’s Super Bowl 51 set — which featured Woody Guthrie’s socialist sing-along “This Land Is Your Land” segueing into “God Bless America,” followed by her LGBTQ anthem “Born This Way” — was political. Or perhaps more specifically, people are arguing whether it was political enough.
Those saying it wasn’t political are more or less faulting her for not coming out guns blazing with a “F–k Trump” moment. And that’s true. She didn’t take a stand against our controversial president explicitly or even implicitly (anyone arguing her Super Bowl halftime show was intended to be anti-Trump is bending over backward to make that point).
But the set didn’t need to be anti-Trump to be political, and Lady Gaga — an artist and a human being with her own agency — doesn’t owe anyone a “F–k Trump” moment. Based on her career and public persona, however, fans would rightly expect something meaningful from Gaga when she performed on the nation’s most-watched music stage. And to that end, Gaga delivered.
First, she melded a fairly jingoistic patriotic classic with a socialist folk tune. That itself is a choice that reminds a divided nation that two radically disparate political anthems are still both inherently and inarguably American. We contain multitudes.
Secondly, and most significantly, the fact that Gaga sang “Born This Way” in front of millions can’t be underplayed. Teen Vogue absolutely called it — if you don’t see the inherent political heft of someone singing “No matter gay, straight or bi / Lesbian transgender life / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive” in the midst of a football game, you’re probably straight. Sure, “Born This Way” was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, so it’s not exactly a risky song to sing. But saying those words to millions during the nation’s premier entertainment event — which itself is an uber-hetero celebration of male ego and virility — absolutely matters. Because representation matters.
No, it’s not like Vice President Mike Pence — who believes in gay conversion therapy and was in attendance at Super Bowl LI — is going to hear “Born This Way” and run out and buy a rainbow flag. But it matters to LGBTQ people who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented at the country’s largest annual entertainment event. Normalizing those words matters, and the process of normalization didn’t end when “Born This Way” hit No. 1. (Thinking the issue is moot is like believing racism died when a black president was elected.)
Most importantly, hearing those words matters a lot to LGBTQ kids watching at home who are scared to acknowledge to their parents who they are. We live in a world where teens are regularly kicked out of their homes for coming out. People are still killed for being born a certain way. Anything a person of Gaga’s stature can do to make people feel less alone — particularly kids who struggle with their identity and may not realize there’s a bigger world out there that’s more accepting of them — is important. And it is political.
True, it’s not the most flagrantly pro-LGBTQ thing imaginable. But not every political act needs to be a punch to the opposition’s gut. A movement can’t solely consist of radicals screaming in people’s faces (although that’s absolutely necessary as well). You also need people who help normalize previously stigmatized groups.
Here’s an example. Liberace never came out as gay. In fact, he successfully sued a publication for implying he was homosexual. Yet his subtle infusion of gay sensibilities into mainstream culture did make the world more receptive to those who came (and came out) after him. You’d be absurd to say Liberace didn’t help progress the LGBTQ cause. Could he have done more? Sure. But Liberace was another a human being with his own agency. It was his choice to take the safer route, and even still, he helped change the world.
In the progressive pop realm, Gaga may end up occupying that role in history. She didn’t burn Trump in effigy at Super Bowl LI, and she wasn’t as politically radical as Beyonce was just a year prior, but what she did at Super Bowl LI still made a difference.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where people assume that political statements need to offend someone in order to be meaningful. That’s a narrow-minded approach. It’s just as important and political to inspire people and let them know they’re not alone.