Super Bowl halftime shows are, by definition, awful. When I think of the halftime shows, a singular image comes to mind — not of “Up With People” or the shlocky themes like “World of Children’s Dreams” or Elvis Presto and that bizarre magic show or that Disney “Tapestry of Nations” crime against humanity or those people on the field who are paid to act like groupies or even Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.
No, I think of Paul McCartney, one of the singular musical forces of the last century, finishing a raucous performance of “Live and Let Die,” which, let’s be honest, isn’t exactly “Let It Be” (or even “Love Me Do”). Then, seeming quite self-satisfied, Sir Paul looked up at the crowd and shouted in that beautiful voice of his, “Thank you, Super Bowl!”
Thank you Super Bowl!
Every single Super Bowl performance save one had some of that “Thank you Super Bowl!” ghastliness in it. That’s true even of the good ones. Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers had a strong Super Bowl show. My musical hero, Bruce Springsteen, had fun doing his show. Beyonce and U2 and Michael Jackson and Madonna and others had a few moment of genuine joy. But at its core, they were still Super Bowl halftime shows, still a cheesy handful of greatest hits crammed into a few minute gap while the football players drank Gatorade and the football coaches talked adjustments.*
* This struck me during the U2 show in partcular — hey, those guys can fill up 80,000-seat stadiums around the world with people who JUST want to hear their music. Why do they have to play distraction for the Super Bowl? How about, next show, they stop for a few minutes between “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “In the Name of Love” and let a few guys on the field play a little football game?
Prince was the one show that was different. Yes, I really like Prince, but I’m reluctant to call myself a fan because I let go a while ago. I was a fan, certainly, in the 1980s, when music seemed to pour off of him like sweat. I bought everything Prince, including an album or two of protegees like Shiela E or Morris Day.
But I more or less stopped buying his music around 1992. That’s a long time ago. The last album I bought (it was a CD; I still have it) was that weird love symbol one. It is shocking to me how much music he made since then. I count 25 albums since 1992, not counting the live albums and the compilations. I’ve heard none of these. And so I cannot in good conscience call myself a fan in good standing. The truth is that my Prince appreciation is probably best expressed by having “LIttle Red Corvette” on my favorite playlist. I probably hear it once or twice a month. I never tire of it.
Still, after the news of his shocking death at 57, I think back to how much I loved Prince, the happiness he brought me, the fruitless hours I spent trying to figure out what his lyrics really meant. Mostly, though, I think of his halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. THAT was different. The Super Bowl shrinks every other performer, even McCartney, even Springsteen, even the Rolling Stones. They all feel more than a little bit like sideshows. Not Prince, though. Definitely not Prince. It was his stadium.
“Dearly beloved,” he began, “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
He was the show. The game — I don’t even remember who played in that game (Oh, it was Colts vs. Bears, no wonder I don’t remember). But I remember that guitar solo Prince played in “Let’s Go Crazy.” I remember the way the Florida A&M band was playing and dancing while he sang “Baby I’m a Star.” I remember the way it rained while he sang “Purple Rain.” It was heaven. I don’t know of anyone, other than maybe fans of the two teams, who wanted the game to begin again.
You probably know the Prince story from earlier that week — before every Super Bowl, the halftime show artists have a press conference. These are awkward affairs where someone inevitably will ask for a selfie with the artist or someone will prelude a question by saying something like, “I’ve always been a huge fan.” I will say I did avoid this (barely) at the Sprinsgteen halftime show press conference.
But it was made clear to us that Prince would not be answering any questions at his press conference. Well, of course he wouldn’t — he was PRINCE. Then he showed up and it was announced that, surprisingly, Prince WOULD allow a question from the press. Someone was called on, and the question was asked: “Prince how do you feel about being at the Super Bowl.”
And at that point he whipped the guitar around from his back and blasted right into “Johnny B. Goode.” That’s how he felt. That’s how he made us all feel.