Something different is afoot at this year’s Super Bowl. Usually, halftime is marked by the appearance of an arena-rock band—generally white touring machines who’re frequently long in the tooth and in possession of a deep catalog that pretty much sells itself. You know: U2, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers…. But on Sunday, audiences watching the biggest TV draw of the year (sandwiched between commercials sold at around $3 million per half-minute) will be met instead with the Black Eyed Peas, those multi-culti practitioners of sticky pop bangers with an uncanny knack for huckstering. What gives?
Back in the day, the halftime show featured the classic pigskin entertainment: a marching band. Super Bowl I in 1967, for instance, had to give it up for the Universities of Michigan and Arizona’s bands. Subsequent Super Bowls would alternately offer unsportsmanlike entertainment from the likes of, say, Carol Channing. And in the ’70s and ’80s, the event mixed it up with performances from the educational charity Up With People. They were a racially mixed group of do-gooders with radioactive-bright smiles who’d take to the field belting positive-vibes songs like “Beat of the Future.” (Here’s a random fact: At one point, Glenn Close was inexplicably a member of Up With People, though there’s no evidence she performed at a Super Bowl.) Not surprisingly, the network broadcasting the game sometimes cut away from the proceedings to air alternate programming during halftime.
The era of the high-voltage halftime show is a pretty recent phenomenon. It began, oddly enough, with a New Kids on the Block’s mini-set in 1991 but truly found its footing two years later when Michael Jackson performed with a choir of 3,500 kids. His was a bombastic stunt, but hey, it worked: With just three songs, the ratings spiked. Thereafter, bigger talent like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, and Shania Twain were billed as mid-game attractions. Nipplegate, in 2004, and its reverberating fallout merely stoked halftime’s relevance. In a bid to appease the widest swatch of demographic—racially, geographically, age-wise—the show ultimately settled into the stadium-rock slot we’ve come to expect, even though country music, pop, and rap typically did better on the charts.
For $10 million, Bridgestone tires has reportedly paid for the privilege of sponsoring the Super Bowl halftime show. (The three-year deal ends in ’12.) The artists perform gratis, though the NFL does cover expenses. This is a pretty fair trade when you consider in the unreal viewership—106.5 million folks (or roughly a third of the U.S. population) watched the game last year—and its resultant payoff. When you factor in the uptick in people of color watching, as well as the sizeable chunk of women tuning in, suddenly losing the dinosaur rock for a rag-tag team of rap-lite popsters with happy anthems makes a lot more sense.
In the recent past, bands with corporate-sponsored tours—U2, the Rolling Stones, the Who—seemed to fit in synergistically with the fiscal concerns of Fox and the NFL. Still, no group more unabashedly represents this ethos than the Black Eyed Peas, who at various points in their career have counted Apple, BlackBerry, Coors, Levi’s Honda, Verizon, Pepsi, Samsung, and Best Buy as sponsors. “I consider us a brand,” the act’s makeshift CEO will.i.am (mostly recently a Director of Creative Innovation for the Intel Corporation) boasted to the Wall Street Journal. The Peas have been known to even write products into their lyrics to promote their capitalist cause, such is their devotion to bottom line.
Just as the Super Bowl isn’t really about the game anymore, the halftime show isn’t really about the music. This explains the mad dash for musicians to leech onto the event in any tangential way: Christina Aguilera singing the national anthem, Eminem taking $1 million to allow his claymation likeness in a commercial, Ozzy Osbourne teaming with Justin Bieber for a spot, Butch Vig offering “Go Packers Go!”, his version of Wiz Khalifa’s Steelers anthem “Black and Yellow,” and so on. Are the Black Eyed Peas the biggest sell outs of them all? Of course they are. Yet the fact that “My Humps” fits into the their business model—and, as it follows, at the Super Bowl itself—only underscores that will.i.am may be some sort of genius, presaging the future of glossier, more hyper halftime entertainment.