The Safe Way Is the Only Way (For Mass Approval): Why People Go “Gaga” Over Banality

The near universal praise of Lady Gaga’s February 5th performance at the Super Bowl LI Halftime Show came as something of a surprise, and, indeed leaves one room for pause to reflect on why, exactly, some wires and glitter got everyone all abuzz with delight. Not only is the singer in question known for, shall we say, onstage antics (at least of the sartorial variety), but she also had the perfect opportunity, moment in history-wise, to say something that would truly pack a punch against the current administration. At a time when overt resistance and unbridled contempt for the not so gradual stripping away of rights has at last (and rightly) become chic again, Gaga chose the safe route: Peter Pan wires, allover glitter eye makeup and a unitard that looked faintly like a reject from the costumer of Velvet Goldmine’s collection.

She’s what my dad would (and has already) call “a classy lady.” What is class, exactly? According most generally to the baby boomer set of which Donald Trump belongs: not ruffling anyone’s feathers too much—keeping them just interested enough with that Broadway-inspired phenomenon—fanfare—to make them believe they’ve seen something truly “artistic.” But the blunt truth is, artists aren’t afraid to challenge, upset and provoke meaningful conversation and debate. I don’t think a brief insertion of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” really qualifies as inciting any of the aforementioned. In essence, Gaga was “political” with her mindset geared solely toward that demographic in America that has made it into the shitshow capable of electing our current giant baby of a fascist president. She pandered to their easily bristled arm hair in a manner that would make the likes of more controversial performers (e.g. Prince, Madonna) balk. While some might argue that the Super Bowl stage isn’t the place to make a divisive statement, it can’t be denied that if any year was an appropriate time to do so, this was it. And Gaga squandered it on the self-aggrandizement of not even inviting up anyone else onstage to join her.

Then again, it’s pretty clear that there was a level of shrewdness to her execution. Maybe she didn’t want to be condemned after so many years of being treated so. Maybe, riding high on the praise of her acting career, her only concern was garnering more general accolades. Thinking back on Super Bowl halftime shows past, it’s evident the pattern has always been pretty consistent: acceptance and applauding of the safest performances, especially post-Nipplegate in 2004, after which the NFL only seemed to bring in baby boomer-friendly acts like The Who and Bruce Springsteen. These safe (which is to say, lacking in politicism or “obsene” sexuality) acts also included the likes of Aerosmith, NSYNC, Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige in 2001 and Katy Perry in 2015. Conversely, criticism of performances that didn’t fear freely and jubilantly incorporating a political message tend always to run rampant. Think back to the charged performance of Michael Jackson in 1993 with his “Black or White” single or Beyonce in 2016 with her “Black Panther” rendering of “Formation.”

Overall, it appears as though Gaga—in order to ensure praise—chose deliberately to phone it in with this one by dialing a cliché.