In a lot of ways, Lady Gaga has been the victim of a compressed career arc. Her first single went to No. 1 in 2009; within a year she was the biggest pop star in the world, within two years she was already struggling through her Difficult Second LP, and within four years her popularity was markedly on the wane. And so in 2016, when Gaga was announced as the halftime headliner for Super Bowl LI, it felt almost like a throwback choice, even coming in the midst of the promo campaign for her much-hyped fourth album Joanne — particularly after that album was released to respectable sales but mixed reviews, and its singles stalled early and often on the charts.
So when Stefani Germanotta took the stage at halftime of the Falcons-Patriots showdown on Sunday night (Feb. 5), it was worth wondering what she would use the performance for: as an aggregation of past accomplishments, or an argument for contemporary relevance? It didn’t take long for Gaga’s answer: Dressed in her Gaga Stardust makeup and wardrobe, she kicked off her set in earnest with early classic “Poker Face,” and ran through “Born This Way,” “Telephone” and “Just Dance” from there. There were aerials, there were keytars, there were a whole lot of angular gesticulations and dance routines with slightly alien choreography. It was Gaga through and through, and every song felt more gratifying than the last; storming hi-NRG anthems of NRG Stadium size, reminding you why Gaga’s pop supremacy was so inarguable not all that long ago.
Then, “Million Reasons.” It sounded good — always does, really — and it brought back fun memories to see Gaga crawling up on her piano bench, too moved by the spirit to possibly sit still while playing. But it felt a little conspicuous out there on its own, the sole representative from Joanne despite earlier halftime show ads endlessly teasing lead single “Perfect Illusion” and pump-up highlight videos being set to crowd-pleasing single-in-waiting “A-YO.” As the set closed triumphantly with signature jam “Bad Romance” — performed in Mad Maxed shoulder pads, and capped by Gaga spiking the mic and being tossed a football — the thrill was legitimate, but it left “Reasons” as the only song from the artist’s last half-decade to even make a cameo.
Truthfully, though, if there was a disappointment to be had with Gaga’s performance, it wasn’t with the show or the song selection — which will likely go down as one of the best halftime sets this century, and rightly so — but with the fact that she didn’t attempt anything particularly outrageous. Maybe it would’ve been too much to ask for a legitimate political statement — no, starting off with a short we’re-all-in-this-together medley of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” doesn’t count — but to rank as true Peak Gaga, it fell an absolutely unforgettable moment short. Stefani had previously promised no meat dresses at the gig, and while explicitly reliving that point in time would’ve been a step too far, its general spirit was sadly missing; one such gonzo moment would’ve gone a long way toward reminding people why the art was just as important to Mother Monster’s early formula as the pop.
Still, if nothing else, Gaga’s performance should be remembered as the best demonstration of why her musical legacy should remain essentially unimpeachable. These were half a dozen classic pop songs that Gaga scorched through with boundless energy and peerless professionalism, but she left just as many on the table: “Paparazzi,” “You and I,” “Marry the Night,” “Applause,” the cruelly teased “The Edge of Glory,” and yes, even “Perfect Illusion,” which woulda sounded goddamn awesome on the world’s biggest stage. Gaga’s days of actively competing with the Beyonces and Drakes of the world are likely over, but her place beside them in the all-time pantheon is secure. The mic drop was well-earned.