The Super Bowl LII halftime show was always going to be about taking a knee, literally or metaphorically.
The weight of American cultural and political history was beating down on what has ostensibly always been a simple celebration of pop culture excess long before the NFL had even announced that L.A. dance-pop outfit Maroon 5 had been deemed the worthy headliners for this year’s gig, all “12 minutes before the TV eyes of millions” of it.
Pressure was put on Maroon 5 from the beginning to turn down the opportunity, as big-name stars – among them Cardi B and Rihanna, reportedly – had done. Then the NFL got flack for failing to book any hip-hop – regional or otherwise – on a bill that would be filling the halftime slot in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Maroon 5 didn’t back down, instead offering to donate their $500,000 appearance fee to charity. The NFL did seem to capitulate, however, and added Travis Scott and Outkast co-founder (and Atlanta legend) Big Boi to the roster.
As late as Thursday of this week, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters was publicly seeking commitments from Maroon 5’s members to take a knee during their performance as a show of solidarity with QB Colin Kaepernick and the protest against police brutality targeting African-Americans he launched as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, 2½ years back.
Maroon 5 wasn’t buying it, apparently.
Add to it the fact the Foo Fighters – a band many have pegged as the perfect fit for the rowdy, anthemic throw-down that is traditionally a Super Bowl halftime show – live-streamed via Twitter their entire 2½ hour, guest-studded (Tom Morello, Perry Farrell, Zak Brown, and Roger Taylor of Queen all appeared in a show that included a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”) set from Atlanta on Saturday evening, and it seemed that Maroon 5’s show never had much chance of being anything other than a let-down.
In the end, it wasn’t so much a let-down as it was a relative snoozer, unless you happened to be a hardcore Maroon 5 fan. (Is there such a thing? Probably, but my intuition suggests no one is willing to go to the mat for Maroon 5. They make fine background music, or decent jams to crank at a club in the later hours, but the idea of anyone taking this band deep into their heart over any significant span of time feels far-fetched.)
Gladys Knight delivered a deeply soulful take on “The National Anthem,” and Chloe X Halle offered a brave, spirited arrangement of “America The Beautiful” prior to kickoff, and these proved to be the musical highlights of the evening. Tasteful, soulful and passionate performances.
When we finally got to halftime after a low-scoring (and incredibly boring) first half, it all went down much like we might’ve imagined it beforehand – Maroon 5 played abbreviated versions of some its biggest hits – “Harder To Breathe,” “This Love,” “Girls Like You,” “She Will Be Loved,” “Sugar,” “Moves Like Jagger” - and Travis Scott and Big Boi were granted less than 90 seconds between them, a portion of which featured Maroon 5’s Adam Levine attempting something like a hip-hop dance alongside the “guests.”
It was at times flawlessly presented pop music, and at others, an embarrassing attempt at cultural appropriation. Travis Scott offered a seriously truncated take on his tunes “Sweet Victory” and “Sicko Mode,” and Big Boi grooved through a bit of Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” This was too short, but long enough to suggest what might’ve been.
No one took a knee, or even flirted with anything resembling a political statement. It was what it was, and then it was over.
Levine did take his shirt off during “Moves Like Jagger,” perhaps to let his heavily tattooed and completely ripped torso take attention away from the fact that he, in fact, has no moves like Jagger. At all.
Ultimately, the pre-Super Bowl controversy that surrounded the halftime show proved to be more interesting and discussion-worthy than the halftime show itself. The NFL could do better, but I don’t get the impression it really wants to.