Do you remember Lady Gaga’s appearance at Super Bowl 50 this February? Probably not, because what was shocking about the pop artist’s performance was how unshocking it was.

The red pantsuit and matching sparkling eyeshadow were flashy, to be sure. But her delivery of “The Star Spangled Banner” was technically proficient and comparatively orthodox, right in line with the artist who, 15 months earlier, had released an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett. As Lady Gaga sang, military jets flew overhead; a remote shot showed American forces standing at attention at a base in Afghanistan. It was US civil religion at its most familiar—and most strange.

For Lady Gaga has not just been going into a gentle mid-career twilight of jazz standards. Her career arc also continues to bend toward transgressive imagery, a vociferous hunger for fame, and a quest to mother, gather, and heal her fan army of social outcasts. In October 2015, she starred in the TV series American Horror Story: Hotel in a violent (indeed, to two minor characters in the scene, fatal), blood-soaked, pornographic orgy.

In this context, Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance, superficially so unremarkable, in fact was one of the most dislocating and disturbing moments of her career. How does Lady Gaga’s vision of inclusion align with the realities of war symbolized by the military personnel who surrounded her? How does her vision of transgression live alongside the big business interests that funded the show?

At least since the carnivals of medieval Europe, down to the excesses of modern-day Mardi Gras in the heart of the Bible Belt South, Western culture has tolerated the occasional transgressive display as a sort of release ...

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