Bring It Back: Goofy Super Bowl Halftime Shows

Comments (0) Music, Television

Every year, it’s the same thing: Somebody is tapped to play the Super Bowl halftime show, and everybody hates it. While it’s true that you can’t satisfy everybody, in the Internet age, the noise people make about a 15 minute chunk of a four hour spectacle devoted to men making more money we can dream of and the cars only they can afford to drive is nothing short of deafening, almost willfully looking over the following facts:

  1. It’s a free, fifteen minute concert.
  2. The artist involved has to pare down years of hits into this frame of time, rehearsing snippets of songs in new configurations and, depending on what kind of music the artist does, structured around a million-plus dollar sound and light show involving hundreds (if not thousands) of people the band has never worked with before, dance moves that will be learned and promptly discarded, and, in a post Janet Jackson world, wardrobe changes that reveal nary an inch of flesh.
  3. The nature of the Super Bowl dictates that only acts as huge and overblown as the Super Bowl itself get to interrupt the near constant stream of E*TRADE baby, Coca-Cola polar bear, and Budweiser Clydesdale ads that interrupt the announcers, desperately trying to insist that a) the game is why you’re tuned in and b) the game is as great as all the other Super Bowls, perhaps even better.

Madonna, by any reasonable standard, did well at halftime last night, but my opinion is essentially meaningless because I’m a Madonna fan and because, as somebody who obsesses over the past, my brain carries faint flickerings of the Aerosmith/Britney Spears/N*Sync three-headed monster that once constituted the evenings brief respite from heavily padded gladiatorial combat. For many, I suspect that Madonna will rank among that halftime show (and, indeed, the Janet Jackson one) as a great misfiring from the home office, the NFL not understanding what “football music” is.

Before anybody calls that crowd sexist, those same people, given “football music” (I assume Bruce Springsteen and The Who qualify) find another way of complaining, claiming that those acts are simply “too old.” It doesn’t really matter how good (Springsteen, Prince, etc.) or bad (The Who) a halftime show is; we only watch it to complain. If that’s what we’re going to do regardless of who plays, the NFL and Bridgestone Tires should do away with all pretenses of entertainment and just do what they did in 1989: Run out the most awkward, depressing act they can find, and present the whole thing as part of a themed night, bringing together the magic of television, advertisement, and showmanship.

The modern Super Bowl era started in 1991, when New Kids on the Block performed their tribute to 25 years of the Super Bowl. Before that, the event came and went with little fanfare. Marching bands performed tributes to Duke Ellington, and something called Up With People performed four times a record only Justin Timberlake, Aerosmith, and the Miami Sound Machine come close to matching.

The transition from one era to the next was marked using the only technology that made sense: 3D. In 1989, the world was to be ushered into the future. Coke promised the world the first 3D commercial, giving away free 3D glasses at convenience stores, and, tying in to this auspicious occasion, the NFL presented “Be-bop Bamboozled,” a singing, dancing tribute to the 1950s, featuring Elvis impersonator and magician Elvis Presto, who would attempt the world’s largest card trick, in three dimensions!

Make no mistake about it, the Presto idea was a terrible one. In the middle of a great game between the 49ers and the Bengals, Presto took the stage and sung exactly zero Elvis songs, likely because nobody was much interested in paying the rights fees needed. The “card trick” itself was about as gimmicky as possible, too, with Presto attempting to guess the card underneath the seats at Joe Robbie stadium via the time-tested applause-o-meter. Though he doesn’t notice it (and despite YouTube footage being too grainy for a good look in 2012), Presto failed to guess correctly. Having been apart of a few card stunts myself, I can tell you exactly why: There are always a few thousand assholes looking to make somebody look like an idiot. Here, for the record, is the entirety of that halftime show, complete with the Diet Coke commercial:

Granted I was one at the time, but I suspect the reaction to Be-bop Bamboozled was such that America needed two decades of recovery in order to accept 3D again. The Diet Coke ad proved, twenty years ahead of its time, that 3D was an unnecessary gimmick, and Elvis Presto faded into obscurity. The best part of this show, other than that some firm named “MagicCom” was once affiliated with the now unavoidable marketing giant that is the NFL, is Bob Costas making fun of the whole thing, distancing himself just enough so its stench doesn’t cling to him.

But this is the way halftime shows were, largely because, in 1989, we were foolish enough to believe that the Super Bowl was about football. Sure marching bands were often involved, but before New Kids on the Block set the precedent we’ve been living with for 22 years, halftime shows were either an awkward pageant put on by a charity, or an awkward magician doing his best to entertain an unimpressed crowd.

In Elvis Presto’s world, Nipplegate is no longer possible, the biggest bands in the world make due not playing free concerts, and internet dweebs debate the merits of “football magic.” This, obviously, is what we should go back to; awkward shows actually worthy of derision. It might not be the Super Bowl halftime show America wants, but it’s clearly the one America deserves. Madonna, she did good last night. Historically great, given the majority of the competition. If Super Bowl viewers are really that offended that a woman gets to do the halftime show once every ten years, they deserve a lifetime of Presto, Up With People and Paul McCartney’s “Freedom.” Then they, like the city of Detroit when saddled with Nickleback, will know the true meaning of suffering.