Super Bored

How the world's biggest game spawned the world's worst halftime show

It was clean. It was wholesome. It was family-friendly. That's right. It sucked!
David Letterman, about Paul McCartney's Super Bowl XXXIX halftime show


As the Global Alliance of Couch Potatoes shifts its collective attention to our very own big game this Sunday, many of us will be wondering the same thing: When, exactly, did Super Bowl halftime shows start to suck so badly?

This is the kind of complex historical question that only seasoned cultural critics should attempt to answer. Nonetheless we'll give it a shot.

The first thing we must observe is that the halftime show for Super Bowl XXVII most certainly did not suck.

That, you'll recall, was the gala edition featuring "Michael Jackson and 3500 local children." The one at which the King of Pop grabbed his junk, bopped around in a sequin outfit, and emitted sounds at the Ned Beatty frequency, while the herd of kids, um, well ... the kids didn't really do that much. But hell, it was Michael Jackson and 3500 children! The joke potential alone was worth the $12,000 ticket price.

The second thing we must observe is that the earliest halftime shows also failed to suck. The first few featured good old marching bands, entertaining in their own weird, brightly costumed, humans-forming-geometric-patterns way. To our knowledge, nobody grabbed his own, or anybody else's, crotch. Because back then, the Super Bowl was still a game, and halftime was still just a break in the game.

But around Super Bowl V, things began to change. The game was no longer a simple athletic contest, signifying a simple league championship. No, it had begun the precipitous bloat into the spectacle we all recognize today: an international holiday during which metropolitan sewer systems collapse under the deluge of simultaneous halftime flushing.

The midway break, it was determined, had to feature entertainment packages that matched the gridiron action in enormity. Producers were hired, celebrities were recruited, and things turned very dark indeed for those (like us) who just wanted to watch marching bands prance.

How dark, you ask?

The beginning of the end came during halftime of Super Bowl X, where the chosen theme was Smarm Beyond Human Conceptualization, also known as Up with People. More treacly than Disney at its treacliest, UWP began in 1965 as an offshoot of Moral Re-Armament, a cult founded in the late Thirties by Frank Buchman and dedicated to making everyone worship our Lord and God Jesus Christ. The Uppers smiled and sang and smiled, oozing Christian good will. They appeared to be, in the main, love children spawned by Carol Channing and Jerry Falwell.

The UWP message was simple: The heck with all that icky nonsense going on over in Vietnam, the rampant racism that defined our nation, along with poverty or crime. It's time for a sing-along!

In three subsequent Bowl halftimes (XIV, XVI, and XX), the UWP freaks gleefully sang ditties such as "What Color Is God's Skin?" (uh, we're guessing white), "Can We Sing a Song of Peace?" (if you promise to do at least this one on-key), and, of course, "Up with People!"

Can't we all just get along before the big guys in pads get back to bashing each other senseless?

In fact the only repeat offender as ubiquitous as UWP turns out to be Miami's own go-to sound machine, Gloria Estefan, who — until this year — was required by state statute to appear at every Super Bowl held in Miami. (Remember, folks: She defines our city.)

Estefan singing alone, or even lip-synching, was hardly adequate. In general she was accompanied by a drill team, figure skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill, a 60-piece band, flag wavers and baton twirlers, and a couple thousand dancers, all of them scurrying about in a maelstrom created by smoke machines and wind machines. The key word here, folks: understated.

By this time, of course, the formula had been well established. Halftime wasn't just about entertainment; it was about corporate branding strategies and profit source synergy.

Which brings us, rather tragically, to Super Bowl XXV. This was the game that featured the first "superstar" guests. Any guesses as to whom these superstars were? The reunited Beatles? The Stones? The not-yet-indicted Michael Jackson? Would you settle for New Kids on the Block?

We didn't think so.

Nonetheless the Kids were what we got, and they were not really very all right. The choice was clearly an attempt to lure the one demographic not already tapped by the Big Reach of the Big Bowl: teenage girls.

This trend would continue mercilessly for the next decade, culminating in the Halftime Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Yes, we are referring to Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the NFL decided to "keep it real" by turning over production duties to the hipsters at MTV, who chose a lineup that included P. Diddy, Kid Rock, Nelly, Justin Timberlake, and Janet Jackson.

There were concerns early on in the program about the excessive crotch-grabbing, but those were dwarfed by the interracial boob assault launched by Mr. Timberlake upon the person of Ms. Jackson-if-You're-Nasty.

We needn't detail the universal uproar that followed. Let it suffice to say this was a day of national shame, a day on which the innocence of our nation's children was choked to death by a single vicious nipple, and an incident of such profound tragedy that it made all the hubbub over slavery seem kind of over-the-top. It was, as the pundits like to say, a watershed. Or, at the very least, a tittyshed.

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