Lady Gaga is my America.
I just can’t believe that now it’s yours, too.
Dressed mutedly—this is Lady Gaga, every thing is relative—in a shimmering red pantsuit, her eyelids beglittered to match, and her hair teased up to be closer to God (or closer to the planet she’s beamed down from, take your pick), our Mother Monster looked like a fancy lady who stuck her finger in an electrical socket. And then she electrified us with a campy, full-voiced, theatrical-as-hell rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
And she did it at the biggest, most American, and, arguably, most conservative showcase an entertainer can be given.
Ever since Whitney Houston set her vocal cords bursting in air in 1991, a beacon moment for the melding of patriotism and melisma, the singing of the national anthem prior to the Super Bowl has been not so much a showcase for the diva of the moment’s belting fireworks (though it very much is that) as it has been a reflection of our cultural times.
Saint Whitney’s epic 1991 performance turned patriotism into art.
The Persian Gulf War and fears of a terrorist attack loomed over Super Bowl XXV like a dark cultural cloud. Houston’s high note on the word “free” remade our country’s signature song into a motivational speech, an act of defiance, a salute, and, perhaps most importantly, a comfort blanket.
We’re all American. We’re all together. We’re all singing this song… we’re all OK.
So much did we need her, the America she—dressed in a tacky-ass red, white, and blue jogging suit with her Jersey-born smile—represented that the song skyrocketed up the Billboard charts. Crooning your allegiance to the land of the free and the home of the brave was no longer just a ritual at worst, an emotional experience at best. It was commercial.
Chart the years since Houston and you see the choice of Super Bowl performer reflect the times he or she is singing in; a byproduct of pop’s current climate and buzz. You can, for example, count four former American Idol contestants among the performers. Heck, last year saw Frozen mania surface an invite for Idina Menzel.
But you can also read into the choices for what they represent. Alicia Keys, in the months following the Newtown school shooting, provided the gravitas our country needed. Billy Joel in 2007, the nostalgia. Or, in the case of someone like Kathie Lee Gifford in 1995, the kitsch.
You see all of America when you look at these performers, be it the tween-dreams of the Backstreet Boys, the country pride of the Dixie Chicks, or the cheering for second chances, with Christina Aguilera performing in 2011 at the height of her career’s second act (though botching a few lyrics).
Since Whitney, performing the national anthem at our country’s most-watched televised event means something, so much so that you know producers spend months debating and arguing over who to invite. Who is “now,” but represents a timeless, traditional America.
My god, they chose Lady Gaga.
It might be hard to remember, what with her recent transformation into classic Hollywood glamour queen, but Lady Gaga represented—and continues to represent—the outcasts. Specifically, she represents the outcasts that the heart of America, its mainstream, has tended to cast away.
Mother Monster, with her meat dresses and disco sticks and middle finger basking in being “Born This Way,” wasn’t the American Idol. She was the idol for the weirdos. The mistreated. The misunderstood. And, truly, the gays.
In front of the most heteronormative, traditionally homophobic population in the country—the NFL and its diehard fans—our gay hero sang the national anthem. And we got to sing along, too… we’re going to be OK.
It’s perhaps a bit disheartening that it took Gaga’s normative reinvention to get an invite like this. While she’s been leading her band of misfits for years, it took crooning with Tony Bennett and singing Julie Andrews at the Oscars for the rest of the world to catch on to the transgressive powers of her talents.
It would have been powerful for our dear, queer, fearless leader to be belting the national anthem in one of her old, infamous ensembles. What a statement that would have made.
But she made that statement in other, subtler ways.
Of course, you could hardly call a sequined pantsuit and that Morticia hair subtle. It’s certainly the gayest outfit I’ve seen on the football field.
But it’s her performance where she gave it to us.
With all eyes on her, Gaga sang a national anthem that was so earnest that it ascended to camp. This wasn’t Faith Hill schmaltzing about the rockets’ red glare. This is a Broadway babe singing to her fans, her misfits, her gays like the theatrical drag queen she is.
To you, maybe she seemed traditional. To us, she was serving.
She sounded phenomenal. It’s the plight of the Little Monsters: dress yourself up too much or over-embrace your weirdness, and you’re suddenly a distraction. Lady Gaga has always been one of our most talented pop vocalists, but as just one component of an act that included a costume, a mentality, and a put-on-a-show production, those vocal chops somehow got lost.
It was only recently, when she stripped away the trappings, that many have taken notice.
Still, for those who knew all along, there’s a power in her being given this showcase. You might assume we’re reading too much into this, and that may be the case.
But at a time when gay rights, LGBT struggles and queer violence, depression, suicide, and acceptance dominate political and cultural conversation, it speaks to the America that, if not the one we have now, is the one that we may be heading toward that it was Lady Gaga, our queer hero, who was the one to sing for us.
That it was Lady Gaga who sang for not just us, but us, an entire country as we seized our patriotism and embraced our Americanness: by pledging to our flag and then gathering en masse around a television set to eat an obscene amount of food.
Maybe it was just a talented singer performing a solid rendition of the national anthem. But maybe, pray to Saint Whitney, it was also a sign of the times.