Donald Trump leads by example. He does so with his thumbs. He leaves it to others to jump in the cockpit of the bombers or helm the submarines, shoulder the AR-15s or don the helmet and pads and head out onto the gridiron of death.
Trump bunkers down far from any fire fight or blindside tackle, especially when it’s one like the head-to-head shot that felled wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the first half of last Sunday’s Super Bowl, a vicious yet completely legal cruise missile strike that might well have cost the defending champions the game, not to mention the fallen football player a large number of his brain cells.
The President leads with his opposables. Trump may be superheavyweight with a bantam brain, but he can sure dish it out, even with eight of his ten fingers tied behind his back.
While the President kept aloof from the proceedings, this camera hound uniquely eschewing a prime time spot, there were still those who followed his fighting lead in Minneapolis in the U. S. Bank Stadium.
That stadium’s name should be a parody of generic, monolithic greed. But it isn’t. With its Wall Street façade of glass and steel, this sinister structure subverts long-held symbols of public sport, transacting architecturally the chill compact between corporate power and big-time circus-style entertainment. The stadium’s myriad glass panels kill birds in their thousands, unsuspecting collisions also unwittingly dramatized by Cooks’ concussion—and eliciting about as much sympathy from rabid fans and their corporate masters. Some tweeters even joked about it: “Unfortunately for the Eagles, U. S. Bank Stadium is a bird killer.”
From the outside the U. S. Bank stadium is the very antithesis of play: it advertises the pursuit of money and the reduction of people to monetizable units. In other words, it’s the perfect place to host the Super Bowl. Periodically during Sunday’s phantasmagoria of violence, militarism, consumerism, and plain old bad taste, I screened in my head a blockbuster combination of John Frankenheimer’s thriller Black Sunday (in which a bomb-rigged blimp threatens Super Bowl X) and Alfred Hitchcock’s lower-concept, but far scarier The Birds. How fitting and memorable it would have been to see a vast murmuration of starlings smash through the U. S. Bank glass plating to plunder and befoul (and befowl!) the whole spectacle, blacking out Brady’s final drive in a blanket of beating wings.
Still, in the clarity of its lines and materials, there is sobering honesty to the U. S. Bank Stadium. It provides an accurate representation of the state of play: corporate scofflaws from Wells-Fargo (the arena that bears its nefarious name is home to all the other Philadelphia teams beside the Eagles) to U. S. Bank know how to blindside a cityscape and citizenry and—like the Eagle safety Malcolm Jenkins, who laid out Cooks—get away with it.
For most of the history of American football, behemoth arenas, both domed and open to the elements, referred back to the civic venues of the Romans. Try as it might, the cool blue glass of the U. S. Bank Stadium cannot obscure these origins. It cannot hide the fact that corporate survival and football are both blood sports. Football is gladiatorial combat with a lower immediate kill rate, though not an inconsiderable one, and with grave longer-term neurological dangers. Veterans of foreign wars and domestic pigskin battles were arrayed and honored in Minneapolis, but none of the maimed, or coffined, or fully-addled were. As for the populace itself, its members may not get fed to the lions anymore, but they can still be bled by the powerful.
And manipulated by their minions.
Barely an hour after the American singer Pink had belted out the national anthem, she was giving her throat a rest as her thumbs were busy in the manner of current presidential tactics. A tweeting critic had filed a pithy review of her performance at #pink: “you sucked.” The singer responded with West Wing fury: “Yeah but at least I suck while singing our countries national anthem, and you just suck by yourself on a dirty couch.”
These were fighting words worthy of the good-natured mean-spiritedness of The Donald. Roused by insult, Pink got presidential.
The singer has previously been in Tweet trouble with liberal opinion, sending off a message back in October that pleaded for Trump to be given a chance. Her “dirty couch” diction was merely a reformulation of Make America Great Again.
In her finest hour (or, more accurately, her finest one minute-and-fifty-three second—a relatively brisk delivery that ran against the expectations of most Las Vegas oddsmakers) Pink had been beset by the flu. It’s a tune far older than the national anthem itself, and an all-purpose excuse deployed by singers down the ages, from Milan’s La Scala to the New Orlean’s SuperDome.
Just before she broke into song on the world stage, Pink spat what looked like chewing gum into her over-manicured left hand. She later claimed it was a lozenge, and a necessary medication to allow her to do justice to the national hymn. But it hardly mattered what the bolus was: her actions made her look like a sheepish ten-year old like those annually trotted out in choir-format for America the Beautiful, this year cooingly falsettoed by Leslie Odem Jr.
A performer of Pink’s should have learned the first commandment of Super Bowl song: you don’t spit out your gum before launching into the national anthem. Or your lozenge.
Her personal damage control for this misstep had political overtones: You’re not going to bring back industrial jobs to the heartland by lounging for hours on end in a Bud Lite-drenched and Dorito-stained recliner. Get up and sing!
But only the most gullible did not immediately realize that Lozenge-Gate, like everything else in the Super Bowl—from the fashion choices of the entertainers to the knuckle-balled coin toss by a veteran of Iwo Jima—was meticulously choreographed in advance.
For what Pink did after depositing her gum in an off-screen location was nothing short of a revolutionary—a musical transformation with grave implications for the republic. No, it was not a matter of the great ones playing hurt (Brady and Gronkowski) and the greater one’s singing while sick (Pink): Lozenge-Gate was staged to draw attention away from what Pink and her commandos did to the anthem itself. Beneath a covering fire of Las Vegas harmonies and Velveeta strings fattening up the once-lean anthem, Pink sang it in four-four time. Until last Sunday the Star-Spangled Banner has always been triple time. Before Super Bowl XII the high Hosanna of the national liturgy has been waltz.
The waltz has lurched beneath Christian Aguilera’s ululations in 2011 and been battered by Renée Fleming’s operatic bravura of 2015, but it has not fallen down. For all of the militaristic muscle applied it to, from Marine Corps choruses to Army bands and to Blue Angel flyovers, it has almost miraculously retained the residue of its louche origins as a British drinking song—the Anacreontic Ode.
Crucially, for this first Super Bowl in Trump Time, the anthem was made to march in lockstep with the military-football complex.
It was no surprise, therefore, that Pink wore gray silk camo—a sort of Afrika Korps, Victoria’s Secret —for her clandestine mission carried out in plain sight. The menace of military dictatorship became even clearer when Justin Timberlake likewise donned camo (woven sublimely into the Prince William plaid of his jacket) for his dance-till-you-drop halftime extravaganza of self-love. Even post-Weinstein it was Timberlake the male molester of 2004’s Nipplegate who was still standing in the limelight, Janet Jackson shamed by his pawing into an oblivion she will never escape from. Super Bowl glare blinds moral vision: #MeToo on the holiest of Football Sundays means “I want my glory—and will get it!”
But those equipped with the right kind of protective eyeware can follow closely the eclipse of democracy. Even if Trump didn’t appear in person at the Super Bowl or in a cameo television slot, he was watching and listening. He has probably already given Pink a medal for her valor.
She had hijacked the anthem in front of the nation and the world. It wasn’t the F-16 flyover beyond the corporate glass that told us that the military dictatorship looms, but the frightening, foursquare scream of her voice.