The land was parched, its people too. The rivers that had raged through the Nation’s once-wild Southwestern desert shrank in their canyons. Vast man-made lakes shriveled to puddles behind massive dams, cathedrals of leisure, irrigation and electricity transformed into towering monuments to vanished abundance, implacable wailing walls of hubris and shame.
The ancient king perched perilously on his throne far away in a White House built long ago by the enslaved. Crowned only by a tuft of transplanted hair, the ruler spoke through false teeth of a better-built tomorrow. From the old play book/prayer book, he read his litany of Hope. Few listened. Fewer believed.
The thirst was not just for water, but for spiritual renewal, mental and physical health, environmental redemption, political reconciliation, and cultural rebirth—all the better if these could be had at a member discount and made to arrive in a single, recyclable package with no extra-charge for same-day delivery.
In spite of vague assurances and tax-incentives for the sustainably minded, all knew that the catastrophe was underway and gathering momentum.
Thus the annual ritual of expiation took on eschatological resonance. Super Bowl LXVII was itself one big Hail Mary.
The acolytes and priests were divided into two orders.
The Eagles soared southwest from a sea of asphalt in the City of Brotherly Love (512 homicides in 2022). Their totem was the symbol of the Nation. White wings spread across their helmets that were the color of money. The choirs of the faithful sang “Fly, Eagles, Fly” and flapped their arms like the noble bird of prey they prayed to.
The opposing denomination of celebrants in this Mass for the Masses came from the once fertile Plains, now scarred over and saturated with poison and arms. These Chief priests dressed in vestments bright as fresh blood. Their headgear was adorned with a technology of death—an arrowhead. This tribe’s faithful conducted a solemn liturgical dance at the appointed times, chopping with their arms and chanting a mystical, made-up war song that also mocked the peoples that their own forbears had brutally conquered. There was no respect for the vanquished (though victorious tight-end Travis Kelce would later scream for it during the postlude like zealot possessed), merely a fervent belief that it was and is better to be Red than Dead.
The Holy Contest that these co-supplicants joined was one of great skill and even greater violence. Unlike the Maya ballgame that is its forerunner, American Football no longer ends in the team captain’s decapitation: this year’s MVP already had way too many commercial endorsements for that. Instead, targeting of the head had been forbidden by the Sacred Council of Football, though there have been near-sacrifices in this just-concluded season. A Dolphin writhed on the turf in Miami like the serpent Quetzalcóatl. A Buffalo Bill was struck lifeless then revived by the gods. But there have been no deaths-in-action on the consecrated gridiron in recent memory. In modern times the mortal sacrifices of brain and body are more decorously spread out over a career of collisions.
Into the Valley of the Sun rode the Chiefs and flew the Eagles. Their pilgrimages ended in a vast sanctuary of sport clad in precious metal that glinted oracularly as kick-off neared. The Eagle priests were certain that they could read the future in these coruscations: Philadelphia by a field goal. They beseeched their avian myth-mate, the Phoenix (legally speaking State Farm Stadium is in a municipality called Glendale, but mysticism, Dearly Beloved, cannot be gerrymandered), would bestow on them a victory that covered the spread (1.5 points) and fed either greenbacks or bitcoin or both to the Philadelphia Phanatics.
The hallowed pre-game rituals of dedication have been observed since time immemorial, i.e., the first Super Bowl in 1967. These rites have evolved over the ensuing decades, with the latest element of the liturgy this year’s addition an antiphon of shameless propaganda befouling the memory of Pat Tillman, who, after the attacks of September 11th turned in his pro-football vestments for army fatigues. Kevin Costner’s pious, red meat voice-over shamelessly redacted the annals of heroism, putting the Sharpie through the lines in the missal that would have told the Nation that Tillman had been killed in Iraq in 2004 by friendly fire in a war he had lost faith in. This appalling distortion could not cover up the central truth of the Super Bowl and of the Super Power that stages it: the Enemy is US.
After this soldier psalm (presumably to be a fixture from here on out), two bards offered up the National hymns. Introduced as “the R & B legend,” Baby Face strummed a red-white-and blue guitar beneath his breathy “America the Beautiful” that had neither rhythm nor blues. As the cantor eased into song, the television cameras caught Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni spitting disdainfully as if on America itself—which is exactly what he was doing since Arizona has been in America since 1848 when it was stolen from Mexico. Sirianni made up for that apparent blasphemy by shedding buckets of tears for the next item of the service, the Star-Spangled Banner, the cameras lingering on his literal outpouring of patriotic emotion.
