The Musical Patriot: Prelude to the Fall of the House of Usher

Timberlake ogles, Jackson hangs her head: Nipplegate, 2004 — YouTube.

The night that word came through that Usher would be headlining the Super Bowl halftime show this year, you had a dream that you were trapped in a deserted warehouse pursued by a pink tank:

What to do when plagued by nightmares of an opponent this strange, this dogged, this dangerous?

Maybe it’s time, after all these years of hatchet jobs, to hang up your cleats, turn in your gear, give up the game for good. Let the Super Bowl and its halftime show alone and turn your limited time and talents instead to the Good and the Beautiful …

As a kid you were slender of aspect, weak of bicep and slow afoot. Your best friend from the neighborhood was a record-setting running back on the local pee-wee football team and you wanted more than anything to join in, don the armor, be a man, or at least a boy—a real American one.

But you were prevented from playing the violent national game by a wise and watchful mother most concerned about preserving her son’s piano-playing fingers, not to mention the rest of his body and his brain.

That same pre-teen gridiron titan of your island youth would go on to become a world-class professional musician himself. Early-onset football couldn’t stop him.

The Fates would also fix it so that this lifelong friend would have a son who would go on to make a chiaroscuro cameo in that soon-to-be Super Bowl Halftime headliner Usher’s 2016 video
“Chains,” a mournful attack on racial injustice.

You’re a classical guy by training and inclination. You have no right to weigh in on the bone-crushing, brain-bruising game, nor on Usher’s messaging, soon to be deployed in support of the NFL‘s ongoing campaign to cast this vicious game presented by world’s most lucrative sports league as a force for social good.

Even while you feel the urge to pitch it all in, you also can’t help but sense that weird fascination, nay, compulsion spreading through you again. Doing battle with that onrushing juggernaut of an overdetermined pink tank with a goggled Usher peering out of the hatch fills you not just with dread but with masochistic delight.

How to get ready for the battle?

Go to the film.

There is abundant material to study, now nearly sixty games spread out over as many years. Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail, as a famed coach from another sport (basketball’s John Wooden) was wont to intone.

And so you prepare for yet another edition of the Super Bowl halftime show—its music, its mayhem, its Machiavellian politics.

In the film room, the sprockets clatter into action, the frames spool past the light.

The bodies begin to move across the screen: first Janet Jackson in her dark leathers (and at the end, not in them, at least not in the right spot); then P Diddy clad in unholy white vestments; Nelly in his t-shirt and tattoos; Kid Rock draped in the American flag; and finally, Justin Timberlake, just turned twenty-three, proud of his hard-won manly stubble and Banana Republic chic.

One score and zero years ago: it is 2004 again and you’ve returned to Super Bowl XXXVIII, two-thirds of the way through the entire history of what you like to call the Great Game—a reference to the nineteenth-century contest between Britain and Russia over supremacy in Central Asia.

This Super Bowl is in Houston not the Crimea, though the Charge of the Light Brigade (“Half a league, half a league …”) can still be heard to volley across all of football’s valleys of death.

In the 2004 game, the New England Patriots will win their second championship, still early in the relentless expansion of their dominion. At the same time, the United States is fighting its own ongoing edition of the Great Game in Afghanistan, graveyard of invading empires. And so, during the patriotic song medley that now always opens the national rite come live shots (i.e., images of the living, never the dead) of imperial troops stationed on distant frontiers.

It is still early in a year that will conclude with yet another “historic” presidential election. The War on Terror is underway, the forces of darkness engulfing liberal light, or so some like to assure themselves.

Watching the film one is reminded that the Old Republican Guard (American version, not the Iranian one) remains in power: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld—a backfield formation that now appears as quaintly vintage as the single wing seen from the era of the RPO.

Speaking of vintage formations: at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the local marching band from the University of Houston joins in, the second-to-last time a college band would participate in the halftime show. (The final hoorah came with Prince in the purple rain of Miami in 2007.)

The digital dawn is breaking. The Houston halftime show sponsor is something called AOL, a corporate acronym whose meaning is now obscured in the mists of history.

A public service ad runs just before the halftime show starts. John Elway, Beyoncé, Muhammad Ali, Julia Roberts, Chris Rock, and finally, Tom Cruise urge Americans to “Choose to get involved … Choose to Vote!”

