Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Best Super Bowl Halftime Show (That Never Was)

It's not fair to be too hard on the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl. You must consider how far this activity had to come in forty-five years to arrive at the present moment.

In 1967 at Super Bowl I the crowd and TV viewers "thrilled" to the trumpet sounds of Al Hirt and the marching bands of two colleges.

Al Hirt was so "big" they brought him back (with Carol Channing)
for SB VI in '72. Love that Goodyear blimp about to bomb his head...

This pattern of featuring marching bands along with an artist whose LPs resided beside your aged aunt's and uncle's record player next to key albums by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Nelson Riddle persisted for years.

This was the other, older side of America. As far as it was concerned rock 'n' roll had never been invented.

The Super Bowl show was stuck back in the Big Band Era (Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald) or Broadway or tourist schmaltz (Pete Fountain, Carol Channing).

We can only be thankful we were somehow spared Andy Williams and Pat Boone.

When in 1988 at Super Bowl XXII rock 'n' roll finally arrived it came in the form of (hold your breath) Chubby Checkers. The Super Bowl's entertainment was literally almost 30 years behind the times.

The Up With People Era
When the Super Bowl folks finally realized, "You know we need to have something to pull in the younger generation," they just didn't get it. They brought out Up With People. They thought "Well, this group of clean-cut kids with major orthodontic smiles are young and they'll appeal to Grandma and Grandpa, too."

That was the problem.

Up With People (whom I'm sure are lovely and very "up" people) had its genesis as a singing group that recruited youth from around the country and then the globe. They sang in, no surprise, an upbeat fashion.about those great themes of the sixties: love, peace, and togetherness, but they did it minus the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

The very name of the group was a reaction to the sixties' youth movement that chanted "Down with the establishment!" "Down with whitey!"

These kids asked us to think UP!

They would first appear at the 1976 Super Bowl X and make three more appearances.

I'm sorry to say, UWP was the musical offspring of Al Hirt and Carol Channing. If any person under 30 was watching the Super Bowl by 1980 the song that came to mind as halftime approached again was "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who. This song was already a rock 'n' roll relic, but it startlingly conveyed what was wrong with the Super Bowl musical fare.

Halftime show? Are you kidding? It's always the same drivel!

A Change is Gonna Come
In 1990 it seemed the NFL finally awoke from their cultural coma. They must have said, "The masses are restless. They're fixing snacks during halftime and not watching the show and the commercials. We need an injection of youth and acts that are actually still on the charts, not on the easy listening radio station."

You want youth, the NFL was going to give you youth: The New Kids on the Block. Now that's young!

Yeh. So was the Partridge Family.

But the next year it was Gloria Estefan. Hey, Gloria is on the charts! And she's from Miami and the Super Bowl that year was in...the Minneapolis Metrodome. Well, I never said it made complete sense.

Then came Super Bowl XXVII in the Rose Bowl. Michael Jackson. True it was 1993 and Thriller and Bad were distant memories, but MJ always was tabloid fresh as befits a global celebrity. And since at the Super Bowl the quality of the actual music at halftime show will always be handicapped by the need to set up quickly in the middle of a stadium, it helped that Michael could dance. Like no one else. May he rest in peace. There will never be another one like him.

The one and only.

Evolution Super Bowl Style
By now the Super Bowl powers that be had the memo in hand. They had to feature either current charting popular acts or classic rockers. The music should be loud, energetic and gaudily presented.

So they brought on country music stars. Then they visited the other side of the pop charts and gave us Aeorosmith, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Boyz II Men, various Motown stars, and Phil Collins.

In 2002 they brought on the rock band best suited for a 9/11 tribute: U2.

Bono, the Irishman who is an American patriot.
You've gotta love it...especially at such a preeminently American event.

Can you say HUGE? This is the kind of thing people would tune in to see.

In 2004 the halftime show discovered one other thing. The performance should not be sexy. Justin Timberlake gave the tug that was watched and talked about around the world. That oh so convenient "wardrobe malfunction."

At the moment the nethermost point of Janet Jackson's 38-year-old, pierced mammary gland touched the humid Houston night air some portion of America was scandalized. The rest was "tit-i-lated" but to no avail. An FCC fine followed. Everyone except nursing babies would forthwith be protected from visual collisions with female breasts. So this sort of thing wasn't going to happen again.

Like a bandage dressing the flesh wound, Paul McCartney arrived the next year. Legend! Former Beatle! Superstar solo artist! It was milk and cookies pop (during the most glib moments) and, come to think of it, closer to Up With People than some of us Beatle worshippers might feel comfortable admitting.

There's a shadow hanging over Sir Paul...
but he still believes in yesterday.

But Paul made it safe to watch the Super Bowl halftime show again. Bring on the Stones, Prince, Bruce, Tom Petty and...

Who Are They?
Last year I decided to watch the halftime show out of a sort grim respect for a rock band that once was the most iconoclastic and innovative that ever burned up a stage or smashed a drum kit. The Who.

Before: The greatest rock performers of all time...

Of course, when only two of the four original members are left, I think truth in advertising means they ought to add another character to their name...The Who?

After (40 years): 1/2 a Who and Who Cares?
The constantly changing lights on stage were the best part IMHO. The music was loud, but the band, like all others before it, opted for a medley of hits.

In the interest of total candor I must say that I strongly dislike medleys of hits. I've heard the song being played multiple times, perhaps hundreds (that's why it's a "hit"), and now the band deigns to play a short snippet and then segue into the snippet of another hit and another.

Medleys? Ugh. I feel like I'm listening to a machine that's slicing and dicing music. It's just an exercise.

Sure, within its medley The Who(?) played about two minutes and 15 seconds of "Won't Get Fooled Again," my favorite song back in my bell bottom jeans day. But that means 5 minutes of the greatest rock 'n' sturm and drang ever penned was lopped off. Won't get fooled again,  indeed. Which leads me to propose a constructive alternative.

Four Halftime Shows We'd Like to See
  1. A man or a woman on a stage with just an acoustic guitar. Twenty minutes, 3 soul-stirring songs. Your nominations for this person are now being accepted.
  2.  A band that plays an extended version of a familiar hit song for 10 minutes, then has the nerve to send the lead singer to mic to announce, "This is a new one we just wrote. We want to play it for the first time." 
  3. Ice skaters. Why not? If we can send men to the moon and back, we can create a large rink quickly mid-field (and do a better job than the Teflon one they set up in front of Gloria Estefan in '92). And ice skating always looks good on TV.
  4.  Up With People. Did I just say that? Yes! Why not bring back the original performers, now graying boomers in the their golden years. Because, you know what, after all we've been through with this show, maybe they won't seem that bad. And I just bet some of them can make some fancy moves with their aluminum walkers and canes.

The Up With People Super Bowl Challenge:
"Let's get UP! tonight!"

- V.W.


  1. Al, the best version of "Won't Get Fooled Again" is the totally acoustic version Pete T. played for "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball." Have you ever seen that? I'll bet it's on YouTube, but I also have it on LP, if you're interested.

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