Katy Perry’s half hour long odyssey, entering on the back of Tiger before departing on a shooting star, garnered 118.5 million viewers this past weekend. This falls just shy of the 120.8 million people worldwide who tuned into the 4th quarter to watch Richard Sherman’s face melt when the Seahawks elected to throw on second and goal. The performance beat out Madonna and MIA in 2012 to be the most watched super bowl halftime show of all time.
When programming reaches that many people, it is worth reflecting on what a performance says about our collective conscious as a nation. The programmers at NBC and Pepsi, the presenting partners, faced the unique challenge of assembling a show that would work for the whole country, regardless of age, color, or creed. Perhaps this is an impossible task, resulting in sort of sterile, safety first spectacle.
It is impossible to discuss the Super Bowl Halftime show without mentioning Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s performance in 2004. Like a stone dropped in the center of a pond, that infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’ sent a ripple through popular culture, coining a new phrase, and changing the way we program and digest live entertainment.
Justin Timberlake’s star was well and truly on the rise in 2004. Riding high on the release of “Justified”, his first solo album, Justin Timberlake and his producer Timbaland had created a RnB/Pop template that would be copied ceaselessly over the next decade. More importantly though, Justin Timberlake had broken out from the confines of N’Sync and boy band celebrity to be a bona fide star in his own light. Having played the same stage in 2001 as a member of N’Sync alongside Britney Spears and Aerosmith, returning to the Super Bowl as the headliner was a sort of debutante’s ball. The biggest performance of the year, performing alongside Janet Jackson, a member of Pop royalty, confirmed his celebrity.
It is telling that in 2005, the first year post nip-slip, the programmers of the Half time show elected to book Paul McCartney, a living legend, but about as vanilla a pick as you could possibly make. The frontman of The Beatles, no one complained that Paul McCartney played, he was an unimpeachable choice. But a new paradigm had been set. The rest of the decade saw a slew of classic rock gods, no doubt appealing to Football’s fratty center, but also safe, defensible picks for the programmers. To point, after Paul McCartney, we watched: The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who. So scarred by Janet Jackson’s nipple ring, it wasn’t until The Black Eyed Peas performed in 2011 that we even saw a woman grace the stage as anything other than a supporting dancer.
Madonna performed in 2012, but despite her efforts to stay forever young, she looks more like a mom on her one night a month out than the next big thing in pop culture. We watched Beyonce and a Destiny’s Child reunion in 2013, but that still traded on our generation’s nostalgia.
The half time show had become deeply entrenched: it was no longer a stage for the zeitgeist of pop culture. No longer announcing what was next, who was big now. Instead it became a stage for Hall of Fame inductees, or for aging stars to launch a come back. Even Bruno Mars in 2014, by all accounts a big star today, gave off a throwback vibe. A crooner from a bygone era, upstaged by the brash energy of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. One could even argue that Flea’s unclad torso was the most skin we saw at Half-Time for almost a decade.
2015 was meant to herald a return of Pop Culture. Katy Perry was the headliner, our nation’s self-professed teenage dream, so hot she could melt our popsicles. To be fair, she did come out on fire, literally. In a Jeremy Scott inspired dress of flames, atop a lion, it quickly became clear that the Super Bowl’s programmers were still thinking safety first. The fact that Lenny Kravitz’ head-to-toe Saint Laurent outfit was more revealing than anything Katy Perry wore speaks volumes. Her performance took on a sort of caricature, surrounded by palm trees with faces and plush dancing sharks. This wasn’t Pop Culture, it was a desexualized, sterile performance capped off by Missy Elliot coming out as the surprise guest.
When Katy Perry departed the stage on a shooting star, it wasn’t the career defining zenith she and her team may have intended. As with the rest of the show, it confirmed that production and spectacle take place over performance. The show would have been the same with or without Katy Perry. But hey, at least we found out in the aftermath that the dancing shark who forgot his routine is actually a hot dude. That’s something, right?