How The Super Bowl Halftime Show Became A Bad Gig For Pop Stars

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In 2014, on the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII, the NFL was faced with pointed questions about its halftime show. Several months earlier, the league announced that Bruno Mars would be the headliner for one of the most watched TV events of the year — an extravaganza that frequently draws higher ratings than the game itself. At the time, “Mars seemed to lack the stature and longevity of [the] monolithic musicians” who had played the Super Bowl in previous years, the New York Times claimed, referring to classic rockers such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty. Mars — a relative newcomer who had put out his second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, in 2012, and was still a few years away from becoming a Grammy favorite — was “a potentially risky experiment,” the Times concluded.

The experiment ultimately paid off — Mars sang like Prince, danced like James Brown, played drum solos like John Bonham, and made even the Red Hot Chili Peppers look cool for the first time since 1999. The reaction from the press and social media was largely positive. And, best of all, there were no major snafus that embarrassed the shield.

While Mars proved to be a great fit for the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl definitely was advantageous for Mars, whose album sales jumped 164 percent the following week, an even higher increase than the 123 percent leap enjoyed by the previous year’s halftime headliner, Beyoncé. More than the short-term benefit of a sales bump, however, the Super Bowl had legitimized Mars as a marquee pop star, amplifying his talent and appeal to the largest audience imaginable.

What a difference a half-decade makes. In 2019, instead of leveraging the popularity of the NFL to accentuate their own brands, pop stars have lined up to essentially humiliate the league and, by proxy, the unfortunate acts who picked the wrong year to get involved with the halftime show. What was once a vehicle for mid-level artists to transform themselves into megastars has become something to live down, lest it actually damage your career.

The many A-list performers — including Jay-Z, Rihanna, Cardi B, and Pink — who publicly rebuffed the chance to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta has already been well-documented. These rejections would be bad enough if they weren’t also weaponized in some cases as political statements against the de-facto blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. But the protests of these high-profile stars, coupled with complaints that the NFL hasn’t attempted to honor Atlanta’s hallowed hip-hop heritage, have made the show radioactive. Now anyone who does perform will appear to have no scruples.

It doesn’t help that this year’s main performer, Maroon 5, actually has no discernible scruples. The image of Adam Levine as a slick huckster who will do anything to stay on top — whether it’s smirking his way through The Voice or putting out schlocky, pandering singles like “Girls Like You” as he enters middle age — plays directly into the “morality play” narrative of this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, which artists of integrity have avoided like NFL referees protecting Tom Brady from even a whiff of physical contact.

One of Levine’s co-stars, Travis Scott, has also been accused of opportunism even before he inadvertently stepped into this P.R. disaster. When he made a public show of meeting with Kaepernick earlier this month, presumably the expectation was that the growing controversy would be tamped down, though this hope proved to be quickly dashed by Kaepernick and his many allies in social media.