Politics, Lady Gaga & the Super Bowl Halftime Show

A couple of weeks ago I put up a post that considered the intriguing, if extraordinarily unlikely, possibility of Lady Gaga singing a protest song by 60s & 70s folksinger Phil Ochs during her Super Bowl halftime show. However much fun that could have been, it did not, of course, happen. There are many reasons why, but perhaps the most important one was that no one associated with Fox Sports and the NFL would let it happen.

But that didn’t stop speculation that Lady Gaga might “do something” during the show.  What that might be, from a Janet Jackson reveal to a Meryl Streep/Golden Globes speech, was never quite clear.  In any event, Fox Sports ran both the pre-game show with the women from the musical “Hamilton” singing “America the Beautiful” and Lady Gaga’s halftime show with a 5-second delay so that any political or overly sexy message could be blocked.

Hamilton cast members sing “America the Beautiful.”

But Lady Gaga managed to get a political message in anyway that no one could reasonably censor – heck, people who might have been offended may not even have realized it was there.

Official video of Lady Gaga’s halftime show, complete with three commercial breaks….

The whole message was delivered in the pre-recorded section of the show where Lady Gaga was up on top of the stadium with a host of light-carrying drones.

In it, the star sang an excerpt of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” followed by a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and concluded with the last couple of lines of the Pledge of Allegiance. So, where’s the message?

Let’s start with a little history.  Woody Guthrie was the dustbowl singer/songwiter (and Arlo’s dad) who travelled around the country singing protest songs and advocating for workers. According to NPR, he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as his response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song Guthrie reportedly disliked because he heard Kate Smith sing it too many times on the radio in 1930s. Some of the verses we hear a lot – the feel-good ones.  The rebellious activist verses, not so often.   Here they are – all the verses:

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island; 
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, 
I saw above me that endless skyway: 
I saw below me that golden valley: 
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; 
And all around me a voice was sounding: 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, 
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: 
This land was made for you and me.

Those are the verses you’ve likely heard and sung.  Here are the last three:

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me, 
As I go walking that freedom highway; 
Nobody living can ever make me turn back 
This land was made for you and me.

Folk singer Pete Seeger was a long-time friend of Woody’s, and as he was prepping for his 90th birthday concert, Pete was planning on singing “This Lange is Your Land.” He told Bruce Springsteen, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office.”

I find it impossible to believe that Lady Gaga did not know what she was doing when she put those two song fragments next to each other.  She’s way too savvy of a musician to have done that pairing by accident. And consider what she said in an interview before the show:

“But the only statements that I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I’ve been consistently making throughout my career. … I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality, and the spirit of this country as one of love and compassion and kindness. So my performance will have both those philosophies.”

Now, all of this that I’ve discussed so far has been written about many places, though few have suggested that it was a deliberate pairing of the Berlin and Guthrie songs. But might I suggest one thing further. Let’s consider her inclusion of the end of the Pledge of Allegiance:

“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

It is perfectly likely that Lady Gaga just included the closing lines of the Pledge. But I can’t help but wonder if she was also including a sly reference to the progressive answer to the Tea Party, the Indivisible movement.  Indivisible is a web site with a document on how progressives can organize to fight President Trump’s political agenda. It also has tools for creating local organizations.  The Indivisible movement has gotten extensive media attention and is at the organizational core of many of the protests being held around the country. Was Lady Gaga giving a shout out there? I think it is possible, but there is no way of knowing as long as she keeps her Poker Face on….

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