Fans of music and football alike were recently surprised to learn that Bruno Mars was asked to put together this year’s Super Bowl halftime show. This was a bit odd, because, well… he just did it! Only two years ago, Mars performed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the intermission entertainment during the Seahawks’ systemic dismantling of the Broncos. There are so many acts, young and old, who the NFL could have gone to, why would they possibly be looking to Mars again so soon?
Perhaps it’s because he’s one of the few true showmen in pop these days.
Ever since Mars emerged in 2010, he’s felt a bit like a relic — a pop star from the ’50s or early ’60s transported into the 2010s. A Frankie Avalon amid a world of Taylor Swifts and Katy Perrys. Now, whether this makes his music any better than anyone else’s is up to each individual to decide, but what seems undeniable is the passion he puts into every performance. When you watch Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj or Miley Cyrus perform at an awards show, you get the feeling the main features of the performance are supposed to be the costumes, the backup dancers, and the backdrop. In other words, everything except the actual singing. Mars is the exception to the rule. When he performs, the song – and his voice – are the stars of the show.
The most jarring example of this juxtaposition was probably the 2013 VMAs. As you may recall, this was the year Miley twerked on Robin Thicke while dressed in a costume that appeared to be a nod to the furry community, symptomatic of how a modern pop performance is supposed to work. Later that night, Mars performed “Gorilla” against a surprisingly sparse backdrop. Sure, there were lasers flying around, like you might expect at any rock show, but there was no gimmick other than “here’s a person with an amazing voice singing a song.” Did that make the song’s message of “makin’ love like gorillas” any deeper? No, but it was nice to see someone put the song first for a change.
Perhaps that’s why the NFL is looking to him for halftime entertainment once again. Let’s be honest: We don’t demand a lot from our pop stars these days. Lip-syncing? Fine, just don’t be too obvious about it (*cough* Ellie Goulding *cough*). And if you do decide to actually sing, we’re totally fine with a subpar vocal performance just as long as you put a lot of shiny things in the background to distract us. As long as a performance provides some visceral feeling of “entertainment,” we don’t really care if the quality is any good. “Memorable” has become an acceptable replacement for “competent.”
None of this means Mars is the only viable option for Super Bowl halftime. After all, Beyonce was brilliant three years ago, and older acts like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and The Who have all done fine jobs on the Super Bowl stage. Still, you can see why Mars was one of the first choices that popped into the NFL’s mind. He’s the rare pop star with a sense of professionalism; and who understands that no amount of flashy stage clutter can adequately replace a competent, impassioned vocal performance. Mars is the kind of showman that feels practically non-existent in popular music these days. So, if you were surprised/annoyed that the NFL is turning to him again, consider that so few of his contemporaries share his commitment to performances that are memorable for featuring a strong, emotive vocal performance rather than needlessly complex trainwrecks where the singing is literally the least important thing. In that context, it makes perfect sense that they’d turn to him again.