When the Super Bowl turned fifty in Silicon Valley last Sunday the nation and the world yearned for a display of the latest developments cooked up in the high-tech ‘hood that hosted the annual bash. The Global Village thirsted not after stale Budweiser and sugar-poisoned Pepsi, but a bracing draught of the future.
That Apple and Google both hid behind a cloak of advertising silence suggested to me that something far bigger than a quirky thirty-second t.v. spot was in the offing. As the Super Bowl trudged on through its three-and-a-half hours (of which about twelve minutes were made up of actual football action), I began to suspect that the game was being contested not by humans but by locally designed and fabricated androids. The concussions and twisted knees were pure theater. As Dame Helen Mirren put it in a fourth-quarter Budweiser ad inadvertently pinning the tail on the demented CTE donkey that is the game of football, brains had already been donated to science. The gridiron grass shipped in from Alabama may have been real, but the players were as artificial as Astroturf.
As the clock ticked inexorably down, I kept waiting for the cameras to cut away from the dejected Panther’s Cam-Clone Quarterback to the human Newton poolside in Vegas watching the game on his Virtual Reality goggles, Doritos in one hand, Bud Light in the other.
Still more disappointing than the high-tech overlords’ (apparent) decision to leave the gladiatorial combat to emotionally and physically fragile humans, was their acquiescence (also apparent) to the imperatives of the “traditional” half-time show.
All traditions are made up at some point, those in the amnesiac United States constantly being either newly invented or conveniently re-branded as “classic.”
When the first Super Bowl was played in Los Angeles back in January of 1967, it was the Grambling State University Marching Band that did the half-time entertaining. Over the next quarter-century the likes of George Burns, Carol Channing, the Rockettes, an Elvis impersonator, and Chubby Checker joined various high school and college bands to do the honors.
Then at the twenty-fifth installment of the game in 1991 in Tampa timid steps towards the modern pop show we now endure were made by the boy band New Kids on the Block. (A decade later it would be a line-up of Old Men on the Stoop that was summoned by the NFL: Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty.) In front of a small-town Fourth-of-July-style float mock-up of the Enchanted Castle these perky post-adolescents joined a throng of military children dressed in Disney costumes to uplift the world. The whole thing was literally Mickey Mouse.
It was Michael Jackson who, two years on, would explode the quaint conventions of the half-time show into the full-blown extravaganza it has tried to be ever since. The MJ magic even gave the notoriously uncompetitive game a big boost in ratings, though it was hard to deny the evidence that his own career was then in decline.
The fiftieth Super Bowl’s siting in the high-tech mecca of Silicon Valley offered the chance to show the world that not only American values, but also more importantly, American stars were immortal. A Jackson hologram had already done the 2014 Billboard Awards at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, so why not a posthumous star turn at the show he made what it is—and, by his absence, what it isn’t—today?
Where was the hyper-real virtual Jackson doing Billie Jean then moonwalking over to Ella Fitzgerald (Superb Bowl VI) for a duet on We Are the World with the Sandy Hook Elementary School survivor kids (XLVII) as the back-up choir? Who wouldn’t be wowed at the diminutive Mickey Rooney (XXI) in close harmony with Diana Ross (XXIX) on Take Me Higher or Tony Bennett (XXIX) doing the Funky Chicken with James Brown (XXXI) on I Feel Good, or Britney Spears (XXXV) dancing cheek-to-cheek with Madonna (XLVI) on Give Me All Your Luvin’? Instead of these Parnassian pairings we got a few nostalgic video shots of Michael, Brown, the Grambling marchers, and others. There was nary a glimpse of Michael’s nipple-flashing sister Janet (XXXVIII).
Instead of hi-tech fireworks, the lo-tech tenor of the proceedings was set by an opening that featured a few meek bottle rockets hardly visible in the smoggy Santa Clara Abendrot as a clutch of supernumeraries scuttled onto the field holding cards above their heads to form the red-white-and-blue Pepsi logo, sponsor of the silliness that followed.
That silliness began with the stupendously inept lip-syncing of yet another boy band, this one called Coldplay. This quartet of clap-happy crooners, strummers, and keyboard doodlers had recently insinuated itself onto one of Obama’s playlists and therefore qualified for the hallowed Super Bowl slot. These not-so-new-kids’ forthcoming album will boast a track that samples Obama himself singing Amazing Grace. Expect a hologram of the whole quintet to light up halftime when Super Bowl C pits the Buenos Aires Bulls against the Shanghai Triads in Riyadh’s House of Sod Stadium in 2065.