We cut from this ad directly to the field where country singer Jessica Simpson is surrounded by the marching band’s drum corps. Scantily sequined and wearing a drum major’s hat (the Shako of the Hussars, yet another nod to the Battle of Balaclava and the Great Game), she emits a sexy smirk and gives a shimmy, then yells into the microphone, “Houston, Choose to Party!” deftly putting the preceding calls to civic duty in their proper perspective.

After a rousing hip-hop intrada from the marching band, Janet Jackson gets down to business with her biggest hit, “All for You.” Her dancing makes clear what the lyrics don’t, muddled (or perhaps artfully censored) as they are by the sound system:

All my girls at the party, look at that body
Shakin’ that thing like you never did see
Got a nice package alright

Hip-hop hero P Diddy materializes billowing column of stage smoke for his “Bad Boy for Life,” rapping, “I’m the definition of (Ugh) half man, half drugs.” The incense and white raiment give pronouncements an oracular quality. Game films serve that purpose too: you look into the past and hope to see the future. A few minutes later Diddy will predict his current woes still more presciently with “Mo Money More Problems,” bragging that “True pimp niggas spend no dough on the booty.” He will spend, ever more.

This wholesome message is deemed fit for family consumption on Super Bowl Sunday when the sacred consorts with the profane. P Diddy will rebrand himself Love in 2017, a moniker that would fit, fist-in-glove, with the NFL’s current slogan “Be Love.”

Back in 2004, P Diddy is still an “artist” and dutifully referred to as such by young and old alike. His Super Bowl words are deemed virtuosic expressions of his rhetorical art.

Since the New York’s Adult Survivor’s Act granted rape victims the right to bring suit even after the statute of limitations has elapsed, Diddy Love, like his old pal Donald Trump, has been blitzed by a series rape allegations and court cases, settling one brought for $30 millions in November, and then immediately getting slapped with a couple more before the expiration of the New York law a few days later.

No, the NFL is not about to spread its Love with Love. Diddy’s halftime days are done. Yet there he is on the film claiming over and over again that having Mo Money is the real problem, not his crimes. He’s at least partly right in 2004: his accusers will want his. The Oracles are laying odds that the financial empires of Trump and Diddy fall together.

Another rapper emerges, this time from Delphic flames. It’s Nelly. His message doesn’t stray far from the main theme: “I was like, good gracious, ass is bodacious,” he rhymes as he paws at his package, referred to earlier, if obliquely by Janet J.

Since the Houston Super Bowl, Nelly has also settled rape charges brought against him.

After Kid Rock disgorges his berserk message, more palatable than his predecessors’ if only because it was gibberish (“Bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy”), Jackson returns for her final fateful three minutes.

Before her coda comes to a close, she delivers a quick homily of a type now firmly embedded in halftime liturgy, an uplifting message meant to cast benevolent light on the dark knights (all but two of the owners are white males) of the NFL round table:

Prejudice — No!
Ignorance — No!
Bigotry — No!
Illiteracy — No!

With these bromides echoing through the clouds of smoke and rampant misogyny, Jackson then watches in feigned outrage as Timberlake rips off the upper left quadrant of leather breastplate exposing for a split second her womanly skin, a rhinestone star riveted over the offensive body part.

Janet, you were outnumbered, and outmanned in 2004 and still are. It was and is a man’s world, a man’s game.

At the back of the film room the last celluloid frames rush past the lens and then slap against the projector’s body. Diddy’s down, Donald not yet out. In fact, before the year is out, Trump might be in again. Janet is mostly gone from public view, though she’s never out of mind come Super Bowl time.

Having seen, heard, and studied Diddy, his past heroics and current woes, you’re now ready for those twelve tumultuous minutes when Usher is in the House. Just before Christmas the star tearfully concluded a 100-show “residency” (that’s what “artists” do, residencies) at the Park MGM in Las Vegas, where the Super Bowl will be held this year.

Since then, Usher has also been drawing up his game plan, limbering up his tongue and massaging his socially conscious image, hoping the Fates don’t blindside him come the second Sunday in February.

You (and your long-suffering readers) have earned a bye-week from Super Bowl’s past and future.

The takeaway from this team film session is this: words matter, even if, during halftime’s greatest spectacle, actions always speak louder than song.

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