Standing atop Houston’s NRG stadium, Lady Gaga opened her Super Bowl LI halftime show with two couplets from “God Bless America,” pivoted to a line from “This Land is Your Land,” and closed with the final words of the US’s Pledge of Allegiance. In the wake of a great deal of political protest surrounding the inauguration of Donald Trump two weeks earlier, several media outlets ran pieces in the days leading up to the Super Bowl wondering if Gaga would use the platform to make some sort of statement. Critics who did hear politics in Gaga’s performance noted the origin of “This Land Is Your Land,” a biting Woody Guthrie protest song penned as something of a rebuttal to “God Bless America.” There’s more, though. Zooming out, viewers see Intel’s “shooting star” drones shift behind Gaga from a mass of red on one side and blue on the other to a unified red, white, and blue flag waving proudly during her recitation of the pledge. Rather than some call for solidarity among red and blue state voters, though, the drones illuminate the way US politics often exceed any particular president.
Shooting star quadcopters bear little resemblance to MQ-9 Reapers, but both types of unmanned aerial vehicles have come to be known, colloquially, as “drones.” While Amazon envisions drones that deliver consumer goods to your door, and Intel lights up the sky with dazzling drone choreography, MQ-9s deliver missiles to Asia and the Middle East, lighting the sky with explosions that kill hundreds of civilian non-combatants. The shared name of these two vastly different aerial vehicles begets a shared politics. No matter how much a company like Intel might push a “friendlier use of the term” drone in order to convince the public that “drones can be used in so many different ways,” the political reality of drones is that they have been used in the service of a government—spanning Bush, Obama, and now Trump—consistently loathe to admit how many civilian casualties they are complicit in. The irony of Gaga’s performance is more than just a coyly-placed Guthrie song. It’s the irony of a divided polity, either championing or deriding a post-truth president, that historically unites when it’s time to lie to itself about the destruction of brown and black bodies carried out in the name of a land promising justice for all.