The Wardrobe Malfunction Paradox

Colby Cosh on the current state of the Super Bowl halftime show—and how to fix it

Fun fact: New Orleans jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain was part of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXIV. “Pete Fountain” was also the name of the central character in the concept album White City, released in 1985 by Super Bowl XLIV halftime performer Pete Townshend—the son of a jazz clarinetist.

As you can probably tell, I’m a fan of the Who and particularly Pete Townshend, but their performance at last night’s Super Bowl halftime lived down to my expectations. Townshend is still writing some good songs, and, believe it or not, the Who is still a perfectly viable live act performing the newer numbers written for Roger Daltrey’s 21st-century voice. But they should probably be confined to the indoors. A reader asked me, in twelegraphese:

Debate today during 1/2time: shouldn’t the Superbowl b used 2 foster unheard of rising stars? Band choice won’t increase eyeballs.

You can’t increase the number of eyeballs watching the Super Bowl, but you can certainly decrease the number watching the second half of a bad game if you pick a group or a performer that’s not popular outside its niche. There have been so many good Super Bowl games lately that we’ve forgotten the insurance function of the halftime show. The sponsors won’t switch to a “give a B-list act its big break” system anytime soon. (Nor are we going back to university marching bands and Carol Channing, much as we might like to.)

It so happens, however, that most of the qualified young A-listers are attractive women who wear skimpy clothing. And singers who fit that description haven’t exactly been welcome on the big stage since Janet. If you’re wondering how the Super Bowl halftime show suddenly became Oldies On Parade, it’s because the broadcast cannot tolerate the possibility of a “wardrobe malfunction”, and U.S. popular music is heavily predicated on creating precisely that possibility.

Even with that artificial restriction, there are more candidates left than you might think. Bon Jovi’s pretty much at the head of the line. The Foo Fighters have already appeared at the big show with Prince as Dave Grohl’s spirit medium; they’re young enough to kick ass and they’ve got the hits. Elton John and Billy Joel are still out on the road doing their thing. AC/DC? Kiss? A re-reunited Police? Queen with three or four different celebrity frontmen?

But there are a lot of other options. Remember, the headliner system for the halftime show is of very recent origin; U2 basically pioneered it in 2002. We could always go back to the 1990s paradigm of having several stars do about half a song apiece. And I suspect audiences are ready for some of the more notable Super Bowl successes to make return appearances. Is there some reason Springsteen can’t just do it every year? (I will always have trouble swallowing his Joisey working-man schtick, but the guy does give 110%.) What if we just appointed a semi-permanent compère for the event, Prince or Bono or somebody, and let him program the music with top-secret special guests?

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