Politics at the Super Bowl: Commercials Play on Immigration Theme, Lady Gaga Plays It Low-Key
Posted on Feb 5, 2017
The story on Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance Sunday was that there wasn’t much of a story, at least in terms of politics melding with popular culture. Instead, that kind of action took place almost exclusively during commercial breaks.
The Super Bowl halftime show hasn’t always represented a prime-time opportunity for entertainers to stage politically charged spectacles. Some have been amped-up, pyrotechnic displays of pop frivolity; others have offered performers a chance to give their tired careers a jolt. Still others turned out to be utter head-scratchers—whose idea was the 1997 “Blues Brothers” revival featuring ZZ Top?—or made headlines for unintentional reasons (or so they claimed at the time).
It was Beyoncé’s halftime set from last year’s big game, when she marched in formation, singing “Formation,” with a cohort of African-American women dressed to evoke memories of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X while saluting the Black Lives Matter movement, that would set the bar for super-sized politicking on the playing field. Given that recent precedent, as well as the tensions and controversies in play on the national level, it’s no surprise that the Super Bowl LI headliner was widely expected to follow that act in her own, far-out fashion.
What was surprising was that Lady Gaga played it down the middle, relatively speaking. Rumors that Gaga, typically not one to miss opportunities to make waves, would make some kind of sweeping anti-Trump statement, and that NFL brass had clamped down in advance, ultimately didn’t square with reality. Instead, her performance included a few coded messages about inclusion and subtle gestures at hot-button topics such as immigration and LGBT rights, but reached nowhere near the political pitch her detractors had anticipated.
Critics from the right pointed to her support for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle, along with her track record as a provocateur, as grounds to rally like-minded Americans to tune her out. Calls for a halftime show boycott spread on social media in the runup to the opening lineup:
Lady Gaga did kick things off with a medley that included Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song also heard at U.S. airports during recent protests against President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” and she followed soon thereafter with an energetic rendition of her own song, “Born This Way,” which became an anthem for LGBT rights supporters following its 2011 release.
Some thought they caught an immigration subtext as she sang “Million Reasons,” descending from the stage to mingle with, and embrace, background performers of various ethnicities:
To wit, here’s one vigilant viewer’s take on that moment:
All the same, she never once said Trump’s name or anything else to justify boycotters’ efforts, instead sticking to her unifying script with feel-good lines like “We’re here to make you feel good—wanna feel good with us?” before catching a flying football with a closing flourish. Still, just showing up as Lady Gaga was apparently enough of a turnoff for this multimedia activist:
Vice President Mike Pence was on hand in Houston to watch the Patriots win again and take in the halftime concert, but Trump didn’t make an appearance. He did, however, catch a Lady Gaga show in 2010, and gave a glowing review on Twitter:
By the final whistle, it was clear that the most pointed political commentary had come from such commercial sponsors as Airbnb, Budweiser and 84 Lumber, which invited controversy and potential boycotts with pricey spots that took immigration as their focus. In fact, in the case of 84 Lumber and Airbnb, it wasn’t clear which companies were behind the ads until their logos appeared in the final frames.
Given the corporatization and celebrification of American politics, it’s only fitting that the lines between political ads and beer ads would blur during one of the year’s biggest commercial sporting events. Meanwhile, even Lady Gaga came across as conventional and no match, in terms of shock value, for the reality-television star sitting in the White House.
Watch the Super Bowl ads for Airbnb and Budweiser and the uncut version of 84 Lumber’s spot, which was deemed too controversial to show in full Sunday, below (via YouTube):
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