Why Lady Gaga matters in the era of Trump

It’s not what she believes, but how she shows it

Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI Halftime Show. Did she kill it? Yes she did.

Lady Gaga is a political genius.

Never mind her maturation as a pop star, made evident by her performance at the Super Bowl LI Halftime Show. Throughout her marathon across the stadium, the Mother Monster drops various hints about her hope for the nation and the world at large, and to mark them as apolitical is a mistake.

Opening the set with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” not long after Trump’s executive order, Gaga sings two verses on guiding the country in the right direction and affirming her belief that the country belongs to all:

God bless America, land that I love
stand beside her, and guide her
through the night with light from above
This land is your land
This land is my land
This land was made for you and me
One nation, under God, indivisble
With liberty and justice for all

She then flies, leaps, and flips through NGR Stadium as she sings excepts from “The Edge of Glory” and “Poker Face”. Shortly after landing on the main stage, Gaga brings out her anthem “Born This Way”, singing:

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
’Cause baby you were born this way

To deliver an anthem of unity, perform a song like “Born This Way” in front of an audience that includes Mike Pence, and then sing “stay” from the song “Million Reasons” while shaking hands in an audience of women and offering an embrace to a woman of color, is absolutely political.

Gaga’s performance was brilliant, however, because it didn’t seem that way.

Entertainment Weekly writes that there’s an “immense emotional intelligence behind the way she uses her voice. Almost never does she overwhelm a song with her vocal ability, recognizing instead that artistry is to be found in nuance rather than lung power.” This appears to be Gaga’s approach to performance and politics, too. By diverting attention away from any particular political figure, agenda, or entity, the Mother Monster smashes her performance by placing her politics in the background.

Gaga’s performance is even more brilliant because of what she leaves out. Notice how Gaga avoids the line “It doesn’t matter if you love him or H-i-m” in “Born This Way”, how she excludes the edgier verses of “This Land Is Your Land”, how she sprinkles political statements throughout her performance rather than make it main entrée. Towards the end of the set, Gaga also gives the Super Bowl its due, calling it “where champions are made” and giving another nod to the sporting event before making that epic jump. Her ability to work within constraints demonstrates her wit and disruptive potential.

Contrast this with Beyoncé’s performance in 2016. Beyoncé released “Formation” just one day before the 50th Super Bowl and proceeded to perform the song at halftime. She subsequently received accusations for using a national stage to display black pride. This is not to say she should have done it differently — after all, black empowerment requires black acknowledgement. But to do this on a national stage has a divisive politics to it, no matter how important it is. My point is that in 2016, our president was Barack Obama. For Gaga to bring her politics to the stage with Donald Trump in office is a different story.

“I don’t know if I will succeed in unifying America. The only statements I’ll be making in the Halftime show are the ones have been consistently making throughout my career. I believe in inclusion, equality, love, compassion, and kindness. So my performance will uphold those philosophies.” (6:05–6:45)

Public shaming is not going to work.

According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump was demoralized, in GQ’s words, that “no one thinks he’s a real president.” While many have argued that the way to disempower authoritarian figures is through mockery and satire, I have always taken slight issue with the approach. If Donald Trump’s ascent to power and subsequent performance in the White House have been any indication, instigating and mocking authority figures does not always go over well. And while it’s appropriate and necessary to express grievance, I’m coming to believe that public shaming of this cabinet is not going to work.

How might the performing arts help us uniquely attain positive political outcomes? And what do Lady Gaga’s artistic choices reveal about our own activism techniques?

In international relations theory, there are said to be two kinds of power. The first is hard power. Hard power threatens punishment (e.g. economic sanctions) to achieve a particular outcome. Soft power, on the other hand, leverages positive psychology to influence the other party’s behavior. While soft power is shunned by many foreign policy experts, the State Department devotes an entire career track to public diplomacy, which is focused on altering public perception.

I think soft power is critical in the era of Trump. That’s a fancy way of saying we need to build constructive solutions together if we want our politics to improve. I’d like to contribute some thoughts gleaned through two summers teaching in China, where I tried to shift the country’s cultural politics through teaching hip hop dance and design thinking. As creatives and artists, how might we promote peace and progress beyond holding pixie dust arts events? How might we mend social divides so we can stop sending “peacekeeping forces” each time violence breaks loose?

We need to focus once more on win-win scenarios.

In 2012, I worked at a government school in mainland China as a performing arts fellow. China is home to extremely creative and talented individuals, but its rapid urbanization in the 21st century has created an education system with many gaps and contradictions. Students are destined to seek perfect test scores, but not artistic potentials; formulas but not personal creativity; professions and jobs but not passions and dreams.

What I began to learn was that when dealing with rigid governmental structures, one way to achieve concession is by emphasizing common good. In 2013, I was invited to teach a culture and communication seminar at a global youth conference in China. I realized, through an extensive research process, that the best strategy was to emphasize the unique connection between urban culture, innovation, and economic growth. By playing up creativity, self-knowledge, impact, and scale, and building real relationships with officials, my students walked away with tools for lasting change.

1. Leverage positive psychology by finding a win-win
2. Push for your ideal while making good compromises
3. Develop your relationship and learn to be subtle

I’ve learned that in many challenging contexts, doors close when we offer grievance but open when we offer value. We hear this all the time in the business world—why don’t we think to do it with our sociopolitical challenges too? Assuming that the party you’re aiming to influence has already made up their mind, it’s absolutely crucial to take a third path.

When “they” go low, we actually need to go high.

Media outlets have given props to Michelle Obama and Meryl Streep for not once mentioning Trump’s name in their oratories. Ruth Bader Ginsberg has also stated the importance of treating political figureheads as professional colleagues, no matter how divisive. Why is it, then, that we the people continue mudslinging even as we learn that mudslinging and echo chambers, in large part, contributed to Trump’s victory in November?

I’m proud that many of the forces behind these subtle but powerful changes in our culture and politics are women—Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama, Joy Williams, and Lady Gaga. These women teach us that while it’s important to be firm about our views, it’s crucial to fight fire with something different. That while politics is absolutely about me, it’s also not about me, or even us. It’s about the bigger “US” and the difficult work that comes with true unity. If we look beyond ourselves, we might start to find some answers.

Rayner Jae Liu is a creative strategist working towards a more sustainable world system through international relations & business. He has worked in China, India, Sweden, and the U.S. across tech, education, and global affairs. View his work at rayjaeliu.co and subscribe to his email newsletter here.