It’s the single most coveted spot in the entertainment landscape.
Just like everything involving the Super Bowl, its half-time show has turned into an event of gargantuan proportions, the most scrutinised and talked-about 13 minutes of the year, and a performance that continues to hit new ratings heights – last year, Katy Perry’s spectacular was watched by a record 118.5 million viewers. This Sunday’s extravaganza is likely to be no exception, with Coldplay taking the big stage along with some special guests (Beyoncé! Bruno Mars!), the LA Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and perhaps even some surprises.
It wasn’t always this way. Much like the big game itself, the Super Bowl started out as the opposite of a cultural juggernaut; simply a final playoff game in a country that hadn’t fully embraced football yet. (The NFL doesn’t even have a complete record of the first one which took place a full half-century ago.) But as the years went on and the sport increased in popularity, so did the stakes for the half-time show. Many early half-time shows were a far cry from today’s A-list spectaculars, usually reserved for marching bands – bands from the University of Florida and Florida State University took the stage in 1984 – or reviews of various genres of music. Who could forget the salute to the big band era in 1980? Everyone.
The modern half-time show – with its epic scale – can be traced back to a performance by Michael Jackson in 1993, a ratings smash at the time, in which a militarily attired Jacko belted out a bevy of hits culminating in a wildly over-the-top rendition of Heal the World and We Are the World as a giant globe appeared on the 50-yard line.
Since Jackson, a couple of dozen artists have followed in his footsteps and either wilted under the pressure or catapulted to a new place in their careers. The NFL wisely doesn’t choose whoever’s hot right now: instead they go for acts who have been hot for a long time and are all but guaranteed to remain a force in music in the years to come, or else this year’s show would feature the likes of Fetty Wap or Zayn. This booking philosophy began with Paul McCartney in 2005 – he played a year after Janet Jackson’s notorious performance, which caused uproar when Justin Timberlake exposed her breast. MTV, which produced the segment, hasn’t been allowed near the Super Bowl since.
The booking also doubles as a resounding stamp of approval. More than any award in the entertainment landscape, an artist snagging the Super Bowl spot cements their place in pop cultural history. There are only a handful of performers who are capable of pulling off a show on such a big platform.
When Coldplay were announced as this year’s half-time performer, many groaned at the choice. Jokes were made about how this year’s show will be a snoozefest, but so far it looks as though Chris Martin and company are making all the right moves as they plan their slot, which they say will partly be inspired by the atmosphere of the Glastonbury festival, which they have headlined three times.
By now there have been enough half-time shows to know exactly what works and what doesn’t. Surprises always pique the audience’s interest, whether it was when Missy Elliot burst on to Katy Perry’s stage last year, or when LMFAO and MIA augmented Madonna’s shot at half-time glory in 2012. Mixing genres is also a smart move, considering how excited viewers were when the Red Hot Chili Peppers rocked out during Bruno Mars’s 2014 set, or when Lenny Kravitz appeared during Perry’s spot.
Timing also has a lot to do with how the show is perceived. When the Black Eyed Peas took the stage in 2011, it became one of the most underwhelming half-times in recent memory thanks to audience fatigue (their smash I Gotta Feeling came out in 2009) and what seemed like a slapdash set-up.
The most incredible aspect of the half-time extravaganza is that, despite the months of intricate planning that goes into the show, it could be one random, unforeseen moment that becomes the only thing people take away from the whole affair. Take a look at last year’s Perry performance again. She had a multitude of dancers dressed as random cartoonish figures, but there just happened to be a guy dressed as a shark weirdly dancing on stage and thus the #LeftShark phenomenon was born.
It’s a fact of which Coldplay frontman Chris Martin is acutely aware. “My daughter said the sweetest thing yesterday,” he explained in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning. “She said, ‘Dad, the worst that could happen is you’ll get turned into a meme. And after a month or so people will just forget!’”
This article was written by Rob LeDonne, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th February 2016 16.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010