The Super Bowl Half Time show is, no doubt, the most coveted performance in music every year. Following a overly prolonged streak of safe (rather, nipple-free) headliners (see McCartney, see Petty, see Springsteen, etc.) the powers that be have re-established a more contemporary, pop-oriented presence…even after a rocky start in the form of the Black Eyed Peas. The slot has become so important, so heralded, so revered that it has the power to induce crazy album sales, send singles soaring up the charts, and, quite simply, solidify legacies. No one could argue that Lady Gaga hasn’t earned her shot at this level of greatness, and few feared she wouldn’t rise to the occasion. In the end, her performance was so much more than a success.
Right off the bat, the timing is undeniably a little off. Yes, Lady Gaga is still mid-project, but it’s important to acknowledge the project itself. Her fourth solo long-player, Joanne, experienced modest sales and reviews upon its release last fall, even despite failing to birth even one true-to-form smash hit. It intentionally lacked the pageantry, chaos, and eccentrics of her previous works, opting for a stripped-back authenticity. Her embrace of pseudo-Americana may not have panned out on the charts, but it made for her perfect cross-over Super Bowl moment… or so you’d think. Lady Gaga is at a crossroads of sorts when it comes to her standing as one of pop’s most formidable game-changers. After all, she crammed a career’s worth of success into 3 or 4 years. How she played this moment, the only one she’s going to get, meant everything.
Our first glimpse of Mother Monster made it abundantly clear that this was going to be a desperately sought after return to the artist who seemingly landed from outer space to turn pop on its head less than a decade ago; she looked sparkly, geometric, and ready to dance. Tethered to the top of the stadium (yes, that’s correct) in front of a backdrop of dozens of drones bedazzling the sky like stars, she began her set with a brief, but timely, medley of patriotic anthems. Being one of the most outspoken stars against the country’s currently political climate, there was an expected amount of speculation as to whether she’d capitalize on her moment in protest or simply focus on the task at hand. Despite pinpointing a tactful line from the Pledge of Allegiance (“With liberty and justice for all,”) this seemed to fall towards the latter.
It was then, with one giant leap for pop-kind, that Lady Gaga made her triumphant return to form. With her descent soundtracked with ominous samples of “Dance In The Dark,” “LoveGame,” “Paparazzi,” “Just Dance,” and “The Edge Of Glory,” it became immediately apparent that for the first time in some time, we were going to see this icon return to the sound that put her on the map. Beginning her main set with “Poker Face” was equally as nostalgic as it was epic. It was the perfect reminder of just why we paid attention to her in the first place. The old choreography was back, as was the spectacle… and the goosebumps weren’t far behind. The track segued flawlessly into “Born This Way,” where Gaga made sure to pinpoint the most inclusive lyrics. It was timely and it was intentional, but seeing as it remains one of her biggest hits as well as her de-facto anthem, it was easy enough to let it go unnoticed.
The run-throughs of “Telephone” and “Just Dance” that followed felt like a walk down memory lane. By Lady Gaga standards, there were no added frills, but instead remained true to their original releases, dance routines and all. Even when she opted to sit down at the keyboard, it felt so incredibly familiar; she’s always been about the yin and yang of pop. The lone Joanne feature, “Million Reasons,” was the perfect, but obvious, choice over its album-mates that inevitably would have felt jagged amongst the rest of the set. Her voice soared as expected and her authenticity came piercing through. Without a shred of spectacle, it was her most Gaga moment of the night, making way for the climactic closer, “Bad Romance.” Wrapping up with a mic-drop, a final leap, and an array of fireworks, her moment confidently sailed off into the history books.
Lady Gaga did something really special with her half-time show that we haven’t seen since Beyoncé’s stunner 4 years ago; she remained true to herself and her career. There were no covers, no irrelevant guests, and no out-of-character gimmicks. Anyone who knows anything about Lady Gaga over the last almost-decade got exactly what they would have expected, and in this particular case, that was exactly what needed to happen. This was a reminder why we ever paid attention to her in the first place: her fearlessness, her explosiveness, and her undeniable talent. It felt overly-nostalgic at points… she’s far too young and current to be a heritage act… but it worked as a reset button. Lady Gaga exhibited an awareness that’s been so sorely lacking in her recent projects and it paid off in spades. She didn’t need a show-stealing guest, a controversy, or an attempt at relevancy to make headlines, just her own work. If there was ever a moment to declare her a legend, it’s now.