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Lady Gaga's halftime show started above the stadium and political fray. Should it have stayed there?

Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show included impressive athletic stunts, but some critics were disappointed the performer didn't express more political views during the show.

Singer Lady Gaga performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017.
Richard Carson/Reuters | Caption

When Lady Gaga took over the Super Bowl stage on Feb. 6 her show seemed to win over many reviewers with its spectacle, though some appeared to be displeased that the performer did not go further in expressing her political opinions during the performance. 

Gaga started off the show sky-high, beginning her performance with portions of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” that she sang from the top of the NRG Stadium in Houston. She then descended to the stage below hitched to cables and performed some of her older hits such as “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” as well as a more recent track, “Million Reasons,” from her 2016 album, “Joanne.” 

Many reviewers seemed pleased with Gaga’s stagecraft choices, with Associated Press writer David Bauder calling the show “high-energy” and noting that “Gaga commanded the show herself,” unlike previous shows that included multiple acts. “With that pressure, Gaga acquitted herself well,” Mr. Bauder wrote. “Hits like ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Just Dance’ were frothy and fun. Her best performance came in her least-known song: ‘Million Reasons,’ where she sat at the piano and explored a new style that has advanced beyond the dance pop of her youth.” 

And Rolling Stone writer Ryan Reed called it “explosive,” writing that it was “a set of pure pop bliss.” 

But in light of the current contentious political environment, however, some reviewers wanted Gaga to do more with her platform in front of an audience for what is regularly described as the year's biggest television event. Washington Post writer Chris Richards wrote of Gaga’s Super Bowl set, “For an artist who continues to sell herself as an instigator, Gaga seemed content being a mere entertainer on Sunday night, putting in plenty of effort without taking any significant risks.”

And Variety writer Sonia Saraiya felt that the performance “didn’t even feel contemporary.... Gaga took the smarter route of commentary through sheer existence, asking the audience to accept her sexualized gyration and her country singing, her racially diverse backup dancers and her ballad about her love for God. But because the performance was overall a little weak, it still felt like a missed opportunity.... [S]he appears to have willingly sanded down the politically charged subtext of her own art into a commodified piece of Americana that could be experienced without being truly understood.”

When asked in a press conference before the show whether she would comment on any political matters, Gaga said, “The only statements I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones I have 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.”

The singer did perform her song “Born This Way” during the show, which includes such lines as “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track, baby, I was born to survive.”

Eccentricity and unpredictability have been part of Gaga's signature style (remember the meat dress?) and fans may have been anticipating some of that shock value. Producers of the halftime show played it safe for several years in a row after Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction in 2004 with older music acts, including Paul McCartney and The Who but have more recently gone with more contemporary acts like Beyonce and Katy Perry.

But aside from impressive athletic feats in glittering four-inch heels, Gaga's performance held no surprises.

Mark Quenzel, NFL senior vice president of programming and production, told Billboard prior to Gaga's performance, “We have no discussions about her or with her that have to do with the election, or the president. What we say to every artist, very clearly, and they all buy in: the Super Bowl halftime is the biggest musical event of the year, and it’s also a communal event for fans.... The performance should reflect a celebration, and it should reflect what it’s intended to be, which is a great musical performance in the middle of a great game. Anything that detracts from that is not something that we should be focusing on.”

Mr. Richards wrote that he felt that Gaga was “restrained” during the show.

“This wasn’t Gaga’s party,” he wrote. “Even through all the airborne pomp and pyrotechnic kablooey, she ultimately seemed like a guest – and one who didn’t want to overstay her welcome.”