The last time Lady Gaga sang the national anthem in public was at a New York City LGBT pride celebration in 2013. She sounded great. She also modified the words: “Oh say does that star-spangled flag of pride yet wave”—at which point, yes, she waved a rainbow flag—“o’er the land of the free, and a home for the gays.” Some people did not love this.
She probably won’t take such liberties when she sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl on Sunday. But is it wrong to root for her to do something weird? Maybe wear a fun hat? February is a big month for Gaga, featuring three high-stakes nationally televised performances: first the Super Bowl, then a David Bowie memorial set at the Grammys, then a ballad at the Oscars. By the end of it, she will either have completed her surprising transformation into America’s leading gala singer, or will have left a portion of the world fuming at her sacrilege. She will also have further illuminated her answer to the question that a number of her contemporaries have been grappling with lately: Where does a pop star go when they want to take a break from the radio race while remaining relevant?
It was a year ago at the Oscars that Gaga staged her big coming-out as a normal-ish person. Her faithful and lovely tribute to The Sound of Music shocked people who hadn’t seen the videos of her pre-meat-dress performances under her birth name Stefani Germanotta, or hadn’t listened to her recent Tony Bennett collaboration Cheek to Cheek, or just hadn’t paid attention to her pipes on “Edge of Glory.” She also dropped the shroud she had long held up around her personal life, gushing on social media about her engagement to the actor Taylor Kinney. The year ended with her starring in American Horror Story, a decision that called back to her old loud-proud-freak routine while also attempting to demonstrate her versatility. Critics said her acting wasn’t great; the Golden Globes disagreed.
There’s no more sacred or scary gig than a Super Bowl performance of the national anthem. Botch it, and the caterwauling memes go into your permanent record. Truly nail it, and fans will write awestruck appreciations for decades, as Danyel Smith just did at ESPN with 3,000 words on Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendition. Smith’s article points out the oft-forgotten fact that Houston lip-synced then; indeed, many other landmark Super Bowl performances of the song, like Jennifer Hudson’s in 2009, were prerecorded. Judging by the backlash that followed the allegations of Beyoncé mouthing instead of singing at Barack Obama’s 2012 inauguration, though, lip-syncing is still a PR risk; if Gaga’s still trying to prove that she Really Can Sing, she might try it live.