Look, no one NEEDS my help to take down Superbowl halftime shows. Even at their very best, they are merely acceptable (Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen). Generally, they are entirely forgettable (The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, the Black Eyed Peas, etc, etc) – an exercise in spectacle for its own sake, blessedly delaying the moment when Tom Brady hoists a trophy and thanks Stonewall Jackson or some awful garbage.
But when they're bad, they're unforgettable. They are a category of misguided and confusing monsters that are all their own. They're so jarring that making sense of them takes, well, a 3000 word ramble.
There are four distinct eras of Superbowl halftime show, each with different-yet-similar purposes. Born in banality, they fluoresced into a brilliantly backfiring propaganda and advertising machine, until they returned to banality, only to find it, and themselves, changed.
For the better part of six months, I devoted many of my hangovers to exhaustive research on the subject. Then I lost interest and didn’t write this piece for about three or four years. But now, for reasons unknown even to me, I am sufficiently moved to bring to you my condensed history of America’s Creepiest Spectacle, the Superbowl halftime show.
Also, if you don’t feel like listening to me ramble, or if I’ve already cornered you at a bar and given you a version of this spiel, skip to the clips in the third age.
Also, Errol Morris, call me.
The First Age: Marching Bands (1892 - 1971)
Professional football was born in 1892 when “Pudge” Heffelfinger accepted $500 to play as a ringer for a single game. After a few decades of players being paid what prices they could command, the NFL was formed by a consortium of owners who felt that adequate compensation for players was ungentlemanly, and wished to collaborate to prevent it in the future.
The Superbowl effectively arrived when “The Greatest Game Ever Played” was played in 1958. The first championship football game broadcast nationally, it featured a halftime show of a marching band.
It is an article of faith that anyone, at any point, has ever liked marching bands. Frankly, it’s doubtful that even the people IN the bands enjoy them. There are two leading hypotheses: one, that they must be understood, along with polar bear dives, yogurt enemas and mortification of the flesh, as deliberate suffering inflicted to toughen the spirit and resolve of the players, fans, and country; and two, that they cannot be understood – that, like Job, it is simply our lot to endure them, and be humble before a God whose wrath, and whose beneficence, we cannot comprehend.
Regardless of which deity’s wrath they embodied, they played. They were a form of entertainment acceptable to the pathologically patriotic and muscularly Christian, they were portable, they were cheap, and they were there.
Until something better, more distilled, more potent, came along, and until the need for something stronger arose.
The Second Age: Up With People (1971 – 1986)
The Moral Re-Armament (MRA) began in Britain as a Christian outfit organized to oppose Nazism. A ramification of total war, they offered a way to “morally re-arm” the nation as it struggled against Hitler – and, immediately thereafter, Stalin. When everything was a front in the war, songs became salvos.
Over time, the MRA redefined itself to better oppose its opponent: the USSR was a closed state, the MRA celebrated openness; the USSR had a controlled economy, the MRA celebrated freedom; the USSR was atheist, the MRA welcomed all faiths. And when America invaded Vietnam, and many young people started opposing the war, the MRA made it its mission to convince those young dopes that imperial conquest was groovy, fab, and maybe even marv.
“Thus, while thousands were crying, “Down with war! Down with patriotism!” a new voice of a generation was heard crying “Up With People.”” - “Born To Upturn The World”, David Allen.
Renamed “Up With People”, given 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, loaded with Halliburton and Exxon sponsorship, and eager to literally sing the praises of western capitalist democracy, they hit the big time with their performance at the 1965 World’s Fair. They demonstrated their deadliest weapon: the Sing-Out, a big medley performance featuring live band, hundreds of dancers, and a stern lecture about why America is great and it’s your fault if you’re not thriving.
“In Ancient Rome, they felt so free / doing what comes naturally / they were so busy being merry ones / that they didn’t notice the barbarians!” – “Freedom Isn’t Free,” featured in their breakout performance at the 1965 World’s Fair.
I’d like to apologize at this point for what are bound to seem unqualified defenses of the USSR. I’ve rewritten this piece like five times, and every time, I start out writing about Up With People and I end up making the Soviet Union seem perfectly sane and reasonable. Suffice it to say: I don’t say that Up With People is a backfiring propaganda machine for nothing.
Anyways, this corporate tax dodge-cum-privatized Pravdafied parade was quickly tapped by the buzzcut brigade to play the halftime show. After all, why should totalitarians have the monopoly on stadium-filling dance routines? Put a jazzy swing, some bellbottoms, and a smile on large-scale army drills, and you’ll make those Soviet formations look like Worker and Parasite. (And speaking of The Simpsons, as we all should be at all times: a tip of the hat to the original Up With People sendup, Hooray For Everything)
The 1976 (that’s the spirit!) halftime show, “200 Years And Just A Baby”, featured a medley of all the American styles of song and dance, set to a narrative so reductive and simplistic that it rankled anyone who ever walked within fifty feet of a critical studies lecture. But it was the bicentennial, so it gets a bit of a pass. But the 1986 show, “Room For Everyone”, tookthe dumbed-down cake.
