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The Unbearable Lightness of Superbowl Music

A late-imperial malaise hung in the air over Glendale, Arizona on Super Bowl Sunday. It could not be chased away by all the bright artificial lights that shone down on the lip-syncing roster of mediocre Obama court entertainers summoned to bring either solemnity or punch to the occasion. The starry skies of hope had disappeared above the gloom.

Coming six teeth-grinding years after Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, the off-gassings of Sunday Night’s Democratic entertainers simply made the smog of boredom and melancholy that much more toxic to the musical ear and the body politic.

First up was John Legend, born as John Roger Stephens. He lives up to his stage name only in his legendary talent for setting new caloric lows in saccharine self-love: the unbearable liteness of his music makes you think he’ll float up from his piano like the Son of Flubber. The black Prada boots with which he pedaled his piano must have gold soles.

Legend kept his dismal reputation intact by sapping what little merit there ever was in Irving Berlin’s World War I anthem, “America the Beautiful,” long a staple of the Super Bowl pre-kickoff ritual. He sat at the piano oozing something resembling song, while obsequious harmonic bowings and scrapings of his bleached out gospelisms took the semi-rousing edges off the original.

If you can call what Legend does musical performance, it is the music-making of someone in the late stages of cryogenic therapy. This might explain the black quilted Dolce & Gabbana jacket that gave his appearance a wintery look.

The extreme-low energy of Legend’s own brand explains why he could never get a half-time bid, in contrast to the other leading Obama Court Composer will.i.am, who did the 2011 Super Bowl. Mr. am’s “Yes You Can” served as the offertory hymn of Obama’s first presidential run. The milquetoast hip-hop celebrity parade (running from Scarlett Johansson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) that joined Mr. am on the viral video was the political pendant to the breathy urgings of Legend’s “If You’re Out There,” a soporific campaign motet downloadable for free on the then-Illinois senator’s website and subsequently inflicted on the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Many who once harbored illusions that candidate Obama was a man of moral fiber and political vision now grant themselves the satisfaction of disillusionment in the carbon-rich twilight of his presidential tenure. My reeducation program for these millions is short and brutally effective: self-administer the excruciating four minutes of Legend’s 2008 paean to non-politics by clicking this link.  This is the medicine you deserve—a tepid gruel soaked in the soymilk back-up sonorities of the Agape Gospel Choir and spooned out gloopily by Legend himself. In saying nothing at all this song said everything about the Obama years that were to come.

It was fitting, then that Legend used his Super Bowl spot to usher in the Lame Duck years of Republican Congressional Majority: nothing could be lamer than Mr. Legend’s music.

After Legend was wheeled from the fifty-yard line and back to his cooler, Idina Menzel mounted the podium for the national anthem. Like Legend, Menzel, has been getting out the vote for Obama since 2008, and has had her marquis appearance at court in the 2010 Broadway extravaganza at the White House.

Her brief at this year’s Super Bowl was to bomb the Star-Spangled Banner back into the Stone Age. Mission Accomplished!

After the ponderous first-note and nightmarishly slow-motion descent down the arpeggio, it was clear Ms. Menzel was intent on breaking Metropolitan opera star Renée Fleming’s record for the longest anthem set last year at the Meadowlands. Backed by a military choir, Fleming laid siege to the national hymn in its bicentenary year of 2014, breaching the Maginot-line of two minutes for the first time in Super Bowl history. One yearned for Billy Joel’s brisk ninety-second belt-out jobs in 1989 and 2007.

After making heavy weather of the opening, Menzel lurched more quickly up towards the highpoint of the first phrase in performative reference to the origins of the tune as a drinking song. These inebriate weavings put into doubt her effort to outdistance the metrically reliable Fleming. But Menzel made good use of some comically distended appoggiaturas and a fierce stranglehold on the high notes to bust through the two-minute barrier.

In the end it was a close contest, but the photo finish showed that Broadway had beaten the Met by a single second. Minutes later in the bowels of the stadium the fallen national anthem was wrapped in the Star-Spangled Banner and then flown to Arlington National Cemetery for immediate burial. Like coffins returning from Obama’s foreign wars, no photos were published.

