For football fans in the habit of hating the Atlanta Falcons locally (meaning in the NFC South) and the New England Patriots cosmically, Super Bowl LI is a distressing choice between the lesser of two evils. And give us a break already, because didn’t this poor banged-up country of ours just go through that last November? You call this a respite from ideological rancor and divisiveness?
We know, we know: Colin Kaepernick or no Colin Kaepernick, football is supposed to be apolitical. That’s why Tom Brady is feeling so clusterfucked about the heat he’s taking because he, Bill Belichick and Pats owner Bob Kraft are pals with Donald Trump. But once Budweiser—Budweiser!— unveiled a Super Bowl ad that’s a pointed salute to its founder’s immigrant origins, it got pretty clear that this Sunday won’t be much of a day off from our ongoing fight about what the hell kind of country we are these days.
So now it’s up to Lady Gaga to bring us together. Kidding, kidding! Whatever she ends up doing at halftime, building bridges over troubled water isn’t exactly her specialty. Ideas like performing while suspended from the NRG Stadium’s roof, however, are.
When the NFL announced Gaga as its Big Game headliner back in September, it probably expected her to be provocative, but not especially controversial—and also to lure female viewers, a demographic Super Bowl advertisers now prize. From Madonna and Katy Perry to Beyoncé, women have dominated the halftime lineup ever since Old White Guy rock bottomed out as the league’s go-to draw with the Who’s disgraceful performance at Super Bowl XLIV. (Proving their name was now short for “whory,” their set consisted mainly of songs that just happened to be associated with different iterations of CBS’s CSI franchise. Want to guess which network was broadcasting the game that year?) Even though Gaga isn’t in Beyoncé’s league—who is?—she’s definitely a pro at capturing people’s attention.
Gaga is going to look gutless if she doesn’t toss in some sort of flip-off to POTUS.
Then again, in September, nobody expected Trump to win. Ever since he did, neither Gaga’s always fairly disposable music nor her gift for spectacle has seemed as relevant to the Super Bowl gig as her track record of political activism: proud advocate of LGBT rights, anti-bullying campaigner, prominent Hillary Clinton booster. Like it or not, “shut up and sing” has never been advice she’s taken to heart.
Entertainment Tonight reported two weeks ago that she’d been warned not to introduce anything political into her halftime performance, a claim the NFL promptly slammed as “unsourced nonsense.” But the league spokesperson’s gushy boilerplate about how “The Super Bowl is a time when people really come together” and “Lady Gaga is focused on putting together an amazing show” sounded just a little jittery all the same.
Is the suspense killing you yet? Whether she’s hanging from the stadium roof or not, half of America will be waiting for The Moment when Gaga politicizes things with an anti-Trump visual or musical statement—or doesn’t, which will be weirdly deflating for everybody. After all, this isn’t just about her ideals. It’s also about her brand. Her fans expect her to be fearless—and to take full advantage of whatever platform she’s offered, too.
She wouldn’t be Lady Gaga if she didn’t hope to outdo the pizzazz of Beyoncé’s electrifying, controversial Black Lives Matter tribute last time around. She also doesn’t have Beyoncé’s musical authority, which means that getting polemical is her best shot at being memorable. Face it: she’s going to look uncharacteristically gutless if she doesn’t toss in some sort of flip-off to POTUS that’s unmistakable enough to make right-wingers want to hang her from the stadium roof all over again.
Adding to the fun, this year’s game is being broadcast on Fox. There isn’t much precedent for a network to either censor or condemn a Super Bowl halftime show while it’s still going on, but nobody will be too surprised if Sean Hannity has volunteered to station himself in the wings as an emergency color commentator if things turn dire. As for the game, so far as we can tell, nobody outside Atlanta or New England really gives much of a damn who wins it.