The transformation of the NFL—and by extension all professional leagues—from sports to entertainment can be seen most clearly in the evolution of the Super Bowl half-time show, now an object of such hype and ridicule.
Over its first two decades, the big game’s intermission cleaved to its roots back in the glory days of college football and featured marching bands and drill teams. We have indeed come along way from Super Bowl I in Los Angeles in 1967 with the marching bands of the Universities of Arizona, Grambling State, and Michigan carving up the turf of the Los Angeles Coliseum with military precision, to this year’s absurd pop antics of The Black-Eyed Peas, with electronic stage, and deus ex machina entrances from the heavens, and digitally altered vocals. Where the first Super Bowl presented the Arcadia High School Drill Team, the Black-Eyed pranced and prattled in the midst of scores of poorly prepared dancers strapped up in green neon—a touch Busby Berkeley pioneered back in the 1930s with far superior creativity and campiness. The billion dollar Cowboy Stadium owes more to Las Vegas than its namesake in Rome: and for the half-time show, the place became a phantasmagoric dungeon: the darkened high-tech edifice racing with electronic lights and the field covered with creatures of the underworld, clad in the costumes of neo-Gothic horror.
1993 was the year of no return, when Michael Jackson did the half-time show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. His appearance is said to have done more for the t.v. ratings than the game itself, a meeting of Wild West mascots in which the Cowboys trampled all over the Buffalo Bills. From then on there were no more marching bands, but instead a succession of big time acts: Diana Ross, Blues Brothers (James Belushi in for his deceased brother), Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, among many others. Only Prince had the flashing theatrical imagination to reintroduce the marching band—from Florida A & M, like Grambling State of Super Bowl I, a historically black university—into the new age of over-the-top entertainment for his 2007 show in Miami. The A & M uniforms were highlighted with the requisite neon piping, giving them a zany, ghost-like presence in Prince’s show, both a shadowy remembrance of the early Super Bowl half-times and an embrace of the marching band as the ultimate horn section—it was Tower of Power meets the Scots Guards meets the Marquis de Sade.
That was an unforgettable twelve minutes in which Prince strutted and strummed on a giant version of his icon (a merging of the symbols for male and female, a florid bit of androgyny that seemed in no way bothersome the censors as had Janet Jackson’s demure nipple three years before). God seemed either angry, or hugely pleased, in that he amped up the half-time light display in Dolphin Stadium with his own apocalyptic lightning storm, demonstrating that when it comes to spectacle humankind still has a long way to go to match such heavenly entertainments. What a way to have ended a show and career and a musical life it would have been for Prince to have been struck by a lightning bolt at the orgasmic conclusion of his last number, Purple Rain! Alas, God was at that perfect moment unwilling to transport Prince sublimely into his musical Pantheon with a single wave of his hand.
As even this partial list of performers suggests the half-time show has been heavy on the middle-aged and older set. The acts of the last three years—Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who—are all in their sixties.
In an attempt to retrieve some semblance of pop-cultural relevance and make the half-time show cutting-edge entertainment rather than flabby retrospection, the organizers of this year’s event turned to the Black-Eyed Peas. Though they’ve been around for fifteen years, this band has got a handful of platinum albums, and two of their recent songs “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling”—both of which were performed on Sunday in Cowboy Stadium—jostled with one another for the first two places atop the singles charts in 2009.
The group’s driving creative force is it main vocalist and multi-threat instrumentalist will.i.am. (I don’t know whether he’s ever credited San Francisco’s Church of St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane for the inspiration for his stage name, but it would be only fair if he offered that cash-strapped institution some substantial donations for the service they’ve done his brand.) Will.i.am added his diverse talents to Obama’s political cause back in January of 2008 with the song “Yes We Can,” whose lyrics are drawn from the then-candidate’s speech following the New Hampshire primary. In those four minutes of music-video demagoguery, we see, among many cringe-making moments, Scarlett Johanssen mouthing the title’s slogan, followed by a slumped and very uncomfortable-looking Kareem Abdul Jabbar doing the same. Various celebs join the mix looking earnest and hopeful as the gassy rhetoric of the presidential contender echoes in the background above willi.i.am’s sincere guitar chords. Even Herbie Hancock gives his blessing to the millenarian rhetoric with a simple piano benediction at the end of the video.