In Up With People’s America, the Civil Rights movement had totally succeeded, but was also pointless. After all, the races all got along! Sure, there were some funny old laws on the books, but in the real world, everyone treated everyone else swell. Then, one day, everyone agreed to make their good feelings official, and the laws were changed. The idea that the Civil Rights movement (or even the Civil War) was a struggle, between groups of Americans, never came up. The wrongs were history’s, not Americans’ – and certainly not America’s. Obviously, it would be weird to put on a big number that reflected on America’s sins (“Zinn-sational!”) – but in the universe as interpolated by UWP, such sins didn’t exist.
“Room for Everyone” paid heartfelt tribute to the racial harmony made possible by... uhh... America’s expansive lebensraum? It also featured one of the great tone-deafnesses of a tone-deaf decade when a very-abridged version of “Born in the USA” segued into “The Power of Love”.
But as the iron curtain lowered, and the Superbowl became bigger and bigger business, more professional, advertising-minded operations started horning their way in. But the precedent set by Up With People – of big, clunky triple-quasi-threat acts – remained. When Up With People took the stage, they were advertising America. But when corporate sponsors took the stage, as they did in the next phase, the results were... well...
The Third Age: La Danse Macabre – Thulsa Doominsky Is Dead – Scary Stories To Tell On The Turf (1985 – 2005)
The third age is best understood as a gradient between its neighbours. It blends the big stage shows and megaphone patriotism of Up With People with the pure pop stardom and corporate tie-ins of the current age. It is an industry, claiming to represent a nation, celebrating the nation for celebrating the industry. It is propaganda struggling to find a role for itself in the sudden absence of an existential threat. It... requires examples.
The hallmark of a great halftime show is a schizophrenic combination of tones and styles – the patriotic with the showbiz with the imperial with the jazzy with the violent with the childlike, which all end up feeling confused and alienating.
This show, a Navy Tops’ (lol) salute to children’s dreams (???), feels like it was designed by a war room of gruff commanders tasked with connecting with their stepchildren. It is terrifying. Among the classic children’s dreams celebrated are Hollywood, pirates (the Navy's good buddies), space, sports, and America. And, because it is what it is, it interrupts these dreams to remind the audience that dreams require freedom, America is free, and you have to be willing to work and believe in America for your dreams to come true.
And then the dream abates, leaving only a cloud of explosives smoke to settle over the field.
The king of them all. This was planned as an all-kids salute to kids for the benefit of kids, because kids rule! New Kids on the Block were signed up, Disney characters were enlisted, armies of kid dancers practised for months, a suitably needlessly horny song was chosen for the girls to sing, and everything was all set – and then the old showbiz curse kicked in and Operation Desert Storm began a few weeks before the big night.
And so the all-kids extravaganza became an all-kids salute to the troops, featuring George & Barbara Bush blessing “all freedom-loving people around the world” from their military command centre.
When you think back to the 90s and wonder where the snideness and cynicism came from, remember this.
These shows are deeply Reaganist. They're nostalgic for America as they remember it, and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that the world – America included – wasn't, and isn't, like that. Clearly, someone (probably the eighty-year-old billionaires who control all things) remembers magic tricks being dazzling and mystifying, which they haven’t been since Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason. And Elvis Impersonators... in a nation riddled with cultural necromancy (Civil War reenactors, Founding Fathers cosplayers, Seth MacFarlane), they're still the strangest - basically the branded equivalent of those Halloween wigs in Value Village named "Rock and Roll Guy".
And so, with its finger on the pulse of some unknown beast, the big show this year was “Elvis Presto in Be-Bop Bamboozled in 3-D”! An Elvis impersonator performs a card trick with the audience, all in 3-D. It takes three mediocre-to-bad ideas and smashing them together like Play-Do, creating a most glorious brown sludge. Unfortunately, they then sing like thirty songs in ten minutes, diluting an otherwise flawless mess.
1995 – Indiana Jones and the Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
Yet another Disney tourist attraction promotion. They work valiantly to cram in all the action and plot they can, but are hamstrung by being in the middle of a dang field in January. The set change (!) was overly ambitious, especially when you realize their two sets are an Olmec (?) temple ruled over by Patti Labelle (!), and a Copa-esque nightclub ruled over by Tony Bennett and trumpet hero Arturo Sandoval.
The Olmec priest is a deeply uninterested white guy. Tony croons “this... is so exciting” as the evening’s darkness crowds the stage. Indiana’s heroic act of temple plunder yields the Superbowl trophy, for reasons unclear to modern anthropologists. And Patti Labelle, who evidently did not get the memo, puts in the all-time great halftime performance, completing the farce.
1997 – Murder on the Bluesmobile Express
Dinky Patterson was dead, to begin with. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing awful can come of the story I am going to relate.