Rather than basking in these and kindred virtual delights at the game’s fifty-year mark we had to settle for the supposedly real time performance of the “artists” themselves. I hear the philosophers among you strenuously objecting that there is little to no ontological difference between lip-syncing and holographic presentation: neither is “live” in any meaningful sense. While the music of both PDSs (Performance Delivery Systems) is pre-recorded, pre-programmed holographic images are far more convincing than star-struck hams like Coldplay or the middle-aged stumblings and bumblings of Springsteen (XLIII) or The Rolling Stones (XL).
These scholastic distinctions came into glaring relief when recent half-time retreads Beyoncé and Bruno Mars routed the milquetoast Coldplayers from the rostrum. Beyoncé did the halftime show three years ago; Mars got the nod the next time round. Had someone up in the booth simply pressed “Replay”?
Retrospective impulses were evident as soon Beyoncé materialized on the field wearing bombshell bandoliers that echoed the crossed gold sashes in which Jackson had appeared at the outset of his mythic half-time turn. Reaching farther back into the grab bag of history, the dancing diva launched a supposedly courageous homage to the Black Panthers, a group that, like the Super Bowl (and your Musical Patriot!) was born fifty years ago but, with the help of the FBI, turned out to be not as long-lived as the football behemoth. Viewers hoping for signs of resistance to, or at least critique of, the military-football complex were braced by the female dancers’ black berets, 60s Afro wigs, and fist-in-the-air Black Power salutes.
As a result of these outfits and gestures, protests were launched this week in front of NFL headquarters against Beyoncé’s “race-baiting.” Rudy Giuliani miraculously kept a straight fact when he took to Fox News to plead for “wholesome Super Bowl entertainment” rather than provocations of the police. All of this was good clean play on either side of America’s racial line of scrimmage.
But Beyoncé’s retro fashion statements give off no sparks of radical action. All that could be said was these were the form-fittingest uniforms of revolution ever donned. If a holographic Stokely Carmichael had been conjured it would have spouted a fun and fiery sound bite then plugged Pepsi.
Here’s betting more global attention was paid to the Beyoncé troupe’s black leather hot pants with fetish zipper right all the way up the front than all the Black Panther paraphernalia. Many commentators have claimed her energetic choreography as trenchant political critique, but the effect was simply the same old Super Bowl half-time message served up since Michael’s day: sex, sex, sex.
The vitality of the revolutionary moment was anyway sapped of the most mild threat because Beyoncé was not even singing, her lips and mouth as precisely choreographed as her legs and arms to the canned “cocky fresh”—as the lyrics have it—of her new hit Formation. Beyoncé was merely playing herself: a hologram would have been more dangerous.
Still, against the razzle-dazzle of Beyoncé and her sisterhood, Bruno and his boys, even though draped in yards of black leather and loaded with bling, faded into the California twilight as quickly as the pallid, low-temp opening act from England.
Aside from the military choir that intoned “America the Beautiful,” the only musical voice that performed in real time belonged to Lady Gaga. With smug assuredness she traversed the National Anthem in a sumptuously sequined red pantsuit, her nails sparkling with blue polish. The third American color was provided by the abundant mantle of her peroxide hair and the triangular décolletage between her lapels, a patch of expensive real estate she thumped with her own clenched fist (blindingly a white one, too) in the dramatic pause before the final “brave,” belting out that syllable with full lung over a spacious fermata into which jetted the Blue Angels. The crowd went wild while the troops beamed in from Afghanistan stood at attention as impassively as the stony presidents just-shown at Mount Rushmore.
The Lady peered out from beneath the glinting red of her of her lowered eyelids, put her hand to her heart and pronounced her benediction into the sequined-wrapped microphone: “God Bless, you, America.”
Gaga’s whiteness had been well-calculated to contrast with the half-time blackness of Beyoncé as evening fell on the far shores of Manifest Destiny.
At that point I still clung to the hope that what the corporate dramaturges and techno-visionaries hadn’t counted on was that the two rival queens of song would join hands and voices and lead the android Broncos and Panthers in a Spartacus-style uprising sweeping from Levi’s Stadium to the geeked-out après party at Google international headquarters campus only eight miles away, these artificial gods of the world’s most brutal game eager to inflict their own reality on fantasy land.