A darkened stadium massed with tens of thousands of fanatics in precise formation, marching in place to patriotic music of the homeland. Powerful searchlights sending their columns up into the inifinity of the night sky in a display seen for miles around and in striking shots from an overhead Zeppelin to be used for propaganda. Nuremberg 1937 and the Nazi Party Congress?
No, it’s Tampa 2009 and the Superbowl halftime show.
Both in the high-energy event itself and even more strikingly in stills, the iconography of the Bruce Springsteen’s grand Superbowl entertainment owed its inspiration to Albert Speer’s Cathedral of Light with its 150 vertical beams rising up from the Nuremberg Zeppelin fields into the Bavarian heavens. The designers of the Superbowl strayed from the static effect of Speer’s installation, by waggling the stately shafts of light as if they were unable to resist the infectiousness of the Boss’s full-throttle music. This lascivious quavering demonstrated why the Nazis distrusted the beat of degenerate music from America—jazz and its miscegenated descendents. The menacing majesty of Speer’s original architectural concept would have been weakened if the beams had taken to shaking their booties to a jungle beat.
With one eye on the past and the other on the future, the Superbowl strove to outdo Nazi precedent with the massive effusions of fireworks that punctuated the show at the climax of songs, then finally and orgasmically after Springsteen and co’s twelve minutes were up and the mock referee ran on stage to throw a penalty flag and bring the show to a close. That was when all hell broke loose in a mighty fusillade. With the Nazi imagery clearly in one’s head, the rockets’ red glare was pure Eastern Front. Thus the halftime show combined two aspects of Speer’s dark creativity: the architect and the director of munitions. The fascist design in repose leapt into action with terrible dynamic energy: the Cathedral of Light shattered by a re-enactment of the Blitz.
But when those streaking bolts of fire were frozen by photography for more considered contemplation, Speer’s presence loomed as brightly as the searchlights and flares. Masters of mass spectacle, the Nazi would have admired how the Superbowl exploited the primordial power of light and dark, stasis and movement.
No less incisive a commentator on American culture than the late George Carlin laid bare with comic precision the military metaphors that give meaning to football: the Steelers’ final drive, “marching down the field,” was the last of many examples of this discourse in Sunday’s game. As I recall, the Blitz is one such metaphor Carlin never mentioned, though it’s perhaps the most terrifying of the lot.
What must the international television audience, especially those watching the Superbowl who have experienced real American bombs falling, thought about this theatrical representation of military might and national unity?
Also unsettling was the way these searchlights and fireworks cast a retrospective glare on Springsteen’s most recent national, indeed international, appearance only a couple of weeks ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial to kick-off Obama’s inauguration welcome week with the “We Are One” Concert—the very title yet one more sinister slogan of blind allegiance to America. On that Sunday the Boss stood on the steps of the monument in front of a robed choir in columnar formation singing the post-9/11 anthem “The Rising.” A version of that same choir, also in church garments, appeared briefly in the Superbowl show on football’s most sacred Sunday. Yet again, the Nazis come to mind in the way they attempted to divert the power of organized Christian religion for the purposes of fascist adoration and ritual. I’m not forecasting a Putsch, but I get doubly nervous when I see church choirs singing in front of nationalist sites.
At Springsteen’s Lincoln Memorial performance all was bright and gleaming. The patriotic ballad “The Rising” moving from the darkness of terrorist attack to the redemption of the “sky of fullness, sky of blessed of life”, traces a predictably trajectory from dark to light. The backdrop of the monument’s white marble presented an absolute contrast to the dark pit of the Tampa stadium at halftime. But during Superbowl I again saw the gleaming Apollonian facade of the columned monument even more starkly for what it is: too square, too white, too hulking in its proportion. And when one envisions the colossal Lincoln statue and remembers how frighteningly stiff, godlike, scary it is, one might also be forgiven for thinking of the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker’s Aryan nudes. Thankfully Abe is not naked. In a word the Lincoln Memorial, too, is architecture Speer himself could have created. That Speer clearly admired and wanted to surpass the grand axes and monumental classical buildings of Washington DC in his architectural plans to transform Berlin into Germania, the capital of the Thousand Year Reich, only helps to confirm these associations.
Some might even claim that the virility of such nudes is to be heard in the rough urgency of Springsteen’s voice. The manly was on display at the Superbowl, the modern Grecian games of the macho, even more so on the stage than on the field. Springsteen, having ditched his guitar, grabbed the microphone ,then lay back on the stage with the glinting microphone stand rising above him in impressive display. The subsequent knee-skid into the camera that brought Springsteen’s crotch into the living room’s of millions only confirmed the importance of the money shot when heroes are on the national stage. Expose a female nipple and you’ve got national outrage. Give us a breadbasket blackout and you’ve tears of national elation. (The 30-second “glitch” and thus brightening up the fourth quarter for the benefit of Comcast cable subscribers in Arizona offered the appropriate coda to the halftime strutting.)
Springsteen promised good clean rock ‘n roll fun, though purity is an elastic comcast. But mass spectacle is by definition ideological, the Superbowl the highest holiday of American cultural life. The nostalgic hits Springsteen delivered at halftime tugged persistently at American heartstrings even as the rock n’ rollers shook their creaking hips: the euphoria of the show was built on unalloyed sentimentality. The Boss’s decision to include the title track from his new album was canny product placement, but it also continues in the vein of patriotic vein of “The Rising.” How could such an occasion as Superbowl Sunday pass without yet another variant mantra of Obamian hope uniting the nation in song: “I’m working on a dream / And our love will make it real someday.”
Springsteen is not only a supporter of Obama but also a friend. If you go to his website, which is also his Facebook account, you’ll see most prominently among his friends a photo of the President. In contrast to the amorphous group of FOBs (Friends of Bill) in Clintontime, the new FOBs (Friends of Barack) can be quantified with the powerful Facebook software. I’m guessing that Internet President is literally a Friend to millions.
Much was made about Springsteen’s finally relenting, or better condescending, to do the halftime show after several previous invitations had rebuffed. It was reported that the artist saw such a venue as beneath him and his E Street Band. The claim was that only after major acts like the Prince, Rolling Stones, Bonjovi, and U2 others have appeared at the Superbowl did Springsteen decide the context was worthy of him.
Springsteen’s Lincoln Memorial and Superbowl performances are the musical arch through which the Obama years have made their triumphal entry.
That Springsteen and the E Streeters, like Perlman and his inaugural quartet, were faking it along with a pre-recorded tape is so predictable that it doesn’t deserve mention. Again time constraints and insurmountable logistics provided the justification. That all must go down exactly as planned in mass public spectacle is something the Nazis understood better than anyone.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org