After the election will.i.am followed this trite anthem, a fitting musical summation of Obama’s emphasis on persona over political content, with “It’s A New Day,” a song that puts the history of black struggle into the rapper’s meat grinder and spits out a string mini-sausages for the inauguration buffet table: bite-sized and utterly unappetizing.
In the Black-Eyed Peas will.i.am is joined on the front line by the fetching Fergie (not to be confused with toe-sucking, one-time Windsor), and two lesser lights, apl.de.ap and Taboo. Fergie describes herself as a “very sexual person,” a characterization which, one would have thought, might have worried those same forces that got all hot and bothered by Janet Jackson’s nipple. But that is the bizarre nature of American prudery.The female form can be trussed up in all kind of provocative pseudo-S&M armor and not give offense, until a no-fly libidinous zone is exposed.
By her own standards Fergie’s Super Bowl costume was excessively chaste, the pleated skirt extending to mid-thigh. Where her bandmates were fully encased in leather, she donned high-tech sequined shoulder pads in a sultry bit of football-themed cross-dressing.
While the visual easily trumps the aural in these chaotic free-for-alls on the fifty-yard line, the most interesting thing about the show is what it says about the state of affairs beyond the arena. If the onslaught of commercial opens a window onto advertising creativity and its exploitation of the desires American consumers, then the half-time show might tell us about the state of musical entertainment and its place in, and effect on, civil society. Will.i.am’s music might even say something about state of play at the half-time of Obama’s Big Game. The Black-Eyed Peas literally speak for the generation that vaulted Obama into the presidency and their sentiment are the more telling with respect to the development of youth culture since they come after the recent half-time appearances of all those ancient rockers.
The most striking aspect of Black-Eyed Peas’ music is that this chart-topping repertoire is scarcely made of up songs at all, but rather bits of slogans and abstracted effusions that seem hardly to correspond to the musical qualities they are willy-nilly attached to. Just as politics is now so often been reduced to the isolated rhetorical flourish unhinged from fact and logic, so too the Black-Eyed Peas started off with “I Gotta Feeling,” whose lyric continues by incessantly reassuring itself that “tonight’s gonna be a good night.” The video presents shower scenes and women, especially Fergie, in provocative underwear being zipped up into form-fitting outfits that are later shed at a dance-party where women, including the bisexual Fergie, are seen to grapple with one another sexually. According to the video, a good night for the Black-Eyed Peas involves anonymous sex, massive amounts of alcohol and falling down dead drunk on the L. A. sidewalks.
This underbelly of lust and debauchery was all conveniently suppressed for world-wide consumption on Super Bowl Sunday. Even Fergie had brought her overheated libido down several degrees in the frigid North Texas evening. Some of the seething sexuality of the videos might have been projected onto the neoned dancers mobbed around the stage, but they were much a more a simplistically choreographed chorus-line than an orgiastic organism.
The video of half-time show’s penultimate number, “The Time (Dirty Bit)” also involves a dance-till-you-drop rave. The song, if you can call it that, keeps assuring itself that it came to “have a good time.” Yet the images impart another message: digitized vomiting from too much drink would seem to suggest a pretty bad time.
A wisp of disappointment could be heard to escape the lips of Obama’s chief musical campaigner, when Will.i.am shouted out to the President directly in the midst of “Where is the Love”: “Let’s get these kids educated, create jobs.” The paltry impact of these admonitions could be seen in the failing stagecraft: the stage itself was transformed into red lights reading LOVE, but the right line of the V remained dark. Someone had pulled the plug on the power of love, even as will.i.am and his group ranted on about America’s need for it.
Like Obama’s recent State of the Union address, the music presents a totally implausible account of its own reality. Stagnating in its own lyric, perpetually grinding to a halt from its lack of imagination, and constantly assuring itself of a truth it knows to be false, the Black-Eyed Peas could be taken as accurate reflection of the underdeveloped self-awareness of the group’s great political hero.
Will.i.am’s populist call for jobs and education quickly gave way to the more honest hedonism of a a final reprise of “I Gotta Feeling”—the perfect sentiment for all those bettors who laid down their unemployment money on the game.
You heard it here first: next year, Obama joins forces with all his musical allies and does the half-time show himself.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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