There is precedent for dispensing of the national anthem at the Super Bowl; Vicki Carr did only America the Beautiful in 1977. Expect the Star-Spangled Banner to be MIA from here on out, to be replaced by a newly-composed hymn from Mr. am or Mr. Legend—or both. This new intro to the most sacred of American rites will be secured by executive order as a bulwark against future Republican Super Bowl choristers such as Meatloaf and the Oakridge Boys, now waiting in the wings for Bush III to give them their long-overdue chance on the gridiron of song.

The only element of the tiresome pre-game ritual that had the right pacing was the coin toss, its spinning loop a paragon of aesthetic elegance, quickly efficient and unimpeachably decisive—and an instructive contrast to the musical waffling that preceded it.

The half-time spot went to sex symbol Katy Perry, another Obama functionary dispatched to distract the global millions of the president’s political impotence at home and abroad. In this effort she continued previous service that has included painting on a dress in the form of correctly filled-out Obama/Biden ballot and covering the president’s favorite song, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a “grassroots” campaign event in Las Vegas in 2012.

Perry relishes form-fitting outfits and she donned a similarly tight number for her Super Bowl week press conference, a blue and orange confection with graphics of fully inflated footballs placed directly over her fully-pumped breasts. When fed a straight-line about DeflateGate by a “journalist” she leaned over the podium and offered a fuller view her décolletage and responded to his question by assuring the world that “nothing in my performance will be deflated.”

More importantly, however, Perry is the siren of the Affordable Care Act. Obama tweeted his thanks for her support of the act when Perry did her hit single “Roar” at the 2013 MTV Music awards a few weeks before ObamaCare was due to be rolled out. Thus Perry entered the Super Bowl stadium for her show on a giant lion while singing that same song, the unofficial hymn to the signal domestic legislation of the Obama years.

After that mouse had roared, Perry’s “Dark Horse” joined the bestiary. Then it was time for her breakout single “I Kissed A Girl,” which I happily grappled with in this space back in 2008. In Super Bowls of yore the same-sex topic would have elicited howls of outrage from wide swaths of the Christian Right in whose choir stalls Perry herself once sung as the daughter of evangelical missionaries. Yet the only brimstone I could unearth about her bi-curious breakout came from Ken Ham (no relation to Super Bowl great Jack Ham of the Pittsburgh Steelers). The present Ham is the CEO of the Creation Museum, and he dismissed Perry’s song as “meaningless garbage,” before unleashing damnation on the Carnival Cruise Super Bowl ad that used a JFK speech suggesting that we call came from the sea.

When Perry started into a gutsy version of “I Kissed a Girl,” I was hoping for a cameo by Madonna, herself a grizzled Super Bowl veteran. That was what the immoral majority yearned for: some close harmony and still closer womanly embraces. But alas, it fell to yet another Obama foot soldier, Lenny Kravitz to deflate any lesbian eros from the occasion. In a breathtaking bit of wrong-headed overstatement, Kravitz was recently hailed by the President as “one of the great rock stars of all time.” Kravitz’s commando appearance in Sunday night was meant to redirect the girl’s kisses in a male direction. Kravitz strummed with onanistic fury at his unplugged guitar as Perry went down on her knees in front of his ersatz electronic manhood. There was no girl to kiss, only a stubbly third-rate rocker and his fretted phallus. This was a duet not a threesome. The current protocols of what counts as family entertainment at the Super Bowl remained unviolated. After reaching his quick climax, Kravtiz slunk back to his luxury box to clean up.

Not sure whether I was appalled or just disappointed at this missed opportunity and obscene bit of hetero triangulation, my attention began fade, the eyelids heavy from Pepsi sugar shock. I momentarily regained consciousness as Perry did her masterpiece, “Firework” and was lofted heavenward on her trapeze, like the Queen of the Desert Night. From the ramparts of the stadium the rockets glared redly, and half-asleep I dreamt I saw Obama torn to shreds by the Republican Furies and spread, like Orpheus, across the sky as a constellation.

I awoke with a start and the awful realization that the clock had only just started on the fourth quarter of Obama Time, and the fourth quarter is the longest one of all.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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