It’s been a rough year for the NFL. The season was plagued by falling TV ratings and shots of empty seats in stadiums. The league continued to get bad press over issues like concussions and long-term brain injuries. And then there’s the ongoing “take a knee” protests by players as they continue to speak up against racism and police brutality in America.
Colin Kaepernick’s alleged blackballing from a professional football career continues to divide owners and fans while also riling Donald Trump on the Twitter machine. And the brutal, incomprehensibly bad non-interference call in the Saints-Rams NFC conference final did the league no favours.
Which brings me to the Super Bowl halftime show. Maroon 5? That’s the best the NFL could do? Meh.
Don’t get me wrong. Maroon 5 has some fine songs backed by some pretty impressive numbers (109 million singles, 27 million albums, tens of millions of streams) but are they Super Bowl-worthy? Can you name any member beyond frontman Adam Levine? I thought not.
We have to go back to at least 1991 for a halftime show this unanticipated when New Kids on the Block joined a bunch of Disney characters at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. Scratch that: Super Bowl XXVI with its “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” segment in salute to the Winter Olympics was worse.
The NFL finally woke up in 1993 when it realized it could super-monetize the Super Bowl halftime show by booking the biggest performers it could. That was the year the call went to Michael Jackson, who, at the time, was the most popular performer in the world. When the TV ratings came in, the league was stunned by the numbers. This 15-minutes-ish performance is still one of the most-watched TV events in the history of American television.
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That was it for halftime shows featuring, marching bands, the Up with People kids, and Elvis impersonators (Seriously. A character named Elvis Presto was a featured performer at Super Bowl XVIII).
In the years that followed, the halftime show featured Aerosmith, NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly (all in 2001), U2 (2002), Shania Twain, No Doubt, and Sting (2003), Paul McCartney (2005), The Rolling Stones (2006) and perhaps one of the greatest live performances of all time, Prince in 2007.
Super Bowl halftime show alumni also include Tom Petty, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Beyoncé, and Coldplay. And who could forget the infamous 2004 wardrobe malfunction featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson? Now that was must-see TV. And say what you want about Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, but we knew that we were guaranteed a spectacle of some sort.
And the TV ratings kept going up and up and up, reaching beyond 114 million for Katy Perry in 2015.
No wonder the NFL no longer pays the halftime performers. The league’s argument is that it’s giving the artist such a massive audience that it should be charging for the privilege.
Back to Maroon 5. Why them? The bottom line is that no one else would take the gig as a result of the Kaepernick/national anthem/take a knee controversy.
With this year’s game being held in Atlanta, one of the capitals of hip-hop and one of the most important black-majority cities in America, it was hoped that talent would jump at the opportunity. That never happened. Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Cardi B all publicly declared they’d have nothing to do with the event. Local hip-hop royalty like T.I., Ludacris, Wacka Flocka Flame, Lil Jon, Migos, Run the Jewels, Future, and the Dungeon Family declined or were not asked. It would have been cool to see Atlanta natives Outkast on stage, but there was a split. Big Boi agreed to perform with Maroon 5 while Andre 3000 is going to sit things out.
Instead, we get a white band from Los Angeles. And since everything is about race in America, the disgust is palpable.
Back in November, just as rumours were circulating that Maroon 5 had taken the gig, a Change.org petition was launched, demanding that the group pull out. More than 112,000 people have signed it.
The band has stood firm. Keyboardist PJ Morton had this to say to People: “I think there are plenty of people — a lot of the players, to be honest — who support Kap and also do their job for the NFL, I think we’re doing the same thing. We can support being against police brutality against black and brown people and be in support of being able to peacefully protest and still do our jobs. We just want to have a good time and entertain people while understanding the important issues that are at hand. There was a lot to go into that decision.”
Halftime will also feature rapper Travis Scott who, contrary to early reports, did not receive any kind of absolution from Colin Kaepernick. As you might expect, this has not played out well with people like Michael B. Jordan and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Meek Mill also blasted him on Twitter.
Fine. We have artists banding together to protest injustice. Or do we?
An under-reported aspect to this story is all the artists who are playing Super Bowl events beyond the halftime show. Ludacris and Migos played the EA Sports Bowl on Thursday. Then it was Aerosmith and Post Malone on Friday. And despite having shared a hit song with Maroon 5 in Girls Like You, Cardi B won’t perform with them at halftime. Instead, she’ll take cash to appear with Bruno Mars in concert Saturday night. Also on Saturday was a special Foo Fighters/Run the Jewels gig sponsored by DirecTV. Seems a bit hypocritical amongst so much righteous protesting, no?
Last year’s Super Bowl ratings were the lowest in nearly a decade. This year’s halftime show won’t help.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.