Had it not been for Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction of 2004, Super Bowl halftime shows would still consist of performers who are arguably more about style, choreography, and the hipness quotient than they are about the music itself. Indeed such an abbreviated performance lends itself to medleys, so artists with a huge back catalog seem to naturally have more to choose from. Of course, that is not always a good thing for longtime fans who want to hear something more obscure than the usual “best of” fare, but there is also an understanding that a rare B-side is probably not the best way to get a crowd into the performance, either.
On Sunday, The Who performed a spirited set. While it obviously wasn't the same Who as circa 1975, Roger Daltrey’s voice held up well. Pete Townshend’s playing was a little exaggerated but in an understandable way for such an event, and Zak Starkey once again proved to be the perfect drummer for the band, one who captures both the frenetic power of Keith Moon and the solid predictability of Kenney Jones. Yes, they seemed to make it a CSI theme song medley, but given the event a medley of A Quick One, How Many Friends, Bell Boy, and Old Red Wine probably wouldn’t have been a Super Bowl audience pleaser. It sure, however, would have been a pleasure for longtime fans.
You have to wonder if the young fans who watched the Super Bowl even know who The Who are – after all, there’s a good chance Daltrey and Townshend are their grandparents' age. But for the NFL, a famous, seasoned band is less likely to incur a, well, wardrobe malfunction. These veteran acts have become more common ever since Ms. Jackson got a little unintentionally nasty. For years, there was minimal fanfare for the halftime show which often featured collegiate marching bands. In the past couple decades, the halftime show has become a spectacle in and of itself. Some early performers were a little less larger than life.
In 1970, Carol Channing belted out a tribute to Mardi Gras. (Incidentally, that was years before she would be immortalized as a ventriloquist puppet). Imagine Carol Channing as the halftime act today. OK, I know you can't. But if teamed with Debbie Boone and Judy Collins it could work...for an Oxygen network special, perhaps. Channing returned in 1972 as part of a tribute to the great Louis Armstrong. Those two appearances still don't match up to Up With People, whom have played four times. To be honest, had it not been for Super Bowls, I would have never heard of this excited bunch of upbeat kids with a positive message.
Maybe it was The New Kids on The Block's 1991 booking that started turning the tide in regard to enlisting the presence of current chart-topping acts. They were followed by Gloria Estefan and then Michael Jackson raised the bar at the Rose Bowl in 1993. In the years to follow, the acts were often collectives; 1998 featured TLC, Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, and the Temptations, and 2001 had Aerosmith, N'Sync, Britney Spears, Nelly, and R. Kelly, who thankfully was not trapped in the closet at the time.
U2 performed a memorable 9/11 tribute at the 2002 Super Bowl, including a stirring telling of MLK as an intro to Where the Streets Have No Name while the names of the fallen were shown on the big screen behind them, but it was after 2004's Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake mishap that made the NFL start to look at the older, more gentile acts. Paul McCartney followed in conservative apparel of a sport coat and red shirt and delivered Drive My Car, Get Back, Live and Let Die, and Hey Jude. The Rolling Stones played in 2006. Prince performed in 2007. The past three years have showcased Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and The Who. So, let's look at the demographics.
At 48, Prince was the youngest of the post wardrobe malfunction acts. In fact, it's safe to say that the average age of musicians of the past six acts is probably around 60. This is no coincidence. The NFL knows a thing or two about marketing, hype, and business. These acts still draw huge crowds and remain relevant. They are not prone to any malfunctions or provocative shenanigans. They also means similar halftime shows should be expected. My money is on KISS for next year; thirty-five years on, they don't seem so menacing.
Arena rock translates into stadium rock. Ms. Jackson's snafu has ushered in a new era of Super Bowl shows. For some that is not good news. For others like me, I'm fine with watching The Who. Oh, and Pete Townshend, glad you didn't die before you got old, or you wouldn't have been able to player Super Bowl XLIV.