Lady GagaâsÂ high-wire, drone-assisted Super Bowl halftime show was immediately praised by fans and publications alike as being apolitical.
âLady Gaga keeps political poker face while singing of inclusion at Super Bowl,â announced the Guardian. âLady Gaga steers clear of politics in Super Bowl show,â claimed the Hill. Breitbart, Fox and various other outlets published articles with similar headlines.
As far as I know, Gaga didn’t say anything political at all. Just rocked it. https://t.co/ldffdShNRe
â Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) February 6, 2017
â David Wordsmith (@WordSmithGuy) February 6, 2017
â Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 6, 2017
Some, though, argued Gaga included a veiled message with her song choices. Much has been noted of her setâs inclusion of âBorn This Way,â âa melodic celebration of âgay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life.ââ
Most, though, seem to think that was her only subversive choice on Sunday.
What many of the commentators may have missed, though, was that Gagaâs decision to sing âThis Land Is Your Landâ may have been an inherently political statement.
Though many consider the song to be an unblinkingly patriotic anthem â the American flag set-to-music â it was originally conceived as a sarcastic protest song by legendary folk singer and labor agitator Woody Guthrie.
By the 1940s, Guthrie was sick of hearing Kate Smith singing Irving Berlinâs âGod Bless Americaâ (ironically, the song Gaga opened her setÂ on before slipping in a coupletÂ from âThis Land is Your Land.â)
While holed up in a fleabag hotel in New York City during a marathon writing session in 1940 during which he penned âHangknot Slipknot,â âThe Government Roadâ and âDirty Overalls,â Guthrie kept hearing the Kate Smith hitÂ on the radio.
In an irritated fit, he wrote the words for a response song he sarcastically titled, âGod Blessed America for Me,â according to NPR. Each verse also ended with this line.
It wasnât seemingly meant as a love song to his country. As noted pop critic David Cantwell wrote in Slate:
Guthrie had battled his way through the Depression-torn 1930s, boots on the ground, from Texas to Los Angeles and all around the American West. What heâd seen during his hard travelinâ â prejudice and hatred and violence, crowded labor camps, empty stomachs and hungry eyes â led him to conclude that heavenly endorsement was the last thing America had coming.
Eventually, he scratched this title off the lyric sheet, replacing it with âThis Land is Your Land.â He also replaced the closing line of each verse.
After borrowing the melody from a 1930 gospel recording, âWhen the Worldâs on Fire,â to strum on his guitar, which was famously adorned with a sticker reading âThis Machine Kills Fascists,â he was ready to perform the new tune.
In 1944, he recorded itÂ withÂ Moses Asch, but that version mostly disappeared. It wasnât published until 1997. Had it been, Americans may have viewed the tune in a different light.
As Robert Santelli wrote in âThis Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song,â
The version of âThis Land is Your Landâ that most Americans claim familiarity with does not contain the lyrics that doubt Americaâs integrity or questions the countryâs commitment to essential freedoms.
Those lyrics in the fourth and sixth verses of the song often have been washed away or simply ignored, which is why âThis Land Is Your Landâ has been able to stand side by side with the other great patriotic paeans to America.
The Asch recording contained one of these two verses. The official recording, released years later, contained neither. Gaga did not sing them either during the halftime performance.
The forgotten fourth verse, included in the 1944 recording, feels particularly prescient in the infancy of a new administration led by a president who hasÂ imposed a travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Consider that President Trump signed executive actions to build a border wall with Mexico, and it sounds downright prophetic.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said âPrivate Property.â
But on the backside, it didnât say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
The meaning is as blunt as the sign he sings about. America claims to be for everyone, but it isnât.
Meanwhile, the sixth verse, which was scribbled on that original lyrics sheet but doesnât appear in the 1944 recording, is even more politically charged. This lyrical quartet is sharply critical of America, hinting at an unfulfilled promise that the government would take care of its citizens.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
Guthrieâs daughter Nora said she wasnât sure why this verse wasnât included in the recording, nor did she know why the 1944 recording was never released. But she suspected it has to do with the governmentâsÂ strong-armed reaction to such divisive art during that time period.
âThis is the early â50s, and [U.S. Sen. Joseph] McCarthyâs out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material,â NoraÂ told NPR.
Still, as NPR noted, the original version âwas sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America.â
But much like with our national anthem, the verses that donât quite fit a patriotic narrative have been, intentionally or not, edited out of the sociocultural consciousness. Now, outside of certain circles, theyâve been all but forgotten.
Some artists, such as folk singers Pete Seeger and Guthrieâs son Arlo, have nonetheless strivenÂ to preserve the original lyrics, singing them whenever they performed the song. This tradition continues to beÂ upheld by many of todayâs stars, such as Bruce Springsteen.
So, no, Lady Gaga did not make the sort of bold political statementÂ BeyoncÃ© did at last yearâs Super Bowl, when she appeared with 30 dancers in Black Panther berets.
Sometimes, though, statements can be subtle. Gagaâs inclusion of âBorn This Wayâ certainly carried a political message. Thereâs a good chance her incorporation of âThis Land is Your Landâ didÂ the same.
On the other hand, maybe she was trying to have it both ways: âGod Bless Americaâ for the right and Woody Guthrie for the left. After all, she does have a tour on the way.