When Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake presented the most infamous moment of modern Super Bowl history during their 2004 Halftime Show (you know, when he accidentally tore her shirt off on national television), they scared the broadcast planners away from mainstream pop music for the better part of a decade. But while “Nipplegate” (as the “wardrobe malfunction” was dubbed in the days following that fated Super Bowl) cost CBS a fair chunk of change in fines and caused the FCC to rethink broadcast regulations, it also sent the Super Bowl Halftime Show on its most consistently great streak ever. Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and the Who: from 2005 to 2010, the performer slate at the Super Bowl Halftime Show read like a survey of some of the biggest legends to ever grace rock ‘n’ roll, a golden age of undisputable greats.
And then, somehow, 2011 became the year where the programmers and show planners decided to forgive pop music for its 2004 grievance. The result, a mid-game performance by the Black Eyed Peas, was the single worst Super Bowl Halftime Show of all time, a nationally broadcast tragedy by four of the least talented people in the music industry, their horrific songs and mind-numbingly stupid lyrics washing through millions of American living rooms. Last year’s Madonna showcase was a little better, structured to bring out the explosive spectacle inherent in the telecast and building to a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Like a Prayer,” the Queen of Pop’s best song. But gimmicky guest spots (LMFAO? Nicki Minaj?), rapidfire song switches and an overdose on visual bombast took away from the music and demarcated some of the most noxious pitfalls that have plagued the Halftime Show in recent years.
Which brings me to last night’s stylish Beyoncé performance. I must confess, I have never been a fan of the pop music diva, neither in her Destiny’s Child days nor in her larger-than-life solo career, and her Halftime Show, though roundly praised in the media and on the internet, did nothing to change my mind. On the heels of her controversial, lip-synched National Anthem from Obama’s Inauguration two weeks ago, Beyoncé took the stage like a woman with something to prove. No one could have faulted her ambition, but largely, I think it was misplaced. For a long time, the artists taking the stage at the Super Bowl have falsely assumed that style wins them more points than substance. Light shows, fireworks, holograms, unique stage designs: they have all become hallmarks of a “memorable” halftime show performance, but without compelling musical performances, they all fall to superfluity. In addition, the long-running tendency of artists to turn the show into a “medley” of hits rather than a set of two or three full-bodied songs is equally irritating, a trend meant to condense the full “concert experience” into 15 minutes, but one that leaves the show feeling disjointed, scatterbrained and lacking in visceral impact.
None of these things are new, and all of them remained present in the aforementioned Halftime Show “golden age.” Fireworks exploded from McCartney’s stage to coincide with the drum hits of “Live and Let Die,” while Springsteen tried to fit the entire arc of his three-hour concert setlist into the brief time slot, even though a full-length one-two punch of “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” would have served him significantly better.
Beyoncé was certainly championing the “more-is-better” mantra last night, running through snippets of eight of her biggest hits, bringing a troupe of a dozen dancers on to assist, playing off her own holograms for inspiration and taking the opportunity to bring about a Destiny’s Child reunion. But through it all, the flash-bang grandiosity of the whole thing was undone by the fact that musically, the performance was entirely take-it-or-leave-it.
To be fair, actually sounding good at the Super Bowl Halftime Show is a borderline-impossible feat. Stages and sound-systems have to be set up in minutes, instruments rapidly go out of tune in the often cold temperatures and performers have little-to-no time to get used to hearing themselves within the expansive stadium environment. Perhaps that’s why so many artists turn to stylistic flourishes to boost the excitement of their performances, but I was particularly struck by how thin and limp Beyoncé’s songs actually sounded last night. And I think Beyoncé has a legitimately great voice when she actually uses it: “1+1,” from her last record, is a mind-blowing display of emotive vocal acrobatics. But most of the diva’s biggest hits don’t take advantage of her primary talent: they revolve around repetitious, earworm hooks resting in extremely limited vocal ranges, built more for riotous booty-shaking than for sheer melodic sweep. And of course, those hits were the songs chosen to make up Beyoncé’s setlist last night. She never got a chance to show off her voice, and was so focused on dancing and hitting her marks that she sounded shaky even on the relatively undemanding melodic lines.
Mostly though, nothing about this halftime show struck me as memorable. When Springsteen played, his crotch-slide into the camera immediately became a hall-of-fame moment (and a .gif sensation) all over the internet; Prince’s funked-up cover of Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” made a splash that people were still talking about weeks after the fact; perhaps most unforgettable, U2’s rousing 9/11 tribute from the 2002 game remains one of the most frequently watched videos on YouTube. U2’s performance, actually, is my utopian ideal for what the Super Bowl Halftime Show should be, a communal, emotional and thoroughly moving musical statement that created its own live music experience rather than trying to condense every facet of the band’s epic stadium show into a 15 minute slot. That show was not only a terrific display of musical skill and song selection, but also a look at what a Halftime Show can be when it actually has a specific focus. The band’s then-recent hit, “Beautiful Day,” gave way to the pensive “MLK,” which then cascaded into the echoing intro guitar riff of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” And as the band played that soul-raising hymn, a banner rose to the skies behind them, listing the names of every single person who had died in the 9/11 tragedies. Bono ran circles around the stage, doing all he could to connect with the massive Superdome crowd, and in the final moments of the performance, tore open his jacket to reveal the American flag woven on the inside. It was oversized and sentimental and could have fallen so easily into cheesy or manipulative territory. But the emotion of the song and of the moment, the fragility of a nation who needed something to believe in again, gave that show a gravitational core, and Bono’s grand gesture immediately resonated as one of the most iconic moments in rock ‘n’ roll history.
It’s entirely possible that the U2 Halftime Show performance is just an unfair comparison. After all, at the moment that the band took the stage on Feb. 3, 2002, our nation was still reeling from one of the most crushing blows in history, from a cloud of unendurable pain and loss that will probably never subside. No performer alive, with the possible exception of Springsteen, could have translated that state of mourning into such an effective and meaningful performance. It was a magical, once-in-a-lifetime meeting of artist and moment, and the result will probably always remain the greatest halftime show of all time. But there are issues going on in this world right now that need to be spoken for, from thoughtless war to economic ruin to governmental corruption, and there are artists who could have given voice to those ideas in the same way U2 gave voice to 9/11.
When I go to a concert, I don’t go to see spark-driven special effects or groups of back-up dancers who I can never put a name to: I go to see the bands and artists I love. I go to have my faith in the power of music reaffirmed, to learn something new about these songs that have soundtracked my life for ages, about the artists on the stage and in connection, about myself. And while I don’t go into every show expecting virtuosic perfection, the presence of musical skill has never escaped me. I know a lot of people love Beyoncé. I know that last night’s halftime show delivered, more often than not, for most audience members, both in that stadium and around the country. But as someone who really couldn’t care less about the outcome of the football game, I at least want to see something special from the Halftime Show, something that will wow me and move me and still be important to me a decade after the fact. And quite frankly, if I expect more from the average Michigan tour date than empty spectacle, more than light shows and holograms and a few song snippets, then that expectation counts for double or triple when it comes to the multi-million dollar production that is the Super Bowl Halftime Show.