They call it “the biggest concert of the year,” but that’s a bit disingenuous. Maybe “the biggest 12-minute concert of the year” would be closer to the truth.
Regardless, somewhere in the area of 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, so whoever performs during the halftime show has been given a pretty major platform from which to work their magic. Or not.
The 12-minute restriction means that, invariably, much of the halftime show will involve an artist trying to cram as much musical and visual information into the available space as they can. More often than not, this makes the whole thing at least a little bit silly. It’s as if the artist is holding the remote control and fast-forwarding through the performance to show us all the good bits before we get bored and change the channel to Animal Planet for the annual Puppy Bowl.
The 12-minute restriction has not been a deal-breaker for most of the artists who have been asked to perform at halftime. Who could possibly turn down the opportunity? That said, even though the best of the best in the history of rock and pop – or at the very least, the biggest of the big – have played the gig over the years, doing so has not always presented them in the most flattering light. Take a legendary performer like Bruce Springsteen. Revered around the world for the emotional resonance, musical muscle and sheer stamina of his marathon-length concerts, Springsteen was somewhat of an ill-fit for the Super Bowl. He employs a massive canvas for his art, and 12 minutes is usually just enough time for him to warm up. At the Super Bowl, as soon as Springsteen and the band had found their groove, their time was up.
Others have fared much better, among them U2 and Prince, both of whom turned the Super Bowl into their own personal arena. The halftime show requires the broad gesture, the attention-grabber, the less-than-subtle masterstroke. Many performers have confused this fact with a requirement for flash of the visual variety – fireworks and multimillion-dollar visual displays don’t hurt, but what U2 and Prince, among a few others, got right was the fact that the “hugeness” was in their sound, not just their stage show. “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Purple Rain” are grandiose pieces meant to connect with huge throngs of listeners in vast spaces. They were written that way. And that’s why they worked.
When Bruno Mars was announced as the halftime show headliner for Super Bowl XLVIII, there was considerable hue and cry from folks who didn’t think Mars was enough of a star to be granted such an esteemed slot. This was somewhat understandable when you consider that Mars is a relative newcomer who has only two albums to his credit. One of those albums is a triple-platinum Grammy winner. So there’s that.
In the end, Mars did a very good job convincing anyone who watched that he deserved such a massive pulpit, and that he knew just what to do with it. He was highly entertaining, he sang well, he did some James Brown moves, his band was excellent, it was clear they were performing, not miming to prerecorded tracks, and he’s good-looking and completely inoffensive. A halftime show dream, then, at least from the event producer’s perspective.
That said, it took a bunch of battle-scarred funk-punk hooligans from Los Angeles who were already slaying West Coast audiences two years before Mars was born – the Red Hot Chili Peppers – to push the halftime show over the top. Anyone who didn’t think the Chili Peppers schooled Mars in the space of some three minutes probably doesn’t know P-Funk from Daft Punk. The Chili Peppers, from a musical dynamics standpoint at least, should have played the entire show, rather than being guests at the Bruno Mars party.
And there’s the rub. The first, second and third generations of rock and pop musicians who are considered classic, or “legacy” artists, are getting old. Most of the biggies have already played the gig. Who’s left? This year’s halftime show represented a sea change in what we’ve come to accept as a major annual production, one that outshines the Grammys in terms of potential exposure. The list of classic stars of Super Bowl stature is shrinking. It’s time for some new artists to step up. But how many of them actually are ready?