The Super Bowl can’t escape politics any more

If you didn’t think Lady Gaga’s performance was political, you weren’t paying attention.
Image: Dave Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

These are turbulent times in America, and even the Super Bowl can’t escape the political drama.

The historically and intentionally non-offensive event (Exhibit A: Super Bowl XXIII’s halftime show featuring the magician Elvis Presto) hit a political high Sunday.

Remember the brouhaha caused by Beyonc’s back-up dancers during last year’s halftime show, whose outfits were at least partially inspired by the Black Panthers? Well, crank that up to 11 and you’ve got the controversy cooked up by Sunday’s game. Nothing is safe from 2017’s political shitstorm.

The pregame pomp

Politics had already forced itself into the narrative before kickoff when a former president performed the coin toss. George H. W. Bush’s appearance seems innocent enough the Bushes have been residents of Houston, Texas, where the Super Bowl was played, for decades but it quickly became a harbinger of more politics to come.

Pushing the political envelope further was the pregame rendition of “America, The Beautiful” by Phillipa Soo, Rene Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, who played the Schuyler sisters in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton.

In one of the song’s final lines, “and crown thy good with brotherhood,” the trio slipped in a shout-out to women by adding the word “sisterhood” to the song, a subtle statement in the wake of the humongous crowds at the recent Women’s March, garnering cheers from the crowd and a few disgruntled head shakes from the usual suspects at Fox News.

The Trump factor

It was hard to escape Trump thanks to his pre-game interviews with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and with Westwood One radio’s Jim Gray.

The annual tradition of a presidential Super Bowl sit-down started with Barack Obama in 2009, who certainly touched on his agenda during those chats. But those interviews didn’t stir the controversy pot like Trump is prone to do. The new president brought praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and trumpeted again his unfounded claim of voter fraud during the election.

Trump was also part of the on-the-field narrative thanks to his friendship with the New England Patriots star quarterback, Tom Brady. We know about the red MAGA hat in Brady’s locker, Brady’s endorsement of Trump, and, yes, his more recent efforts to try to stay apolitical even as Trump just won’t shut up about how much he loves Brady.

But Trump’s Patriots love goes even further, as the president is also pals with team owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichik.

Despite the connection between the new administration and the Patriots, tight end Martellus Bennet made it clear in a press conference following the Super Bowl that he isn’t a Trump fan. Asked by reporters whether he is going to the White House as sports champions do, Bennet answered, “I’m not gonna go … it is what it is. People know how I feel about it, just follow me on Twitter.”

Then Bennett channeled the feelings of most Americans. He grew exasperated at the political questions and told reporters, “I just won the Super Bowl. I don’t wanna talk about politics, I wanna talk about winning the Super Bowl.”

Social Media’s election flashback

Football fans couldn’t help using the Patriots as something of an avatar for Trump.

If you bought into the Patriots-as-Trump theme, then it was hard to deny the parallels between the Super Bowl and Election Night. The Atlanta Falcons blew what was a seemingly insurmountable late lead. It seemed impossible for the Patriots to win, but win they did and Twitter was feeling uncomfortable deja vu.

Lady Gaga’s subtle shade

In the wake of Lady Gaga’s stellar performance, the jury seemed split on whether or not she had actually been political. Some fans even complained about what they perceived as a lack of political outrage from Gaga.

But Gaga is a professional with a new(ish) album to hawk and, whadaya know, a big, international stadium tour on the horizon, which she announced just after her performance. She also knows that overtly criticizing the president on the biggest televised stage of the year would accomplish little other than playing into a narrative her critics were expecting.

Instead, Gaga took a subtler tone that still packed a political punch, even if it sailed over the heads of many Americans. For instance, in her pre-taped opening on top of the NRG Stadium roof Gaga slipped in a verse of “God Bless America” followed by a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

While the verse Gaga sang seems innocuous enough, Guthrie, a politically-minded folk singer in the first half of the 20th century who paved the way for the likes of Bob Dylan, wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940 as an angry, progressive response to what he saw as exaggerated jingoism in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song that Guthrie hated.

His original lyrics even included a reference to a big wall.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

And if that’s not political enough for you, consider that Gaga sang “Born This Way,” an anthem celebrating diversity and the LGBT community, with Vice President Mike Pence, notorious for his anti-LGBT agenda, in attendance.

Even the ads are political, now

Most Super Bowl ads are about celebrities selling us chips or hyping summer blockbusters, but this year things got interesting. Previous Super Bowl ads have not been devoid of political controversy, but with Sunday’s game coming in the wake of Trump’s de facto Muslim travel ban, some companies took the theme of resistance to heart.

Airbnb took direct aim at Trump’s policies with its”#weaccept” spot. (The company was also part of a large group of tech companies who filed an amicus brief Sunday night in opposition to the ban.)

It’s A 10 Haircare took a more humorous approach but still dragged Trump into the commercial break by trolling the president over his hair.

Ads that didn’t necessarily have an agenda were given a different context thanks to the current political environment. A Coca-Cola commercial that originally ran in 2014 aired just before the game and whipped up anger in the new Trump-spun political climate because it used a multilingual version of “America, The Beautiful.”

Then there was Budweiser’s ad about its German immigrant cofounder, Adolphus Busch. Though the company says any relation to current events is purely coincidental, it stirred up enough controversy to launch a poorly-spelled online boycott threat from those who found its pro-immigrant message galling.

Even an ad that Fox, the network broadcasting the game, forced to undergo changes because the original was deemed “too political” was able to make an impact after tweaks. Lumber 84’s ad was rejected in January because it featured a border wall in its tale of a Mexican woman and her daughter who trek to the United States.

The company ran a revised 90-second spot during the game that directed viewers online to watch the conclusion (which does include a border wall). The interest in the video was so overwhelming, Lumber 84’s site temporarily crashed from the load of would-be viewers.

The political nature of this year’s Super Bowl proves once again that we’ve entered a new era, one where separating politics from culture will be increasingly difficult.

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