The role of Super Bowl halftime show performer is a thankless one: Artists must compress all the choreography and spectacle of a greatest hits concert into under 15 minutes, perform it in a less-than-ideal venue to a viewership of millions, and then, for their efforts, almost certainly piss off some segment of the audience. There’s potential for ire in everything from not singing the right song to not being the right person. And in the temple to masculinist American nationalism that is the football stadium, the likelihood of political offense is particularly high.
As the first Super Bowl performer under the Trump administration—and the first after Beyoncé’s infamous Black Panther–inspired “Formation” debut in 2016—Lady Gaga certainly had to grapple with the problem of how political to make her show. And on Sunday night, her answer appeared to be … not very.
While not an official part of the program, a strange ad for Tiffany’s featuring Gaga aired just before halftime—and it didn’t inspire much hope. You couldn’t help but grimace as the singer attempted to connect her rebellious creativity to a luxury brand whose New York flagship is literally next door to Trump Tower. “You know you will have a truly special moment if you go to the Tiffany’s store,” Gaga says, rolling around on a rug—the special moment presumably being a sharp reminder of how rich (or not) you happen to be.
As the proper show began, we found Gaga on the roof of Houston’s NRG Stadium, working a techoglittter Catwoman-on-Europa look and singing a medley of patriotic American ditties. The cool part about this wasn’t so much Gaga as it was the swarm of colorful drones (powered by Intel™!) hovering and making pictures in the sky behind her. Cool, at least, until you think about all the civilians that American drones have killed … but fortunately there wasn’t too much time to ponder this before she jumped.
After Mother Monster safely landed in a Mad Max–esque set, things improved. We got to hear the best of Gaga’s anthems, including “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” “Just Dance,” and “Telephone”—notably sans Beyoncé cameo :(. The most overtly political moment of the show—if you can call singing the standard lyric of a 7-year-old chart-topper political—was “Born This Way,” with its explicit shoutout to LGBT people and the existence of various racial and ethnic identities.
Political expectations aside, the show was unquestionably fun. Gaga—channeling Pink in full Cirque du Soleil mode—flew and danced around that scaffolding, singing and even occasionally playing instruments live. She didn’t miss a step, and, during “A Million Reasons,” the truly gorgeous ballad off her most recent record Joanne, she even managed to work in a cute shoutout to her parents. When she caught a bedazzled football and jumped off screen during the show’s final moments, you couldn’t help but applaud her skill as a performer.
And really, when you think about it, Gaga’s handling of the politics issue was actually pretty damn skillful. Would I have preferred that she hacked the drones to fly her and Madonna to the White House with a payload of glitter bombs? Of course. But instead, she dove into the middle of our annual celebration of American bellicosity and, for a few, magical minutes, queered it into a shimmering fever dream of floating lights and ecstatic music, where dancers of every color and gender transformed football uniforms from blunt tools of violence into high-fashion trappings of joy. That’s no small feat—especially if even Marco Rubio got caught up in the spirit.
In one of very few spoken moments in the show, Gaga called out: “We’re here to make you feel good. Wanna feel good with us?” We usually think being political means registering clear statements of protest—and artists can and should do that when they can. But Meryl Streeping it is not the only way to go. Showing people what a more inclusive world could look like can be just as powerful as telling them. These days, many Americans aren’t feeling too good. But Gaga’s show was a flashy, sneaky reminder that there are other possibilities.