A cynic might have said that those tears were shed not for love of country but on account of the scruffy treatment given the anthem by Kentucky Krooner Chris Stapleton, not baby-faced, but instead abundantly bearded. The limping progress of Star-Spangled Banner had no peril or glare, though Stapleton, accompanying himself on his Fender Telecaster, did send a couple of screaming bombs bursting into the air midway through the epic before ambling circuitously across an indistinct finish line. Canny bookmakers had set the over-under for the anthem at 2:03. According to my time piece that’s exactly where it ended. Profound and financially consequential debates over musical cadences and closure quickly heated up among Las Vegas aestheticians and odds-makers.
Whether baby–or bristle-faced, both soloists were themselves relics sedated by nostalgia.
The energy was on high and was not derived from testosterone. The military jets were all piloted by women for the first time in the history of the flyover, another ancient tradition that began all the way back at Super Bowl II in 1968—not coincidentally at the height of the Vietnam War. The female trigger fingers must have itched to send a heat-seeking missile down on Stapleton’s melancholic anthem, but there was no heat to seek.
Instead, these Vestal Virgins of American Air Supremacy merely discharged their duty of softening up the desiccated fans for the much-anticipated arrival of Rihanna in all her glory. After ninety-minutes of ads interspersed with football It was time for the Halftime Show, Apple taking over sponsorship after Pepsi’s fifteen-year reign.
The Pop Deity appeared first on a platform high above the field. A certain Pharisee of the Fourth Estate (Jon Caramanica of the New York Times) tut-tutted that this was a “gesture cribbed from Ye’s 2016 Saint Pablo tour,” but that’s just angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin, pop-culture know-it-all-ing. The Goddess could only come from above.
After the fighting female bringers-of-death came the singing female bringer-of-life. This was another first—a pregnant woman taking, in this case literally, the world’s highest stage. Here was the regenerative visual and sonic salve that the Nation needed—America’s amniotic fluid. Rihanna wore red like the blood of birth and of the Chiefs—an augury that she would grant them the laurels. She did not hide the contours of her life-giving body. Her breasts encased in glossy in latex, she repeatedly brought her hand to her crotch, motions that reminded the world where we had all come from and where the new life would come from too.
All around the Earth Mother squirmed first dozens, then hundreds of dancers sheathed in fertilizing white, the fecund goddess poised amongst the irrepressible, writhing urgency of insemination.
“Tell me, O Muse, of the (wo)man of many devices”: the light of thousands of smart phones filled the stadium as the muse herself began to sing. She sang of the riches of life: first of money (“Bitch Better Have My Money,”) then and throughout of more money and even more sex (“Make It Last All Night”—a cheeky wink at the fourteen minutes allotted to the halftime show) and lots of booze, as in the thirst-quenching “Pour It Up.” For the finale she returned to her platform and rose back towards the sky she sang of, goddess and stadium glittering like the title of her last number, “Diamonds” before the citadel erupted in fireworks.
Rihanna was proudly pregnant, and no surgeon general would dare issue a warning against any high-decibel pain inflicted on the unseen womb-dweller. Did the show sound different to the unborn? What was it like inside, this concert of war and worship, this contest between raging consonance and numbing dissonance, this battle—or was it alliance?—between distortion and clarity? And what if the ultrasonic blast broke the waters so that Baby be birthed on the halftime altar high above the fifty-yard, then pushed miraculously upward through the cervix of State Farm Stadium and delivered aloft by those Flying Navy Midwives to the strains of “shine bright like diamonds in the sky” intoned by the Mother in a state of postpartum bliss?
Yet in spite, or indeed because, of its rapturous totality, this festive liturgy of new life, of Baby’s birth and Nation’s re-birth, could not erase thoughts of earlier deaths.
Pat Tillman’s ashes were scattered not in Arizona where he played football but at sea.
After Rihanna’s supernatural Super Bowl acts, what will rise from the ashes of empire in the stricken desert where she sang?
We can only pray it won’t be another Phoenix.