Even the most flawless of spectacles, however, must these days be asterisked in the public conversation with the question, What did it have to do with Donald Trump? The most politically contentious moment of an American generation combined with Gaga’s history of unabashed activism had led to pre-game speculation about whether Gaga would aim at the White House, and the truth is that she did make a statement. But it was such a subtle one that Marco Rubio expressed delight that Gaga put on a fun time even “with everything going on” and Ivanka Trump called the show “incredible.”
Hillary Clinton picked up on the subtext, though, tweeting out a gif of Gaga singing “This Land Is Your Land.” That Woody Guthrie tune was one of two patriotic standards that opened the show, the other being Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Neither song is controversial on its face, but their backstories have political charge: Berlin was a Jewish refugee praising his adopted country in a ballad that would eventually soundtrack both the Civil Rights movement and the Trump inauguration; Guthrie was a socialist responding to Berlin’s schmaltz using a communitarian rallying song whose original lyrics dissed capitalists erecting walls. From the margins of American life, both Berlin and Guthrie wrote songs that would eventually be enshrined at its center.
Which is exactly how progress works, as Gaga’s own career attests. Possibly the most explicit LGBT-rights smash of all time, “Born This Way,” got prime placement at halftime; to an audience of millions and Mike Pence in the stands, Gaga sang about the fundamental equality and fabulousness of all races and of “gay, straight, lesbian, transgender life.” Most people probably didn’t even register the politics of that moment as they were swept along by the dancing and pyrotechnics—and that unremarkability is exactly what makes it remarkable. “We’re here to make you feel good,” Gaga announced from the piano during “Million Reasons”; whether you heard that as arena-rock boilerplate or as a salvo for self-care during a difficult time, Gaga was performing pop’s fundamental job on her own inclusive terms.
Around the stage was a moshpit that viewers might have assumed was reserved for contest winners, the luckiest of Gaga’s Little Monsters. But its members turned out to have been choreographed too, swaying in unison while holding light-up torches that made spiffy designs viewable from above. It was a heavily organized vision, but definitively a utopian one. As Gaga sang and keytar-mashed and claw-waved and levitated at the center of it all, a second political message seemed possible: With competence and creativity, planning and professionalism, acceptance and hope, here’s what American greatness can really look like.