In February 2007, the football game that would ultimately deliver Peyton Manning his first Super Bowl ring was largely unremarkable, save for the Devin Hester kick return for a touchdown that started the game. What everyone remembers years later is Prince’s halftime show — and this was before the tragic, heart-rending news that he died on Thursday at the age of 57. I bet before I told you, you couldn’t even remember who played that year. That’s the kind of sun-blotting effect Prince has.
What made the game so unremarkable also helped make Prince’s set all the more remarkable: the torrential downpour. The NFL put together a really good video package about why the rain should be a challenge to an artist, but wasn’t to Prince.
One only needs to look to the past couple of Super Bowls to see how hard it is to have a personality big enough to hold the attention of 200-plus million people on TV. Katy Perry needed Missy Elliott and an uncoordinated shark. Coldplay needed Bruno Mars and Beyoncé. Prince only had his band and his dancers, the Twinz, and he was totally in his element.
Prince performed in the same truncated medley format as all halftime shows have been, to squeeze as many big choruses out of 12 minutes as possible. Yet because he was Prince (you could write a book of “because he was Prince” moments), it all felt natural and loose. He touched on “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Baby I’m A Star” and “Purple Rain,” with ample guitar solos, and even covered “Proud Mary,” “All Along The Watchtower,” and the Foo Fighters’ “Best Of You,” all in the running time of an Adult Swim show. And it felt like a fit of creative fancy rather than corporate pressure, because it’s the kind of creative fancy Prince would indulge in his own shows, peppered with covers and quick pivots from song to song.
For most of us (including me), this is as close as we ever came to seeing Prince live. Maybe it’s because it was in the midst of a football game that it was something other than just watching old concert videos on a television or laptop. Seeing Prince take over the most nakedly branded and sponsored cultural event we have and make his mark felt spontaneous, vital and transgressive, with that last bit thanks in part to the presence of a massive sheet and the suggestive silhouette it cast. On the biggest stage American culture has to offer, Prince remained resolutely Prince, and we were all better for it.