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.

Now that we’re under two weeks out from the big game, it’s likely that the conversation around the halftime show (which also features hometown hero Big Boi, whose stardom has faded significantly since OutKast’s peak in the early ’00s) will only grow more rancorous. But even if it stays merely as bad or manages to marginally improve for Maroon 5 and Travis Scott, this year’s halftime show is already an epic failure from a promotional standpoint.

As Billboard recently reported, the NFL delayed its official halftime show announcement by four or five months, pushing it off until the virtual 11th hour on Jan. 13, as the league waited in vain for the bad publicity to dissipate. As for the acts who did agree to participate, it’s been advised to not “call attention to the fact that you’re doing it, because there’s no upside to that,” according to an unnamed publicist quoted by Billboard.

Don’t tell anyone that you’re playing the Super Bowl because there’s no upside? This is an incredible turn of events! However, it’s not unique to 2019. While this year has been especially toxic, a curious trend has emerged in which the power of the Super Bowl has apparently been inverted for pop stars. Instead of making you seem bigger and greater than you might otherwise be, the halftime stage has been ruthlessly reductive and punitive for those who dare to step upon it.

Let’s go back to 2016, when Coldplay and Beyoncé performed. Beyoncé is Beyoncé, one of the all-time pop-star gamers when it comes to televised performances, so no problems there. Coldplay meanwhile was mercilessly mocked on social media and ridiculed by professional outlets for being “upstaged” and looking more like “a stagehand than an actual performer.” While the importance of snarky tweets in these situations can be exaggerated, it’s hard to argue that performing at the halftime show in any way helped Coldplay. They weren’t set up to shine, the way U2 — another arena-filling populist rock band with minimal street cred — was able to seize the moment in 2002, in the wake of Sept. 11.

No matter how you feel about Coldplay, they are the sort of agreeable, middle-of-the-road pop act that is made to play events like this. Think of the Super Bowl halftime show like an office, and the performer as the communal music everyone must agree upon. While you might not like Coldplay, you’re probably not outraged by them — which, in the not-so-distant past, made them an ideal halftime entertainer, like Bruno Mars. But not anymore. As is the case with seemingly all parts of culture now, staying in the middle is virtually a guarantee to get steamrolled.

Coldplay’s treatment is an affectionate bear hug compared to the scorn heaped on Justin Timberlake in 2018. He was, like Coldplay, operating on a suddenly maligned blueprint – a mainstream pop institution leveraging the Super Bowl to promote an album, Man of the Woods, that came out two days prior. Unfortunately for Timberlake, critics hated Man of the Woods, and they really hated Timberlake for returning to the scene of Nipplegate without Janet Jackson, whose career was disproportionately damaged by the scandal while Timberlake flourished. A last-minute controversy over whether Timberlake was going to utilize a Prince hologram proved to be a nonstarter, but his performance was already dead in the water for the press and a vocal part of the audience before it even began.

Perhaps Timberlake was done in by his own unique baggage, much like this year’s Super Bowl is imperiled by the NFL’s seeming hostility toward Kaepernick’s activism. But any pop star who is famous enough to headline the Super Bowl is going to have something on their resumé that’s undesirable to a significant portion of viewers. The Super Bowl was once a tool to overwhelm those historical blemishes. Now, it puts them under the microscope.

Five years ago, the Super Bowl spotlighted and emphasized Bruno Mars’ prodigious musical talent and flair for showmanship, elevating him in the process. But for Coldplay and Timberlake, performing at the Super Bowl only made their flaws seem larger than life. And it’s likely to do the same for Maroon 5 and Travis Scott, both of whom are safe, bankable artists who now appear to be craven sellouts who don’t stand for anything. In this year’s game, the only winners are those sticking to the sidelines.