“Dinky” Patterson was one of sixteen stunt performers brought on for the show. During rehearsals, her bungee equipment failed, and she died. It was a horrible tragedy, but the powers that be decided to go on with the show, cancelling the bungee jumping portion, and dedicating the show to her.
Now maybe it’s naive of me to think they should have cancelled the show, that no concert is worth a human life. I have the luxury of not being in show business, and not being contracted to provide a large music spectacular. But if such a show does not acknowledge how fragile we are, and how precious life is, even obliquely, it should just be shelved.
But if there is one thing we know will not stop the Blues Brothers, it’s death. Jim Belushi is the lord of the vultures, and he circled all over the Superdome one dark night in 1997. They did their parasite parade and bopped around like bloated ticks and delivered their promised few minutes of music. They did not mention the death they had caused, and only played upbeat songs, because there is seemingly no room in the blues for sadness.
All I can do is do everything in my power to link “blues brothers” and “white privilege” in Google’s search rankings.
With apologies to Ms. Patterson’s survivors.
2000 – MindCube Affirmations Y2K Megamix
Utterly incomprehensible. I love it. A “worldwide tribute to the human spirit”, it reads like a middle school geography textbook cover that’s done far too much cocaine. Puppeteers and dancers parade in garb that screams “world culture” without actually representing any human culture. An armada of drummers wear Cenobite headgear. Phil Collins is implied to be one of the two types of creature that inhabit the planet – apparently, prokaryotes are fond of cargo khakis and backwards cabbie hats. Narrator Edward James Olmos waxes cosmic:
“The sage of time have [sic] returned, to rekindle the human spirit, and lead us in an earthly celebration that unites the nations of the world. Once again, as it does every thousand years, the gateway of time has opened, giving us hope for a better tomorrow. As the rhythm of our hearts inspires our drums, it fills the world with joy and passion and love. Wait no longer – the time is now. Rejoice. A tapestry of magic, endless possibilities await. Behold, the great millennium walk.”
It is a shimmering mystery, a hallucinatory vision of humanity and our place in the universe. More accurately, though, it is an ad for Disney World’s millennium something-or-other. Order is restored, the center will hold.
There are, of course, more halftime shows out there. There are many, many more. But we are human. We have limits.
The Fourth Age: All The Stars Are Out – Yippie Kay-Yay, Yodelay-Hee-Hoo, Every Man For Himself (2005 – present)
Though it didn't finally, completely replace the old style of halftime show until about 2005, the current style made its debut with Michael Jackson at the 1993 game. There had been pop performers before (Gloria Estefan in 1992, NKOTB in 1991), but Michael was the biggest star in the world. Gone were the mass of dancers, gone were the Disney characters, gone were the narratives – all there was, was Michael.
In hindsight, this was the way it had to be. Up With People promoted corporate conservative interests, but they were awkward ambassadors – they looked goofy, they persuaded by stern finger-wagging, they evinced the bitterness that paid for them. But that wasn't what the West’s appeal was to the world.
What sold the West to the rest was its positive, aspects - its freedom, yes, but its big-budget professionalism, its unrestrained promotion of individual celebrity, its pure showmanship uncluttered with overt political messaging – its freedom for entertainment to be entertainment, as if it existed in a vacuum. Up With People, like totalitarian attempts at soft power, attempted to browbeat its audience. Pure pop seduces – it controls from the bottom up, not the top-down. And Michael Jackson was the ultimate pop showman.
It was the beginning of the end for the old, gangly halftime show. There would still be a few, but more and more, halftime shows were concerts by the reigning pop star of the day, until now they are only that. Increasingly, the concerts are taking a back stage to the commercials – why waste time promoting middlemen when you can just spend money on out-and-out ads?
In a way, I miss the old style – it at least had the clarity of purpose to have a stated philosophy, even if it was a cruel and sour one. But in another, less stupid way, I'm glad it's gone. Plus, the current style does indeed have a philosophy: the diluted, amorphous, undirected philosophy that underwrites so much of our world – distraction for distraction’s sake, entertainment for entertainment’s sake, everything for profit’s sake, and every man for himself.
In theory, the current deceptive banality of halftime shows is the most interesting. The sheer size of the spectacle, the very particularly political history of that spectacle (and the league around it), and the number of things it’s stalwartly refusing to acknowledge, are all fascinating and infuriating. But this piece is way too long already.
So let’s all relax, kick back, crack open twenty cold ones, eat five pounds of dip, and enjoy as Justin Timberlake, that human Dreamworks smile, soft-shoes it across the screen for twelve minutes, before two armies of men from almost uniformly poor backgrounds give each other brain damage for the benefit of billionaires who don’t pay taxes.
Again, with my apologies that this constantly veers into out-and-out anticapitalist screedery which I am not nearly a clear enough thinker to meaningfully delve into, but there is absolutely no other way to write about this stuff.