It’s that time of year again. Your favorite, I would imagine. Of course the Super Bowl is what we all look forward to watching. The much-hyped halftime show has been the alleged highlight of the NFL Championship for the greater part of its 43 year history. But something happened when the new millennium arrived. Reduced ratings.
Rushing to fix a so-called wound, the reduced enthusiasm in halftime viewership moved 2004 NFL marketing mavens to turn the hype machine up another level with a halftime show that featured a long list of performers. You remember, right? Super Bowl XXXVII. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, Kid Rock, P. Diddy, and Nelly. The lineup was meticulously designed to represent a broad racial demographic and artistic spectrum. To quote Michael Bivens from Bell Biv Devoe it was, “Hip hop, smoothed out on a R&B tip, with a pop appeal, appeal, to it.” But I digress. You wouldn’t know anything about that.
Those chosen for the 2004 Super Bowl were urban artists with an unusually large pop cultural fanbase. And if plans had been successful, this would have likely been the beginning of many urban acts to follow. But "The Incident" occurred.
I know it hurts to bring it up. But let’s analyze it. Altering the halftime show selection for years to come, sultry Janet Jackson slithered on stage performing with Justin Timberlake. He danced to her side, Ms. Jackson moved the hips, Justin made some type of hand gesture across her chest, and next thing we saw was Janet’s right breast, nipple and all, briefly exposed to thousands of fans.
Some conspiracy theorists believed that Jackson and Timberlake had planned the debacle all along. But even these critics could not have imagined the repercussions.
In a dubious display of hypocrisy by the NFL - whose many beer sponsors often use sex to sell its products - CBS and the politically motivated FCC, took Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake on a wild sweep of blame, raking their reputations across the coals of public opinion by everyone from President George W. Bush to then FCC chairman Michael Powell, who called the aptly named Nipple Gate scandal, "a classless, crass, deplorable stunt."
Powell ordered a "thorough and swift" investigation into the matter. People were sued. Apologies were made. And young football fans had to sit through another six years of halftime shows that were better suited for baby boomers and their parents because of it.
You went back to the roots, huh?
I did my research. In the Super Bowl’s beginnings, the halftime musical celebration was largely an afterthought as traditional college marching bands represented the core of the presentation. HBCU brass sections, woodwinds, and band front performed at the Super Bowl for the majority of its first 14 years in existence. Grambling University, Florida A&M, and Southern University all have performed at halftime at least twice from 1967 through 1981. Mainstream schools like the University of Arizona, Southeast Missouri State, USC, Florida State, and the University of Florida have appeared as well.
However, starting in 1970 with a performance by Broadway performer Carol Channing, the Super Bowl slowly began to switch from a college style celebration to an ensemble oriented halftime offering. Starting in 1971 the yuppie entertainment ensemble Up With People began its infrequent appearances at the Super Bowl. Up With People was born from a controversial religious “cult,” as some described it, called the Moral Re-Armament (MRA). This organization allegedly preached honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. The 2009 documentary film ‘Til It Hurts, the Up With the People Story reveals the group, which was funded by Haliburton, General Motors, Exxon and Searle, was created to counter the hippie culture that was prevalent in the 60s and 70s and espoused extreme right wing political views. Creepy propaganda at its finest, Up With People continued their off and on Super Bowl appearances until 1991 when they performed the pregame show at Super Bowl XXV.
The new millennium changed all that crap. Sorta…
The Black Eyed Peas were the first hip hop act to ever headline the halftime special in 2011 for Super Bowl XLVII. Thanks for taking that risk. But of course you had to make an obvious attempt to smooth it out again with the addition of Usher and Slash of Guns & Roses making the show rather vanilla lacking any discernable edge.
Then for Super Bowl XLVI you brought us Madonna’s halftime show. Hip hop-themed – which I’m sure you couldn’t have really been prepared for - the aged pop tart was 51-years-old at the time and needed to make herself relevant to a generation of viewers who weren’t even alive in the 80s and would not have watched her show if not for the addition of rappers Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. However, the urbanization of the halftime show took yet another hit when M.I.A. gave the middle finger to the crowd on camera. Madonna acted like she was pissed amid the media firestorm, pointing fingers at the disrespectful British girl. But come on, this was the Material Girl and Dennis Rodman’s ex-girlfriend. She likely encouraged the behavior with the risqué reputation that precedes her.
We appreciated seeing Beyonce rock the main stage last year. Skin is always good. But this year with Bruno Mars performing for Super Bowl XLVIII with pop rock group the Red Hot Chili Peppers along for the ride sounds to me, well, boring. Honestly? It smells of a safety net.
Dear NFL people, halftime folks, whoever you are: If the plan is to entertainment millions of people across the globe, “safe” may not be the best way to go. So here’s a dare:
Show some balls and do exactly what you really know will give the Super Bowl its biggest halftime ratings since Michael Jackson, without any of the bare breasted fury of his baby sister Janet. Ask Jay Z to do the next Super Bowl halftime show. You need relevance, right? Well, he is a bit long in the tooth as far as hip hop is concerned, but he is arguably the most successful rap artist in the history of the game. There’s no one safer than Shawn Carter, who has gone through great lengths to accumulate wealth and has fashioned an empire of lucrative enterprises ranging from entertainment and fashion to sports and urban branding. He’s cleaned up his image, now talking about gold sippy cups at the Grammy’s, while knowing the world loves his sexy wife who you allowed to perform and shut down the electricity at last year’s show. Ok, maybe I shouldn’t have reminded you of that. But seriously, do you think he would risk his new clean rep as Obama’s buddy to be controversial?
Are fifteen straight platinum albums and White House appearances not worth a Super Bowl halftime show?
Jay Z is the consummate businessman and is all about the Benjamins. If you are truly serious about the halftime attrition rate of your viewers, then stop pussy-footing with syrupy pop stars and halftime entertainers more suitable for Gram-Gram than your viewer demographic. Anything short of him smoking a blunt while burning the American flag and flinging E-pills into the crowd would be worth the ratings. Take the next bold step. Give Jay Z a call, then start considering a truly hip hop halftime show that no one will forget. Even if just every once in a while. Be brave. It’s the smart thing to do.