Two months or so back, sometime after the election, a stray thought came and went: It would be great if, during the seventh-inning stretch of a baseball playoff game, when someone usually sings “God Bless America,” a singer followed it with “This Land is Your Land.”
The two songs are rival siblings in America’s national hymnal. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in the nadir of the Great Depression, with the country at the brink of world war. as a jaded reply to the doctrinaire patriotism of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” written in 1918. Guthrie’s song is a protest born of legitimate populist suspicion and disappointment, not the manufactured grievance and hallucinated victimhood that somehow elected the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Lady Gaga sang verses from both songs at the rim of the opened dome at the Super Bowl (pre-recorded, but still a beautiful open). I recalled Elvis Presley, a son of the South belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in “An American Trilogy.” Many instant appraisals of her performance last night have it that she tactfully eschewed politics, where most expected her to raise a gloved fist of protest. I disagree. “This Land is Your Land” may be a song chanted by generations of kindergarteners, but it is fundamentally political. And political songs that are timeless are properly called anthems.
I was watching at my parents’ home. The 2016 election has been so embittering for them that they deleted their social media and refuse to talk about political subjects, even with me, my brother and like-minded friends. I don’t think Dad was paying attention, and Mom was in the back. But Lady Gaga did exactly what I’d hoped someone would do. In days to come, I will remember that public service before I do the events of a shocking and unprecedented championship game.
Let’s cut the baloney about Lady Gaga going safe and staying out of politics, and give her credit for a skillfully chosen message and its precise delivery. Given the mainstream endorsement of a Super Bowl, Lady Gaga applied it unilaterally in the unambiguous lyrics of “Born This Way”: “I’m beautiful in my way/’Cause God makes no mistakes.'” The divinity of one’s creation and personhood is a long-running bookmark, greeting-card, refrigerator-door theme in a red-state, Christian America, and “Born This Way” pulls that thread as long as it can go. “No matter gay, straight, or bi/lesbian, transgendered life/I’m on the right track baby/I was born to survive.” At least three of those words are a first for a Super Bowl broadcast. Lady Gaga made them belong inside a stadium detonating fireworks and on a broadcast with Pepsi’s logo all over it.
Whitney Houston’s national anthem at Super Bowl 25 in 1991, like Marvin Gaye’s at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983, is looked to as the gold standard of pop singers performing at big sporting events in the United States. In time, especially when we look back on an hour of emotional crisis and maximum need, I think Lady Gaga will join their company. And when I think of “This Land Is Your Land,” I will hear her voice, the same way I hear Gaye’s when I read “O say can you see,” and Houston’s when I think of the home of the brave.
The aftermath of Nov. 8, has seen internecine debate over identity politics and recrimination over who gets to ask for what and how loudly. Similarly, the present executive department is belligerently uninterested in making any leadership that appeals to any common hope or identity.
Against this backdrop, and against the enervating, zero-sum conflict over inclusion in pop culture, Lady Gaga threaded the needle beautifully. She was true to herself and all the expectations preceding her performance, true to those for whom she sings and true to her country, on a day now more American than the Fourth of July..
Implicit in her show and the enjoyment of it is the understanding that you have got to live with other people, not the other way around. That stands in the face of these past two tumultuous weeks, with all of their hostility and talk of literal concrete walls, and the cold rejection of people who have properly called America their home. If this land is special, if it is a divine gift as our national songs say, then it is yours and mine together. This land was made for you and me.