The Death of the Halftime Show (And Who Really Cares?)

Not that you didn’t already know this, but the Super Bowl is right around the corner. Every late January, the event eclipses news cycles and really everything else with terrifying ubiquity. In the grocery store, the “Official Clementines of Super Bowl LIII” can be found down the aisle from where Tom Brady shops for his butter alternatives, at least according to the promotional sticker slapped on the container. Remaining completely unaware of the Super Bowl is about as possible as never losing The Game (which you just lost again). Everything and everyone manages to be involved.

This year’s Super Bowl finds itself in Atlanta, arguably the black music capital of the country. And from the broad, diverse selection of musicians that call the city home, the 63 billion-dollar enterprise has managed to book the celebrated… Maroon 5?

Stop for a moment: Name any member of Maroon 5 who is not Adam Levine. Try to picture one of them in your head. Maybe even just think of one Maroon 5 song. “She Will Be Loved” doesn’t count.

You can stop trying now.

The NFL is the single largest entertainment property in the US, raking in $14 billion annually. On average, 18.6 million people tuned in to Sunday Night Football this year. Since 2010, Super Bowl viewership has peaked just above 110 million, making it the most-viewed American television event each year with nearly a third of the country tuning in. So how does a business so lucrative with a platform so popular consistently fail to deliver half-decent halftime shows?

The first and most obvious factor is that music concerts have nothing to do with Super Bowls. They’re two entirely different forms of entertainment with little connective tissue, one grafted haphazardly onto the other. Completely irrelevant to the entire competition yet equally infused with grandiosity, the monstrously extravagant, endlessly clumsy spectacle has somehow established itself as a necessary element of a sports championship with little justification past spectacle for spectacle’s sake.

Even the concept of a halftime show is shaky at best: An entire performance crammed into 15 minutes is an absurd timeframe for any artist to play any music at all, let alone energize and vibe with a crowd. Not to mention – most of a musician’s performances are populated by a crowd who, y’know, wants to be there.

A halftime show performer has the added degree of difficulty of wooing an audience who showed up for entirely different reasons. It’s like bringing a rock band to a psychology conference and asking them to blow the roof off the place. It’s a tall order for the band, and none of the PhDs asked for this situation either.

Oh, and speaking of the performer: Obviously, the big upside I’m conveniently ignoring is the fat paycheck that a star rakes in for their halftime performance, right? Nope. The NFL does not pay its halftime show performers a cent for their time and efforts, and in 2015, even tried to get Katy Perry to pay them for production costs. Sure, Katy Perry — or for that matter, anyone else headlining a Super Bowl halftime show — really doesn’t need the money, but they certainly don’t need the exposure either. You already know who Katy Perry is, and committing to the halftime show involves months of preparation that could be spent actually making money. From an artist’s perspective, there aren’t many good reasons to say yes.

Another inescapable factor is the physical stadium itself. Football fields are the furthest thing from a concert venue, at least while they’re literally in the middle of hosting a football game. They’re also the furthest thing from the field: The stage is a good 40 yards from the closest seats in the stands, who conveniently never make it onto the big screen in favor of the “adoring fans” the NFL hires to pack the space around the stage. (They don’t get paid either.) That’s all well and good, because as last year made painfully clear, the people paying thousands for their seats at the Super Bowl definitely aren’t doing so for the music.

Add onto that the dreadful acoustics of stadiums, often designed to concentrate and amplify crowd noise, almost the perfect inverse of what dedicated concert venues try to achieve in their acoustic spaces. This creates a technical nightmare for everyone involved in making a halftime performance sound good — a category which happens to include the performer as well.

Finally, growing criticism of the NFL, particularly in light of Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing from the league, makes it undesirable and even risky for any public figures to associate with the League. Rihanna reportedly rejected an offer to headline this year’s halftime show out of solidarity for Kap. Cardi B did the same. Jay-Z not only declined but bragged about it on “APESH*T”, bringing flexing to a whole new tier in true Jay form. (“I said no to the Super Bowl / You need me, I don’t need you.”) That’s cold.

Consider every performer to headline the show in recent years. Since 2005, the job has been given to Paul McCartney, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, and Tom Petty. Now pause: Without YouTube or Google, can you actually recall any part of these performances, besides maybe the fact that they happened? These are all respected, historic artists, but well past their prime. Any of those bookings would have been a big deal maybe ten years prior, but booking Madonna in 2012 just feels like a boringly safe cop-out.

Whether it’s Left Shark or Bruce Springsteen’s crotch or Janet Jackson’s nipple [I’m not gonna hyperlink that one. You know.], things always seem to go sideways in spectacular fashion. And when the blunders aren’t hilariously glaring and meme-spawning, they not-so-subtly plague and undercut a performance, like last year, when Justin Timberlake put on a cowboy jacket with tasseled sleeves and tried to convince the country that both him and the jacket were still cool. (Spoiler: Neither was the case.)

There are only two kinds of genuinely memorable halftime show performances left (with the exception of Prince’s magical, transcendent, thunderstorm-defying 2007 rendition of Purple Rain in the actual pouring rain). One involves things that aren’t supposed to happen, like Beyonce and Bruno Mars upstaging Coldplay ten times over at their own halftime show, or the Black Eyed Peas trying and failing to live-censor their songs, or a different kind of “malfunction” that, well, you know.

The other way halftime shows are memorable is through outright absurdity and excess that has nothing to do with music at all. Think Katy Perry’s giant steel fire-breathing lion, or Lady Gaga’s entrance cannonball from the stadium roof and her final exit by leaping off a staircase, catching a pass midair, and disappearing into the ground.

For all the halftime-show-trashing I’m doing, I do want to acknowledge that Gaga’s show legitimately did kick a lot of ass. I actually think it was among the best in recent memory. But its best moments didn’t have really anything to do with live music at all. The whole thing felt closer to a Cirque de Soleil flash mob than anything else. Katy Perry’s performance was much the same, with her surrounded by dancing beach items from a Fantasia-esque hallucination before literally floating away seated atop a giant mechanical star. At the end of the day, people really just want to see lasers, glitter cannons, and enough pyrotechnics to start a civil war.

It’s clear that the heart of the halftime show is the spectacle itself, and Lady Gaga understood that better than most other halftime performers ever have. But if we really want opulent, absurd extravaganza, why force music into the equation at all? Any pretense of the music actually being played live has long since faded. A lot of modern music lacks any live element altogether, and thus struggles to adapt to such a format. (EDM was hugely influential to the past few years of pop music. How do you translate that to a live halftime show?)

Let’s just collectively admit that all we want is something outrageous and colorful at midfield with a bunch of flames and explosives involved that you could miss for a bathroom break. Why hope this year’s pop star will come through with their best Cirque de Soleil impression when we could eliminate the middleman altogether and actually hire Cirque de Soleil? Or if that’s too much money and coolness for Roger Goodell’s infinite wealth and lameness, let’s get Logan Paul to wrestle alligators in a bodysuit made of fireworks while hovering in a wind tunnel 100 feet above the ground. Now that would be a halftime show. I’ll take either option.

-Jonah Bird


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