The golden dove brooch on her chest could be seen from the moon, but even that was just a diminutive accessory overshadowed by Lady Gaga’s broad, beaming smile as she nailed her rendition of the national anthem at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday.
She was broadcasting something bigger than her fashion choices, bigger than her often over-the-top celebrity persona, and, arguably, bigger than the historic moment she was cast to be a part of. She was telegraphing pride.
Nothing speaks more to how much we venerate the American entertainment industry than the importance we place on the intersection of pop stars and patriotism at pivotal moments like this.
In recent history, think about Aretha Franklin performing at the first inauguration of Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, and Beyoncé emotionally serenading him and Michelle Obama with “At Last” for their first dance as president and first lady.
Think about what it meant when Whitney Houston’s voice pierced even the sounds of the fighter jets flying overhead when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991, as the country reckoned with the Persian Gulf War. Or how we rely on musicians and artists to guide us through mourning after tragedy, whether it’s the star-studded concerts put on after 9/11 or musical tributes to fallen heroes over the years.
The choice of Lady Gaga to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the inauguration of Biden and Harris, the first Black person, woman of Asian descent, and first woman to be elected vice-president, mattered—just as the casting of Jennifer Lopez to sing her, um, unique mash-up of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” mattered. Even Garth Brooks, who pledged that his performance of “Amazing Grace” was not meant to be construed as “a political statement,” actually mattered.
Standing confident in front of the doors and arches that were stormed, scaled, vandalized, and occupied by violent insurrectionists attempting to upend democracy just two weeks before, Lady Gaga belted the national anthem, her voice channeling the shrieks and cries of a nation desperate to exorcise the hate, harm, division, and evil of the last four years.
Her entrance was, of course, dramatic. That’s what you’re asking for when you book Lady Gaga to make American history.
Her hair was twisted into braids. The dove brooch embellished an otherwise elegant and staid black top, with her oversized red skirt rivaling the circumference of the Capitol rotunda. It was her take on “casual professional but you will be in history books for the rest of time” understatement. In other words, it is the outfit you choose when you are the instrument selected to trumpet that democratic Armageddon has been narrowly avoided.
She was clear-voiced, her belting as powerful and robust as it’s ever been. She opted for a different arrangement of the song than her predecessors, which was fitting as this is Lady Gaga, but not one that was distracting, over-complicated, or even—and this is the important part—all that indulgent.
Her performance was campy, choreographed with exuberant gesticulation and appropriate, almost cheesy grandeur. On the lyric “the flag was still there,” her voice climbed the scale as if it had just been freed, echoing the spirit of so many on this new day and new administration. She gestured enthusiastically at the American flag behind her and sang to it. There was gusto! Gravitas! Goofiness!
The best part was that you could tell how much it meant to her, because she knew how much it meant to all of us. Singing as loud as I’ve ever heard her, she performed with that aforementioned, elusive feeling: pride. When it was over, she was practically radiant with it. Lady Gaga, with that rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sang us over the bridge, back to a point of feeling that—proud—once again.
Is it too much to say that it was the gayest thing to ever have happened at a presidential inauguration? With respect to Aretha Franklin’s bow hat, I would say it’s not.
The performers for occasions like this are chosen because of what they represent and, more specifically, who they represent. For this particular gig, they are historically chosen because of the America they represent, something that’s easy to gauge by the selection of Lopez and her ties to the Latinx community and Brooks, with his role in uniting the country’s warring ideals.
Gaga, of course, represents the unusual. There was more than one joke made that the Capitol was going to transform into a spaceship as she hit her last notes and transport her back to her home planet.
But she also represents the mistreated, the misunderstood, and the marginalized.
She is an idol and a beacon of light for the LGBTQ community, and her presence on the Capitol steps Wednesday morning spoke to the fact that, finally, this is their—our—America, too.
It is only in the last nine years that there has been a president in the White House who openly supported gay marriage and equal rights for the community. And just 18 months after the historic Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, Obama was out of office. The Trump administration rolled back protections for sexual orientation and gender identity up until the man’s last day in office. To some, from her look to her earnest and dignified arrangement, Gaga’s performance may have seemed traditional. To those of us it spoke to, it was positively renegade. She was singing for us.
If you know Lady Gaga’s story and especially if you know the history of her working relationship with Biden—the two have teamed over the years to raise awareness about sexual assault—you’ll know what it meant to watch her sing as a survivor. That’s a loaded word at this point in our nation. And it speaks to the importance of music at these times, and the necessity to want to say something with the choices of who is going to sing and what their voice will mean.
In contrast to the nonsensical and pointless lineup at the pre-inauguration concert, Tuesday’s COVID memorial, the first public mourning of the lives lost to the pandemic, was made all the more profound because of the music choices.
There, Yolanda Adams performed a wrenching rendition of “Hallelujah,” echoing the title word in seemingly endless, wrenching fashion, each repetition burrowing even deeper into the pain and the reality of the loss. And nurse Lori Marie Key sang “Amazing Grace,” her raw, God-touched voice lifting our hearts with each note to a point of maybe, finally being able to feel catharsis.
Leading up to the swearing-in ceremony’s start, MSNBC host Joy Reid reminded, “The entertainment industry boycott of the Trump presidency is one of the few things he took to heart that things weren’t going too well.” He was desperate for their approval, and instead he was embraced by the Evangelical world that despised Hollywood and what it stands for. But we may have forgotten what a poignant loss it was not to be able to turn to our leaders to champion arts and performers to shepherd us through those hard years.
We are a country that has endured such trying, harmful times that there is a temptation to look deeper into everything and anything happening on Inauguration Day for meaning: a sign of times to come, or a sign of who we may one day be again. It’s a natural exercise, even if, to some, it might seem like a stretch. But rest assured there is nothing that Lady Gaga does that is not ripe for such parsing, especially when she’s singing for a new America.