A month and a day after the storming of the Capitol came the national rites of healing. These were enacted not in an atmosphere of penitential sacrifice and prayer, but through elaborate choreographies of unbridled hedonism and brutality performed in a coliseum—Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, a temple of sport and commerce named after one of the largest banking institutions in the world—dedicated to the collisions of giant men of tremendous strength and speed. The peaceful transition of power needed to be sealed in violence on Super Bowl Sunday.
The order of the Super Bowl service has long begun with the pre-recorded presidential interview. This time around the game plan called for reassurance. The new Commander-in-Chief lamented the lack of Super Bowl parties and empathized with the impoverished masses, even as he informed them that he wouldn’t be able to get them their promised minimum wage. Having spat in the guacamole, affable Joe laughed endearingly at his youthful dreams of becoming a “flanker back” in the NFL.
Now resting his weary bones in the locker room that is the White House he refused to commit a bet to one team or the other, though he nodded in the direction of the “young guy”—quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs—rather than the Republican ex-Patriot, Tom Brady, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Biden punted on the minimum wage, he took a knee on maximum wage. His man Mahomes, hoping to secure his second Super Bowl title in a row, is the second most highly paid sportsman on the planet, his ten-year contract extension surpassing half-a-billion dollars. There was no risk for the Old Flanker of getting blindsided by questions about income inequality. In contrast to the in-your-face coverage Tampa cornerback Antoine Winfield used to neutralize Kansas City wide receiver Tyreek Hill, Joe knew he would get a comfortable cushion from CBS’s Norah O’Donnell in the first network television interview of his presidency.
Biden also knew that the Super Bowl music would do the downfield blocking for him.
During his Inauguration just two weeks ago, Biden had been cheered on by Lady Gaga’s rousing Star-Spangled Banner. Her full-throated song of support launched from the battlements of the Capitol came four long years after she had done the Super Bowl half-time show in the early days of Trump’s reign. The Democratic Diva had started that 2017 spectacle from the ramparts of Houston’s NRG stadium doing God Bless America while dozens—maybe hundreds—of drones spread the American colors behind her in the night sky. These aerial death-delivery systems arrayed in patriotic formation were a fitting symbol of her beloved Obama’s “smart” interventionism. Whether on the gridiron or called in to cancel an Iraqi tailgate party, war unites America against its enemies.
Trudge ahead four years to 2021 and Super Bowl LV and those enemies are now domestic. One president’s freedom fighters are another’s terrorist threat that has to be met with all available resources—not least a resolute musical response.
The Super Bowl is where that music resounds most forcefully. Starting off the ritual was H.E.R. (which stands for Having Everything Revealed), who hails from Babylon by the Bay—San Francisco being the farthest point ethically and geographically from the enemy Heartland. S. H.E. served up an America the Beautiful that was all glinting pastel, denim and décolletage, a haze of purple sunglasses and nail polish against the glaring red, white and blue of the picket line of American flags arrayed behind H.E.R.. The artiste tried to glam up the nineteenth-century snoozer by oozing around its melody while basking in the arrangement’s canned strings and shimmering cymbals. H.E.R. softly screaming guitar solo and a key change did nothing to raise the patriotic pulse. It was all flower and no power: Jimi Hendrix as Hallmark card. Thus the Super Bowl overture was expertly calibrated to Biden’s anti-ideology. In spite of the musical assault on the cherished (by some) original, all remained safe and soporific.
The National Anthem trod a parallel path towards diversity. Jazmine Sullivan and Eric Church brought together black and white, red state and blue, male and female, country and soul in the first Super Bowl Star-Spangled Banner duet in fifteen years. (The 2006 duo made up of Aretha Franklin and Aaron Neville set the record for longest anthem which, surprisingly, remained unbroken.) The 2021 pair was the very sight and sound of rhythm-and-blues bipartisanship. Church strummed and yodeled, then Sullivan oodled and ornamented. The result was a kinder, gentler anthem that strolled rather than marched. Church and Sullivan also took it up the obligatory half step before slowing things down for the big, patriotic finish with its martial intoning of “for the land of the free.”
Over the “home of the brave” flew not the frolicsome fighter planes of the Blue Angels but, for the first time in Super Bowl history, a triad of the nuclear strategic bombers: B-52 Stratofortress, B1-B Lancer, and B-2 Spirit “stealth” (price tag of the last is $2 billion; that is, about four Mahomes.) In time of Covid, a far greater existential threat than the virus bisected the evening sky above Raymond James Stadium as the rockets glared redly. Perhaps some saw and heard this vision as welcome confirmation that a sane man, Joe Biden, now had command of the nuclear codes. But this brazen and ominous display of might and madness only confirmed the continuity of the military-football complex.
Down beneath these airborne weapons of mass destruction, a black person and a white person sang in harmony, but this was hardly comforting. Sullivan and Church put the bomb in bombastic.
This image of doom was not easily wiped from the memory by the gridiron war and orgy of consumerism that ensued.
The specter of death lingered until the half time show, done this year by The Weekend. In spite of this fellow’s stage name, Sunday was not his night. He emerged from the backdrop of a de-peopled city, a Pepsi moon glaring down from the black. A chorus of ghouls in spectral white with red eyes did deathly calisthenics behind him. After the dystopian opening number came a backstage detour into a hall of mirrors for “Can’t Feel My Face,” a paranoid hymn whose mood was hardly lightened by the line “I know she’ll be the death of me.”
As The Weekend boogied through the maze of light he was menaced at close range by zombies in red blazers with gauze wrapped, mummy-like, around their faces. Was this an allegory of the backrooms of Washington power or of the fragmentation of the mind under threat of disease, death, and nuclear destruction?
After more high-decibel and psychologically fraught hijinks, The Weekend shuddered towards his show’s terrible end with the big hit “Blinded by the Light.” Having invaded the football field itself, the zombies enacted one last frenetic mass dance, finally falling dead like radiation victims against the numbered yard-lines become metrics of mortality. As the smoke from the fireworks fusillade rose up, one thought of Trinity and Hiroshima. It was the darkest hour in Super Bowl Halftime history.
Yet the faithful cheered the spectacles of sport and music. They had come to Raymond James—twenty-five thousand in a stadium that normally held more than twice that number—to participate in the national liturgy and support the hometown Buccaneers. As the game veered towards a blowout, the giddy libations of triumph flowed. In the rapturous fifth quarter of this Super Spreader Super Bowl the zombie masks came off.
And after all had left the stands, after the sets had been dismantled, after the concessions had closed, and the cameras turned their gaze elsewhere, a lone figure emerged from the tunnel into the darkened stadium. He was pale and gaunt and ageless and looked a lot like Tom Brady.
It was Death come for a victory dance in the end zone. As he jigged he plucked out an almost recognizable patriotic tune—a minor-key version of Hail to the Chief?—on his battered ukulele. As morning broke, Death looked up and smiled at the flocks of bombers flying east towards the dawn’s early light.