What’s more pop than playing for one of the world’s biggest audiences? And what’s more pressured than trying to make a definitive statement in about 12 minutes?
Those are the stakes of the annual Super Bowl halftime show, which in recent years has drawn more than 115 million viewers. The 50th Super Bowl takes place this weekend, with a halftime show by Coldplay featuring a guest appearance by Beyoncé with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s charismatic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, leading members of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. (Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem before kickoff.)
Chris Martin and his bandmates are going to have to contend with memories of spectacles that have been both magnificent (Prince, Michael Jackson, U2 and Beyoncé) and jaw-droppingly outlandish (Katy Perry, the Black Eyed Peas and of course the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake “wardrobe malfunction” debacle of 2004). The Super Bowl has made a handful of performers look heroic; many others have been dwarfed.
In its current incarnation, the Super Bowl halftime show is a gleaming confluence of big-time corporate agendas – NFL, TV networks, sponsors and brand-name performers all promoting something – that masquerades as a brief but over-the-top party. Payoffs and tie-ins are everywhere: in eyeballs, ad dollars, recording sales, ticket sales, media buzz and sheer unquantifiable attention. It’s a tightly formatted annual event, but each year its performers have to figure it out anew.
Strangely, it took the Super Bowl a very long time to recognize its potential. The halftime show we now expect – a tightly planned superstar extravaganza beamed worldwide – arrived relatively late in the game’s evolution. It was decades before the NFL realized that the halftime show plays not to the stadium but to the camera.
For its early years, the Super Bowl largely treated the halftime show as an intermission for the television audience. To entertain the captive stadium crowds, who didn’t yet have giant video screens that could blow up the image of a lone performer, halftime shows filled the field with marching bands, drill teams, Walt Disney pageants and the smiley, wholesome innocuousness of Up With People (although when the game took place in New Orleans, there were nods to jazz and Mardi Gras). In contrast to the concussive action of the game itself, the halftime shows were G-rated interludes of family entertainment.
The advent of MTV in 1981 led musicians to envision hit songs, and soon concert productions, as TV and video vignettes. But that transition was ignored by the Super Bowl for more than a decade. As late as 1991, the 25th Super Bowl halftime show was yet another Walt Disney production (although New Kids on the Block had a song in it).
Finally the light bulb flickered on. A full-fledged pop star, Gloria Estefan, shared the halftime with Olympic figure skaters in 1992. (Luckily Estefan would be back in 1999, with Stevie Wonder, for a gloriously out-of-the-blue Super Bowl funk festival.) Then, in 1993, came the sea change: Michael Jackson, just over 10 years after the release of “Thriller” and unquestionably the King of Pop. His halftime show started with the most radical Super Bowl gambit of all: dead air. He stood there for more than a minute, tensed and silent, while applause washed over him for nearly 10 percent of his airtime. Then he danced up a storm and enlisted the entire stadium – people in formations on the field, the Rose Bowl audience holding placards – as he called for compassion and, surrounded by children, beamed through “Heal the World.”
It was one template for the Super Bowl shows that eventually followed: a superstar, big hits, a cast of thousands and graphics for blimps to photograph from above. But the halftime show still flailed through the 1990s, trying to merge the rock stadium concert, the Las Vegas revue, the drill-team competition and the oldies medley, mixing the boffo and the surreal. The “Indiana Jones”-themed show of 1995 was some kind of hardworking kitsch apotheosis; the Motown tribute of 1998 (including Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah) earnestly mingled nostalgia and contemporaneity. And the 1997 “Blues Brothers Bash” – with a vital, dynamic James Brown billed below the vocally challenged “Blues Brothers” actors – was a study in white privilege and (as ZZ Top sang “Tush” and “Legs”) female objectification. Family entertainment was set aside.
This century has been better, or at least more rational, for the Super Bowl halftime. In 2002, when the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks was still palpable, U2 turned the halftime show into a national memorial and healing ritual, playing “Where the Streets Have No Name” as the long, long list of victims scrolled behind the band – pop culture at its most redemptive.
Super Bowl performers have come to understand that the imperfections of their live performances will be online forever; they have calculated more and canned more of the music. They also learned to play to the big invisible audience behind the camera, not the mere tens of thousands at the game. M.I.A. managed to upstage an entire queenly Madonna extravaganza with one raised middle finger in 2012. But the show has still gone through multiyear mood swings.
As the 2000s began, the NFL let MTV take over the halftime show and ended up with raunchier, sillier productions: wacky mash-ups of the year’s hitmakers with their elders, crossing category lines of rock, pop and hip-hop like the 2001 show that had ‘NSync, Britney Spears and Nelly joining Aerosmith in “Walk This Way.” MTV’s run ended in 2004 with a set of songs entirely devoted to lust; Justin Timberlake was singing “Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song” as he pulled too hard on Janet Jackson’s costume and bared her breast. What followed were classic-rock arena veterans at no risk of accidental nudity. Yet there aren’t that many of them left; pop and youth had to resurface.
The latter-day halftime show has coalesced into a formula. There’s a hitmaker with something to promote, usually ending or starting a tour. There’s a guest star (or two) that’s the antithesis of the headliner: the anarchic Red Hot Chili Peppers with the sleekly choreographed Bruno Mars; the ultra-funky Missy Elliott with the measured pop of Katy Perry; and this year the sultry, commanding Beyoncé with the dorky Coldplay. But it’s still a live event, still a big reveal. Will the halftime show be a triumph or a laughingstock? It takes only 12 minutes to know.