Call it the incredible shrinking Super Bowl halftime.
In recent years, Beyonce, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Prince and Bruce Springsteen headlined the year’s biggest nationally televised mini-concert. But Sunday we got a one-man wedding band.
Bruno Mars did his best to evoke just about anyone who ever inspired him as a childhood entertainer once known as “Little Elvis” in his native Hawaii. He channeled the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” did a James Brown shimmy followed by a flying split, made his legs shiver like Presley, and wore a pompadour worthy of Little Richard. In his gold jacket and tie with striped bell-boy slacks, he could have been primping to headline at the Apollo Theatre in 1959. And he surely made some kind of Super Bowl history by opening his 12-minute set with a drum solo. Come back, Carl Palmer, all is forgiven.
Most of Bruno’s hits, including some of those he performed Sunday -- “Runaway Baby,” “Amazing,” “Treasure” – evoke some other song, era or artist. And while it was all good fun, and performed with exuberance and undeniable skill, it all felt a bit nostalgic and second hand. (Spoiler alert: Just about everything you heard from a musical standpoint during and immediately before the game was canned, with backing instrumentation and vocals usually recorded in the days before the game and then piped through the PA system.)
Mars – a k a Honolulu-born Peter Gene Hernandez – just doesn’t carry the same cultural weight as many of his Super Bowl predecessors. He’s an agile pop entertainer who has released two albums since 2010 and sold about 10 million copies worldwide. That’s a nice start for anybody’s career, but despite a string of hits, he doesn’t have the celebrity status or name recognition of pop peers such as Katy Perry and Rihanna.
The only pre-game chatter about musical drama had to do with the other halftime entertainers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and how much clothing singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea would or would not wear. The punk-funk quartet was once notorious for stripping down to just one strategically placed athletic sock in concert, but those rooting for an intentional Janet Jackson-like wardrobe malfunction were out of luck. Kiedis and Flea did appear shirtless, the better to flex their tattoos during “Give It Away,” but otherwise were pretty much reduced to the headliner’s backing band, playing Destiny’s Child to Mars’ Beyonce.
The TV commercials that clog the telecast also provided at least one would-be musical event: U2 debuted a new song, “Invisible.” Though the ad was designed to trumpet the Irish quartet’s forthcoming album and collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, it sure sounded like the old U2 formula: anthemic, overblown (a backing choir that sounded Mormon Tabernacle huge) and a little bit too ‘80s. The staging for the black-and-white concert video also felt stale, with the return of the fluorescent wheel microphone from the Irish quartet’s previous stadium tour.
Bob Dylan also got some attention, but perhaps not for the reasons he envisioned. He whipped up social-media outrage by appearing in an ad personally shilling for a car manufacturer, which in previous years had enlisted Eminem, Clint Eastwood and Berry Gordy for high-profile commercials. One of Dylan's songs, "I Want You," was used earlier in the telecast in a yogurt ad.
There was music before the game began too:
Renee Fleming got the national audience to the start of the game 39 seconds quicker than Alicia Keys’ epic 2:40-minute version did last year with a straightforward reading of the National Anthem, marred slightly by intrusive fireworks and gratuitous orchestration and backing choir. The world-class soprano didn’t showboat as she effortlessly sailed into high notes that have bedeviled more popular entertainers.
She was preceded by an equally dignified Queen Latifah, who delivered an “America the Beautiful” without histrionics, accompanied by red-mittened choreography from her backing choir. Latifah also performed the same song at the Super Bowl four years ago, which means she now has twice as many appearances at the game as the Chicago Bears have wins.
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