Any song about America can sound like a protest song in 2017.
If there is any clear message in Lady Gaga’s halftime performance, an expertly-executed medley of her hits and a couple of American classics performed against a backdrop of glittering drones, it is that mainstream, unimpeachable songs about America have taken on the significance of protest anthems — at least, for those in the audience who want them to.
You could see, in Lady Gaga’s performance of “God Bless America,” the pointed selection of a song written by a Jewish refugee who fled religious persecution in Russia as a subtle-but-definitely-there dig at Trump’s Muslim ban and the anti-Semitism Trump has egged on and normalized, not just through his campaign rhetoric but also through his appointment of Steve Bannon to his chief strategist. You could see, in the selection of “This Land Is Your Land,” a statement about who gets to claim this country as their own, a dig at Trump’s anti-immigration campaign promises and executive orders, and a critique of income inequality, as Woody Guthrie’s original work contained references to poverty and hunger.
Sure, you could see that. Everyone who wanted to see that probably did. But you could also just hear “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land,” songs that, in the way of classic Americana, exist for the multitudes in an authorless state and mean only what they say in the verses most of us know by heart.
Plenty of people were quick to point out that the “This Land” verses Gaga didn’t sing — which, not incidentally, are the verses no one ever sings, and therefore are verses virtually no one knows or thinks about — are even more radical than the one she included. It goes without saying (without singing?), but you don’t get credit for the verses you don’t perform. That’s like asking to be graded on the part of the essay you wrote in invisible ink. That’s… reaching.
Yes, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is protest art at heart. Much like “God Bless America,” it contains both verses that everyone knows and sings regularly — these being the least provocative lines, especially out of context — and more overtly political verses that are rarely performed. Again, you don’t get points for the lyrics no one hears. Lady Gaga did not open her set by belting, “By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?” If she had, well, that would have been quite the statement. But no one ever sings that part, except for Bruce Springsteen, and even he didn’t bust it out at the Super Bowl halftime show.
Just by showing up, Lady Gaga brought to the stage all that she has come to symbolize and everything she’s ever fought for, particularly the rights of the LGBT community and survivors of sexual assault. Her music is loaded with rallying cries for self-acceptance and self-love, the belief that what makes you weird is what makes you extraordinary, the insistence that “God makes no mistakes” and so to be anything but who you are is blasphemy. That significance didn’t disappear the second she descended into NRG stadium. For everyone who wanted — who needed — to hear that message, it was there.
But songs like “Born This Way” and “Bad Romance” are massive pop hits, and in the grand tradition of such smashes, it is totally possible to hear and enjoy them without thinking about them all that much — without even really committing the lyrics to memory. Chances are Mike Pence didn’t hear “Born This Way” and think: Lady Gaga is trying to tell me something about the ugliness of homophobia and the innate holiness of every transgender person in America.
Compare Lady Gaga’s performance to Beyoncé’s from last year. (She wasn’t even the headliner, but she dominated the headlines all the same.) Beyoncé marched onto the field flanked by a phalanx of dancers, all of whom were dressed in Black Panther berets. She sang “Formation,” a song which had been released to the public only 30 hours before she took the field and included her most politically-charged lyrics to date: Bold affirmations of black beauty; a challenge to the nation for failing New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; the repetition of slang coined by the African American gay community.
The video — fresh on everyone’s mind as it, like the song, had been released barely a day before — included the striking visuals of Beyoncé submerged in water while lying back on a sinking police car, a young black boy dancing before a line of police officers in riot gear, and a shot of graffiti that read, “Stop Shooting Us.” The political charge of her performance was unmistakable; Rudy Giuliani felt the need to appear on Fox & Friends and lash out at the star for using her halftime show “as a platform to attack police officers.”
Lady Gaga’s show, then, is political only because it is 2017, and Donald Trump is president. It is political for the original Schuyler sisters of Hamilton to sing “America the Beautiful” when the President of the United States insists that all of America’s cities are smoldering hellscapes of violent crime, and to throw in a little “and sisterhood” days after said president insists he wants women to “dress like women” if they work in the White House. It is radical to tweet facts when the people in power declare that the truth is just a matter of opinion. It is only in this context that it is even remotely political for Lady Gaga to open the Super Bowl halftime show with two of the most classic songs about America in our national canon, to quote the pledge of allegiance, and to perform a bunch of hit songs off her four number one albums.