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.

Yet again, the honchos at NFL HQ changed tacks. No more vulgar displays would be allowed! The organizers of Up with People were contacted, but proved unavailable, having come out of the closet as homosexual deviants. Thus a new direction was settled upon.

The era of the rock dinosaurs commenced with a performance by Sir Paul McCartney, and proceeded directly to last year's special guests, the Rolling Stones, who are well versed in the art of playing to giant stadiums in which everyone is drunk.

But it wasn't just the folks in the stands, of course. The Super Bowl is television's highest-rated show. An estimated 141,843,662 people watched the game between Pittsburgh and Seattle. No figures are available to indicate how many of those tuned in to see if Keith Richards could play guitar while attached to a dialysis machine, but we're sure it was at least a mil.

In an abundance of caution, the NFL has also of late instituted a tape delay for halftime shows. Mick Jagger's mike, for instance, was squelched several times during the suggestive lyrics of "Start Me Up" and "Rough Justice." (Suggestive? Of what, stupid lyrics?)

Cultural historians will want it noted that this bout of censorship was a repeat of what went down 40 years ago on Ed Sullivan's variety show, when Sullivan insisted Jagger amend "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together."

On the plus side for Jagger, Viagra has expressed interest in acquiring the rights to "Start Me Up."

Still, the saddest aspect of the current rock dinosaur era, for us, is watching once-virile symbols of rebellion and free love reduced to family-friendly fare.

And what could be sadder than this year's VIP? Prince (or the Artist Formerly Known As, or whatever it is we're supposed to call him) was once pop music's most provocative auteur, a gender-bent minisatyr who teased fans with lyrics like "And when I touch it, race cars burn rubber in my pants" and "I want 2 get hot with U/I wanna get U underneath the cream/And do the marshmallow."

It wasn't just his words. The guy dressed and moved in a manner that left no doubt as to his favorite halftime snack.

So, we might ask, what is Prince going to show us this Sunday? "Raspberry Beret" is a likely choice. "When Doves Cry." Sure. But we're banking on the big closer being "(Tonight We Gonna Party Like It's) 1999." Given the overall turpitude of the Bush administration, who can really argue?

Our own advice to the overlords of the NFL is to use the halftime show to draw in the fringe element. You've got everyone else locked in, so why not try something inventive? "O Say Can You See" starring José Feliciano, Stevie Wonder, and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles? A salute to musical miscegenation with George Jones, Grace Slick, and Jamie Foxx as Kid Rock? A tribute to Janet Jackson featuring eager beavers like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Jamie Foxx as Ms. Jackson herself? College marching bands, with or without Jamie Foxx? A Jim Morrison-less Doors? Hell, at this point we'd take the Brian Boitano/Dorothy Hamill thing.

There is a Website — man, do we wish we had the imagination to make this up — that offers an alternative to horrors of the halftime show. Visit www.arrl.org/news/features/2003/01/24/1/, which suggests, with a straight face, that you spend the break measuring the RF output of your antennae system. Hmmm. Couldn't be much worse than McCartney.

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