Correction appended Feb. 2, 2014; 9:40 p.m.
Concert of the Year? That’s what the NFL claimed all week long as it hyped its halftime show with Bruno Mars. But could a relatively young artist without huge name recognition carry the day? Even one of the football commentators came out and said “There were a lot of doubters.” Once Mars was done, though, doubters should have been few.
Two stunts marked the opening of his halftime performance, one slightly less nauseating than the other. It began with a children’s choir and segued into a drum solo performed by Bruno himself. (His lookalike brother, Eric Hernandez — Mars was born Peter Gene Hernandez — took over soon after). But then it was time to break out the gold jackets and skinny ties and launch into “Locked Out of Heaven.” His jumbo band of brass, backup singers and bass put the song across nicely. Not only that, but when they broke into “Treasure,” the synchronized dance moves provided a moment straight out of the Platters, circa 1966.
Then, Bruno started to snarl. “Who you rockin’ with — you rockin’ with the best!” All of a sudden, the man was James Brown, singing “I don’t want to hurt you baby, I just want to work you baby. ” And he gave it his best JB shuffle before a segue into the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away Now.” Instantaneously, lamé jackets gave way to shirtless man flesh as Anthony Kiedis, Flea and the rest of RHCP took the stage.
The usual Peppers hijinks ensued, followed by a massive jump session. And them, oddly, the music went downtempo and sentimental as the video cut to a series of servicemen and women saying hello to their families from far-flung bases around the world. Nice work, Bruno and NFL. If you don’t get some tears from that, you’d pretty much have to flash Philip Seymour Hoffman’s face up on the screen. The song was the semi-maudlin ballad “Just the Way You Are,” which wouldn’t have seemed like the obvious set closer, but a huge shower of fireworks drove the statement home.
Bruno Mars started out the moment a relative unknown among the pop-unsavvy masses who watch the Super Bowl, but he certainly should have made an impression on anybody who says they don’t write songs the way they used to. Mars does just that — but manages to update them for today’s audience.
We’re not sure if it was truly, as the NFL boasted, the concert of the year. But it was a giant leap forward for the Super Bowl, tapping a vibrant young artist to take its biggest stage on the biggest football night of the year.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the drummer playing at the beginning of Bruno Mars’ set. It was Bruno himself, not his brother Eric Hernandez.