Sunday, February 06, 2005

Paulie cleans and flushes the Superbowl

One year after Janet Jackson's right breast sent the conservative world into a tizzy, the NFL is presenting former Beatle Paul McCartney as the face of their half-time show. In terms of cleaning up the image of the great American past-time, they probably considered some ultra safe performer to counter the hoopla over last year: Celine Dion (too girlie for a mostly male audience), Wayne Newton (not hip enough), Tom Jones (some hip cache among younger audiences but not enough), Tony Bennett (ditto). Obviously, any recent rock or rap act would be pushing it as I'm sure they realize that all eyes are on the half-time show, looking for any minor controversy that will let the watchdog groups have another excuse to push their morals on the broadcasting world.

Rightly thinking that Macca would not have a wardrobe malfunction (great name for a band), they're relying on him to keep some kind of hip quotient with boomers. The Rolling Stones could provide that too but even with Mick knighted, Keith's still unrepentant lifestyle won't sit well with football's current mission to clean their image up. Springsteen? Too politically polarizing now. The Who? Not bad but Paulie's got more pull on the heart-strings of the 60's generation now.

I'm not stupid enough to expect that Drive-By Truckers, Tom Waits, Mos Def, Bjork or any other beloved critics favorite would make the cut for the big game either but then again, even with all the great publicity, would they really want to? I think some would and others would figure that the venue size and crowd doesn't favor them. Luckily, we boosters can experience them in other venues.

It's instructive to take a look at who's provided music entertainment for past Superbowls. Not surprisingly, when they start out in the late 60's, they mostly play it safe with marching bands and not the Dead or the Airplane. Slowly, the NFL began an uneasy back and forth with popular culture: Anita Bryant and Carol Channing (twice) to Charlie Pride (1974) and Ella Fitzgerald and then back to the marching bands and then Up With People (1976) and Cheryl Ladd of Charlie's Angels (1980). By the 80's, Up With People become regulars but the league also drafts Diana Ross and some safe choices like Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow and Herb Alpert and then ends off the decade with Billy Joel and a Chubby Checker rock revival. Obviously, the league was still mistrustful or probably ignorant of most rock and even though rap was becoming a national phenom around then, they wouldn't have dared to put say the Fresh Prince or De La Soul in the show, much less Public Enemy or NWA.

By the 90's, the football gods were still paying tribute to pap and crap (New Kids, Whitney's lip synch, Natalie Cole, Kathy Lee Gifford) but also starting to make more strides into a broader cultural plate: Aaron Neville and Doug Kershaw (1990), Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson both in '93 (which isn't edgy but having them both on the bill is pretty progressive for this realm), 94's recognition of country's resurgence (Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, Wynonna & Naomi Judd), ZZ Top (the Bowl's first rock band) and James Brown ('97), Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah (the Bowl's first rapper) meets Motown ('98).

And then at the turn of the millennium, rock/pop culture were in full swing at the Bowl and seemed unstoppable. In 2001, Aerosmith bizarrely got teamed up with N'Synch, Britney and Nelly, all performing together for the half-time show. Guess they figured that they'd throw everything they could in the mix and it would stick somehow or take a cue from Grammies and slap together performers who usually wouldn't share the stage to create a unique (if not satisfying) moment. 2002 had Mariah and then U2's half-time with Bono flashing the flag in his shirt (wotta ham). 2003 gave us
Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and No Doubt. And then you probably heard what happened last year though not many people remember that before the half-time show, Beyonce sung the national anthem.

Which leads up back to Macca. As I said, a lot of eyes will be on him from old fans to cultural watchdogs to anyone curious about pop culture. I'd even wager that a lot of people who don't dig football (like me) are going to keep flipping or Tivo'ing there just to see what he does. I probably will too, just out of curiosity even though I already know that he'll try to trot out some newer material and ultimately get the audience and crowd swooning with some Beatles hits.

My favorite Sunday morning politico Chris Matthews weighed in on his upcoming appearance, correctly noting that Macca was an antidote to Janet, likely not in terms of music but in terms of presentation, and also that many more people would see his performance today than first saw him on the Ed Sullivan show. Yes Matthews noted, Paulie had written drug songs and been busted for dope in the past but for the last few decades, he's maintained a respectable appearance as an elder statesman of rock. Saying that he's "sharper and hipper" now totally ignores the last 30 years of his career though. Matthews even divined a lesson from McCartney's life that if he could straighten up and fly right, there was hope for us all.

Maybe so but the real message is an old guy who's never pushed his sexuality in public but can still draw in interest across generations is exactly what the NFL need now to repair their image. You'll likely see the same trend happening for a long time at the Bowl though they're definitely not going for marching bands again. There's plenty of safe and clean performers in the pop and rock and even rap worlds for them to rope in for their balancing act of drawing in viewers to something exciting without getting too edgy. And rest assured that one day, the pendulum will eventually swing back and they'll try to push the envelope again but I'd wager that's something we might be discussing next decade, not this one. When an inevitable backlash sets in against this horrible puritanism that's strangling our goverment, then we might be able to freely enjoy entertainment that's suitable for audiences above a grade school level, which likely includes you.


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