The cascading fireworks, the sheets of flame, the drone-driven Chinese lanterns coalescing against the night sky to spell out the message “One Love”… nobody was calling the half-time show at this year’s Super Bowl understated.
Yet at the centre of this television-ready storm of pyrotechnics stood… the pop group Maroon 5. No worries, by the way, if you missed Maroons one through four; a lot of people did. The point is, the honour of serving the music during the half-time interval at America’s biggest sports event has tended to go to names of vast and indisputable repute: Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Prince, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga… This year we got a band whose lead singer is mostly famous for claiming in song that he “got the moves like Jagger”, and when you consider that, in 2006 at this equivalent point, we got the actual Mick Jagger doing those moves, well, without wishing to be too canonical about it, this did feel like a bit of a falling-off.
But then it was a difficult year. Rihanna and Cardi B had declined invitations to perform, in sympathy with Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest against police brutality and who has been crisply sidelined by American football ever since. Lobbed this very obvious hospital pass, Maroon 5’s singer, Adam Levine, filmed an interview in which he explained how, handed the chance to play to the biggest audience of his career (more than 100 million Americans tune in) during a time of political conflict, he had wrestled with his conscience and decided that art, in the end, transcends these other concerns. Or that commerce does. One of those.
Still, it will be good to have a reason to remember Maroon 5’s appearance, because, give or take the Chinese lanterns, their half-time show was not memorable – certainly not in the way that Prince’s show in 2007 was memorable (it actually rained during “Purple Rain”), or in the way that McCartney’s show in 2005 was memorable (“Drive My Car” for an opener, anyone?), or even in the way that Janet Jackson’s was memorable in 2004. That was the night Justin Timberlake, in a career-defining cameo, tore away a suspiciously Velcro’d flap on the singer’s leather blouson, revealing, in the brief moment before the lights blacked out, her left breast, its nipple concealed behind a kind of stick-on silver sheriff’s badge.
America, which largely prefers not to think about women’s nipples while watching sport, duly had a breakdown. In some quarters this escapade was insistently labelled “a wardrobe malfunction”, yet the suspicion lingered that one had seen entire Busby Berkeley routines which had been less time in rehearsal than Justin’s partial unblousing of Janet.
Anyway, let the record state that Adam Levine this year trumped Jackson by revealing both his nipples, shamelessly unconcealed by sheriffs’ badges, and to no noticeable outrage. Then again, Levine’s nipples were not necessarily the first place your eyes went to on a torso notable for a surprisingly broad-brush commitment to tattooing. Indeed, the singer looked as though he had spent the morning rolling on fresh newsprint. For what it’s worth, I spotted some bits of foliage with eyes peeping out from them, a large calligraphic tribute to Levine’s home state of California and what was possibly an as yet unattributed woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.
As I watched the footage of Levine strutting with a robed gospel choir on an M-shaped stage, I found myself reflecting on the last half-time at a sports event I had experienced – which was Chelsea vs Huddersfield in the Premier League the previous afternoon – and how those 15 minutes of downtime had been spent. And I realised I had done what I practically always do during the interval. I sat in my seat. And I ate a Snickers. (It used to be a Kit Kat, but times move on and we owe it to ourselves to move with them.)
I may also have gone to the loo, though the queues would have discouraged it. And I may have listened to the prize-winning raffle ticket numbers being read out over the PA, with a quantity of interest that was peculiar, given that I hadn’t bought any raffle tickets. But mostly I sat in my seat. And eventually the teams came back out and the match resumed.
That’s a British half-time for you. It’s possible that some competition-winning kids will be allowed on to the pitch to take a few penalties. But only on an exceptional day. Beyond that, half-time is just a dead gap in which we get slightly cold and eat things.
And OK, that was a routine league match. But even at cup finals and other set-piece sporting occasions in the life of the nation, the interval remains a notably undeveloped piece of real estate. Maybe the fear is that if, at that point, you launch some synchronised Chinese lanterns in support of a rare medley of hits from one of music’s most storied superstars, the football itself (both what has been and what is yet to come) might look a little anaemic. In fact, after the bafflements of Maroon 5 this year, I found it reassuring to get back to something more readily comprehensible, like American football. But it’s a big risk and I’ll confess that I didn’t feel that way after Prince in 2007. Nor even after Janet Jackson in 2004.
It’s interesting, though, that British sport has eventually bought into pretty much everything else that America has shown it regarding the art of presentation these past 50 years or so. Yet not this. Here, clearly, lies the limit of US influence. And the limit of US influence turns out to be Maroon 5 – or, at any rate, the half-time show. We seem to draw the line there. And no disrespect to Adam Levine, but maybe that’s a good thing.
This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe