Lady Gaga has never shied away from discussing political issues. Her pop empire has been largely built on the back of a fierce anti-bullying message, support for the LGBT community and advocacy for victims of sexual assault, and she was a high-profile critic of Donald Trump both during and after the US presidential election.
In order to play the halftime show at the US Super Bowl, however, Gaga was theoretically required to put her politics on ice. The Super Bowl is one of the biggest shows in many American musicians’ careers, and it’s expected that artists won’t distract from the rivalry between the football teams by bringing up something as divisive as politics.
However, some observers noticed that Gaga did sneak a political message into her performance after all – albeit a very subtle one.
In keeping with the Americana flavour of her latest album, Joanne, Gaga performed a rendition of the classic song This Land is Your Land during her halftime show.
With its references to highways, redwood forests and wheat fields, the track – written by iconic American folk singer Woody Guthrie in 1940 – has long been adopted as a patriotic anthem in the States. But its roots are much more radical than you might expect.
Guthrie, who died in 1967, was a fiercely political musician, known for performing with the words “This machine kills fascists” displayed prominently on his guitar. An advocate for the displaced and dispossessed working classes of the Great Depression, he was linked to the Communist Party throughout his life, and originally wrote This Land is Your Land as a response to the banks and landowners he saw as trying to take America from ordinary people.
Prophetically, the original 1940 lyrics to This Land is Your Land include a reference to “a high wall”, as well as lines which question whether the America of the past was as ‘great’ as Trump has alleged.
“In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people; by the relief office I seen my people,” sang Guthrie. “As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking: is this land made for you and me?”
In recent weeks, This Land is Your Land has been adopted by politicians and protestors alike as a rallying cry against Donald Trump’s anti-refugee immigration ban. Videos have surfaced of demonstrators singing the folk anthem at airports, waving signs saying “Be kind” and “Welcome to the USA”, while congressional Democrats opposed to the travel ban sang it in front of the Supreme Court last week.
Gaga didn’t sing the original version of Guthrie’s song at the Super Bowl, instead sticking to a later adaptation with the politics stripped from the lyrics. However, for people with a knowledge of music history, the message was clear.
People know "This Land is Your Land" was a protest song, right? My girl Gaga knows what she's doing.— Erin Strecker (@ErinStrecker) February 6, 2017
This Land is Your Land is as much protest as it is patriotism. In the mouth of Gaga it's as much s weapon as it was in the mouth of Guthrie.— Michael W. Twitty (@KosherSoul) February 6, 2017
Gaga followed This Land is Your Land with a performance of her own song Born This Way, one of the most famous LGBT anthems of the 21st century. On Twitter, many pointed out that Born This Way can be read as a political protest song in its own right – especially given that Donald Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, fought against marriage equality and equal rights for gay people during his time as governor or Indiana.
Gaga opening with This Land Is Your Land and then singing Born This Way was a huge fuck-you to Trump and Pence— 𝕾𝖆𝖎𝖑𝖔𝖗 𝕸𝖊𝖗𝖈𝖚𝖗𝖞 (@baderonus) February 6, 2017
people bitching GaGa didn't do a political message at the superbowl. UM she sang a protest song AND born this way in front of mike pence???— Danii G (@gerbatron) February 6, 2017
Hillary Clinton, for whom Gaga campaigned in the 2016 presidential election, tweeted her reaction to the latter’s subtly radical performance, writing: “I'm one of 100 million #SuperBowl fans that just went #Gaga for the Lady, & her message to all of us.”
Hats off, Gaga.
Images: Rex Features, Giphy