Listen: even if you're the type to typically confuse Tom Brady with Marcia Brady, you probably (and correctly) assumed that the New England Patriots would, somehow, take home the trophy at Super Bowl LI last night. So for those expecting the inevitable and anyone who finds themselves Googling football-related questions more complicated than "What Time Does the Super Bowl Start" on the day of the big game, eyes (and ears) were trained on Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show. What would she perform? What would she wear? Would there be surprise guests? Would she get political? What surprises would there be?
That last question was perhaps the most pertinent one, acting as an umbrella of sorts for all those other questions to sit under. In a very real sense, it was hard to know what to expect from Gaga's performance, especially since the global superstar's latest album, last year's slightly countrified Joanne, performed well on the charts but was received tepidly by critics, its singles not quite penetrating the collective consciousness the way that Gaga's music has done in years past.
In recent years, Gaga's arguably become as well-known known for her visible issue-based outspokenness as she has for her pop career—from the inclusive message of the 2011 single "Born This Way" to 2015's "Til It Happens to You," which addressed sexual assault in conjunction with that year's campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground. This facet of Gaga's persona led many to believe—or, more accurately, hope—that she'd use this very considerable opportunity to upset any status quo aided and abetted by a Super Bowl featuring a team run, coached, and quarterbacked by supporters and friends of Donald Trump. It'd be her chance to make a grand political statement in the face of, well, everything that's going on in America right now.
From the get-go, this seemed like wishful thinking. Even though Gaga's exhibited a capacity to play fast and loose with expectations when it comes to her image and artistic flair, she's also something of a traditionalist performance-wise—or, as much of a traditionalist one can be while emerging from a giant egg. She teamed up with the Muppets in 2013 for the warm-and-fuzzy Thanksgiving TV special Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular; the following year, she released a duets album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek. Last year, she told Howard Stern that she wanted to take an "old-school" approach to promoting Joanne, further underscoring her desire to play within the system as she occasionally gives in to the impulse to color outside its lines.
And that's the Gaga that we got during last night's Pepsi-festooned halftime show performance—a traditionalist, showboating approach with equal parts old-world gaudiness and boundary-pushing (for the Super Bowl, anyway) flair. She began atop Houston's NRG Stadium with a micro-medley of resolutely American standards before pulling off an astounding Mary Martin-esque descent to the stage, where she ran through a series of resolutely Gaga standards that served as a reminder of just how many culturally ubiquitous songs she's put into the air over the last eight years. Expectedly, she also jumped behind the piano to air out Joanne single "Million Reasons," and the song's comparatively intimate balladry played surprisingly well amidst the fireworks, glittery costumes, and throngs of flashily dressed dancers.
During Gaga's performance of the Beyoncé duet "Telephone," I (and many others watching in the same room) anticipated a surprise appearance by Beyoncé, who was rumored to drop by in the week leading up to the performance—but the anticipation was in vain. (It's okay: she did appear last year.) There were also rumors of Tony Bennett making an appearance, but his participation was limited to a seconds-long soundbite in the Pepsi commercial-cum-intro that preceded the performance proper. Even though Bennett would've seemed out of place amidst the pomp and bombast of Gaga's performance, there was a considerable lack of surprise throughout, which could be seen as a disappointment. No Beyoncé, no last-minute duets, and no FCC-baiting "Fuck Trump" gesture a la M.I.A.'s infamous one-finger salute—just the hits.
So Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show didn't measure up to, say, the mind-blowing and near-mythic 2013 performance from Béyonce—or the notoriously phallic guitarwork of Prince's 2007 appearance, or the literal crotch-slam that was 2009's show from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And that's okay: sometimes, serviceable and simply entertaining is the best you can ask for, and by that metric the show was a success.
And those disappointed by Gaga's lack of overt political statements can take solace in the smaller subversions embedded in the show—from opening the performance with a mini-rendition of a song written by a guy who once wrote a practical diss track against Donald Trump's father, to featuring these lyrics as the centerpiece of a performance airing on the most-watched sporting event of the year: "No matter gay straight or bi/ Lesbian, transgendered life/ I'm on the right track baby/ I was born to survive." Even if the prevailing sentiment at the end of Super Bowl LI was that the villains won, it was a small but not insignificant comfort for Lady Gaga to remind viewers that, a few bad apples aside, we're all heroes in our own right.