This Sunday, the halftime for the 51st Super Bowl belongs to Lady Gaga, along with, if preview video clips can be trusted, dozens of well-drilled dancers for a set that will include “Bad Romance.” Lady Gaga has neither revealed any guests nor ruled out the possibility. Nor has she telegraphed whether her set will have any direct political messages.
Lady Gaga has plenty to prove. Her 2016 album, “Joanne,” made a show of being more vulnerable and less glossy than her previous pop albums, bringing back the rock guitars she had welcomed on “Born This Way,” in 2011, and set aside on “Artpop,” in 2013. “Joanne” entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1 but faded fast; its lead single, “Perfect Illusion,” fell short of the Top 10.
But Lady Gaga is the kind of performer the Super Bowl has relied on since 2011: a veteran hit-maker who can put on a full-tilt spectacle. It’s a job category dominated by women.
Women have all but taken over the Super Bowl since the Who – working hard, looking weary – headlined in 2010. Female pop stars might seem to offer the yin to football players’ yang, but in the music-video era, these women’s work requires its own athleticism, timing, discipline and unerring performance under pressure. Katy Perry, Madonna and Beyoncé have all presented themselves at the Super Bowl – as they do in their arena tours – as strong women, attended by masses of dancing disciples.
Coldplay was the nominal headliner last year, but the NFL hedged its bet on the band’s earnest British rock: It brought back Bruno Mars, who played in 2014, for part of the set and added 2013’s headliner, Beyoncé. And when Beyoncé strutted onto the field, performing “Formation,” with her dancers wearing Black Panther-like berets and Afros, Coldplay’s performance might as well have vaporized; rock was forgotten. (Beyoncé and her dancers also leveraged the Super Bowl exposure by posting photos with references to the Black Lives Matter movement and fists raised in the Black Power salute, roiling social media.)
For much of the preceding decade, the radio format for most Super Bowl headliners had been classic rock: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, along with the category-busting Prince in 2007. The NFL had decided to treat the Super Bowl halftime as a stadium concert, and these were acts with plenty of experience headlining stadiums. The Super Bowl simply added more lights and fireworks as the rockers performed a fraction of a concert.
Besides Coldplay, the only other male headliner since The Who has been Bruno Mars (joined by the even more testosterone-oriented Red Hot Chili Peppers), who played halftime as a throwback to older stadium shows.
The string of rockers in the early 2000s was also a reaction to the MTV-booked show in 2004 with Janet Jackson’s indelible “wardrobe malfunction,” which revealed less than what might have been seen any night on HBO, or on some red carpets, but which set off a self-righteous moral panic. (Moral panics are part of the Super Bowl fun; M.I.A., Madonna’s guest in 2012, started one by raising her middle finger to the camera.) Grizzled classic rockers, the NFL might have reasoned, were less likely to be separated from their tops (though the Red Hot Chili Peppers arrived bare-chested in 2014).
A major part of the effect of a stadium rock concert comes from being there as part of the crowd: feeling the power chords vibrating the bleachers, joining the singalongs, smelling the beer. But for the millions of viewers not in the stadium, the television experience is one of distance, and the perspective that of a more detached observer.
The halftime show, unlike the game, doesn’t work best as a documentary of extreme physical exertion. Musicians are expected to work hard, too, but the NFL came to realize that the halftime show is not so much a mini-concert as a 12-minute music video shot in one take – and pop stars, far more than rockers, have both the timing and the pizazz to please the camera as well as the local stadium audience.
The Black Eyed Peas (led by Will.i.am but featuring the female singer Fergie) inaugurated the Super Bowl’s new pop era with a platoon of fluorescent, robotic sci-fi dancers. Since then, female Super Bowl headliners have made it their business to take over not just a big stage but also the entire field, filling it with dancers and bestriding it with outsize processions. Filling the giant field also fills the home screen.
Could Lady Gaga be the one to merge the Super Bowl stadium rock concert with the pop parade? It’s an ambition she has flirted with for years, and one that re-emerges on “Joanne.” Lady Gaga’s hits have been flamboyant, steady-thumping dance tunes, but she has never been shy about unleashing the kind of power-ballad belting she brought to songs like “The Edge of Glory.” On Sunday the Super Bowl may also rock again – with a lady at center stage.