“Michael’s performance wasn’t much better than Buffalo’s.”
That was Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon’s take on Super Bowl XXVII, during which the Dallas Cowboys made mince-meat of the Buffalo Bills at the Rose Bowl in what can only be described as a rout, and Michael Jackson became the biggest pop act to perform during a halftime show up to that point.
The Bills were playing their third consecutive Super Bowl that year. They’d go on to make it four in a row in 1994. That would be it for them for 25 years and counting. At the time, it seemed Jackson’s career was sharing space in the same toilet the Bills were swirling down. He was rapidly becoming the previous decade's news.
Yet, if Jan. 31, 1993 is one of a seemingly bottomless bucket of days Bills fans would love to forget, it would ultimately prove to be a watershed moment, for both the King of Pop and the NFL’s conception of what might constitute a proper Super Bowl halftime show. From this point on, subtlety would not be on the table. Nor would marching bands, for the most part.
Wilbon’s Post piece was not exactly pulling punches when it lambasted Jackson for his "10-year-old dance steps and more crotch-grabbing than a major league baseball player stepping into the box,” or its insistence that to discuss Jackson in 1993 terms meant to “talk about a guy who's lost a step."
I remember agreeing, at least partly, with this assessment. But an equal part of me was, unsurprisingly, in awe of Jackson’s charisma, which managed to shine through despite what appeared to be some less-than-stellar lip-syncing, a weird show-opening 90-second freeze-frame pose, and a whole lot of pop pomp and circumstance.
We might not have realized at the time what all of this would mean for Super Bowl halftime extravaganzas going forward. In the past, there had been at least a veneer of “local community involvement” sprayed over the whole affair. Marching bands from organizations relevant to the city the game was being played in were invited to be involved. Nods to area attractions – like when Disney characters and local kids teamed to sing “It’s A Small World After All” during Super Bowl XXV in Tampa – were de rigueur. As a television viewer, you got the sense you were a guest invited to look in on a massive local event taking place in another city.
That sense of locality went the same way as cute kids singing children’s songs, following Jackson’s performance.
This year’s Super Bowl LIII is taking place in Atlanta. The halftime show is being headlined by Los Angeles pop-pablum disseminators Maroon 5. Considering that Atlanta boasts one of the largest African-American metro populations in the country and that Maroon 5 is, in musical parlance, one of the “whitest” bands extant, this feels like a disconnect.
The announcement of Maroon 5’s headlining slot in September was met by much gnashing of teeth in some quarters, to the point where an online petition urging the band to turn down the offer earned more than 50,000 signatures before December. That a non-Atlanta band would headline an NFL event, given the league’s treatment of players exercising their right to protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the pregame National Anthem, was interpreted by many as an insult. The NFL, perhaps grudgingly, took note, and added hip-hop artists Travis Scott (not from Atlanta, but associated with Atlanta artists) and Big Boi (a major Atlanta hip-hop legend) to the bill. Maroon 5 will still be headlining.
So yeah, we’ve come a long way from marching bands and Disney characters.
Jackson’s performance – not one of his best, but lord, the set-list alone (an intro jam, “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “We Are the World,” “Heal the World”) cements its status as iconic – paved the way for subsequent halftime overkill.
Booking Jackson represented a sea-change in the league’s attitude toward halftime. From now on, it would all be about ratings. 133.4 million people watched Jackson lip-sync on NBC that year. Anything less, going forward, would be deemed a failure. In a very real sense, every mega-star playing the halftime show after 1993 – Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Madonna, Springsteen, Prince, U2, among them – owes a debt to MJ's performance at the Rose Bowl.
Every year around this time, for the past 25 years, many of us in the region feel a nostalgia, wistful or otherwise, for the days when the Bills were the type of organization that could send a team to the Super Bowl four years in a row. Perhaps we’re also subconsciously longing for a return to a simpler, less bombastic, ratings-driven halftime show that reflected at least a bit of the region in which the game was being played.
Alas, that’s not the product the NFL is selling these days. So it goes.