The will of 51,000-something people notwithstanding, Lady Gaga will be Super Bowl LI’s halftime headliner. And eager fans who have tried in vain to divine setlists and guest appearances from rehearsal photos and cryptic Instagram posts have been just as quick to trumpet Sunday’s performance the victory lap at the end of a banner year for Mother Monster. To them, and perhaps even to casual admirers, she’s been on the edge of something resembling a “long-simmering” resurrection for some time now—and this weekend’s gig marks the rightful homecoming for a pop queen who’s been away from her throne for too long.
Yet calling the infuriatingly named Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show her big return puts too much of a make-or-break expectation on the performance that, frankly, feels a little unearned. She’s been too busy trying on different hats to find one that really sticks, so it’s rather premature to crown her the comeback queen when we haven’t seen what the full breadth of that might entail. Gaga’s not back yet, but she might be soon.
Of course, that’s not to malign the last two years in her career, which have been less trial and error and more an impressive feat of course correction. After she flopped hard in 2013 under the weight of Artpop’s self-importance—as well as, no doubt, a build-up of general exhaustion for attention whoring and meta-commentary about fame—no one could blame her for pivoting in a direction away from meat dresses and declarations as cavalier as “pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me.” She scaled back the gonzo costuming but she didn’t abandon it wholesale, hiding but never truly disappearing.
Instead, she hid in plain sight. Cheek to Cheek, her 2014 jazz collaboration with Tony Bennett and her biggest musical effort post-Artpop, was a play at restraint—with just the right touch of classed-up Gaga hamminess. Her other noteworthy performances—a Sound of Music medley at the 2015 Oscars, a tribute to David Bowie at last year’s Grammys—were no different in their mission of showcasing talent, albeit in different packaging. She even found time to make a case for Gaga the Awards Contender, winning a Golden Globe for a role on American Horror Story and scoring an Oscar nod for “Til It Happens To You,” her ballad for sexual assault victims.
Yes, it might have all been another string of play-pretend—being the queen of reinvention demands that of you—but it was exactly what she needed to do. By trading divahood for normcore, she earned back goodwill from a public that had grown tired of her over-the-top antics. More than that, stripping down the theatrics and controversial messaging shifted focus back to her voice, the most consistent and powerful, if not underrated, tool in Gaga’s arsenal. Though the refrains of “wow, she can really sing” never surprised diehard Little Monsters, a conciliatory jazz-rock phase was just enough to surprise dismissive passersby, pulling off the critical trick of building credibility with traditionalists outside her fanbase.
Now thanks to Joanne, which was ambitious in vision if not undercooked in delivery, she’s built off that momentum and let it lay the foundation for what is theoretically the next phase of her career. Fans of chart-toppers such as “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance” might not care for the lo-fi quality that the rock-meets-country genre often demands, but it’s the only album she could have made after the last two years. After all, progress comes slowly, and a sharp zag back to, say, a “Lovegame” 2.0 would have turned away new converts, who would have been all too eager to call her rebirth a fluke. Say what you will of Joanne, but it’s got enough crossover appeal to have put Gaga through a string of high-profile appearance on late night shows, awards performances, and even the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Sure, the album conjures yet another Gaga persona—this time, all-American troubadour by way of millennial pink hat—but it leans hard into its heartland sound, precisely the reason she landed her Super Bowl slot in the first place.
Which brings us to Sunday. Short of Beyoncé crashing the stage a second year in a row, Gaga will be the only one at the center of the furor this weekend; an absence of guest performers basically ensures that much. This gives her the opportunity to truly flaunt herself and two years’ worth of contrition without any distractions, insofar as a Gaga performance can be distraction-free. All she has to do is pull enough from her canon of greatest hits (sorry, Artpop) and sprinkle in one or two of Joanne’s best hooks and she’ll easily remind everyone why she was the biggest pop star in the world not that long ago.
Speaking of her “Telephone” partner, it’s not too far a stretch to argue that Gaga is in a similar point in her career as Queen Bey was when she performed at her first Super Bowl. Fans and critics met Beyoncé’s 4 with the same tepid response as Joanne, but that didn’t stop her from turning her halftime show into a launchpad for an Internet-breaking opus and all the acclaim and ubiquity that came after. It was a game-changing moment that helped define Beyoncé’s career from that point on. And if she lets it happen, Gaga could very well follow that lead. This is her launchpad, her means of keeping those new fans and bringing them into the definitive next phase of her career.
Joanne is a musical detour, that much is obvious. Now, no one is saying her next LP will eventually sit in the upper echelons of pop music next to Bey’s self-titled, but if she’s got any smarts about her, then that’s certainly what she’s aiming for. Gaga’s been floating around in foreign territory for long enough now. Once she’s moved on from that–or at least shown us how she plans on threading those iconic Alexander McQueen boots to this goddamn pink hat—then we can finally say she’s made her comeback.