Tuned In

Madonna, Clint and the Rest of Super Bowl XLVI Halftime

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC

I went into last night’s Madonna Super Bowl halftime show expecting to hate it: yet another performer whose appeal can charitably be described as “nostalgic” (see The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc.) blasting out a set of oldies while trying to hit that big squishy target of something-for-everyone. (“Dad, what’s Lady Gaga’s mom doing at the Super Bowl?”) I ended up—well, not loving it, maybe, but admiring it, respecting Madge’s continued ability to strike a pose and put on a show and learning a thing or two about Fake Roman-Egyptian History in the process.

A lot of the immediate complaints about the performance were that Madonna lip-synched her show. This didn’t bother me, because Madonna has never really been a singer; she’s a performer. At the height of her powers she was more about her ability to move, posture and provoke than to sing, and that’s an advantage in a way, because it means she can not-sing just as well in her 50s as she could in her 20s. What Madonna did, and does, instead is what a lot of great pop performers do: erect and occupy massive monuments to herself. And she put on a glittering one, a gold-encrusted, Egyptofabulous beefcake fantasia of antique decadence and lighting special effects, wearing an age-appropriate-ish pharaoh-valkyrie miniskirt and keeping up with a bevy of dancers. (That, my friends, is why you do yoga.)

Part of gracefully accepting the role of elder pop stateswoman is being able to delegate, and Madonna shared the spotlight (here’s the “something for everyone” part) with a crew of singers who might have carried off a halftime show on their own: Cee-Lo Green in a shimmery black caftan, an antic Nicky Minaj, and M.I.A., who apparently briefly flipped off the camera in a gesture so shocking that I had no idea she even did it until NBC issued an apology for it. (She also performed a snippet of “Party Rock Anthem” with LMFAO, the only part of the entire show that the Tuned In Jrs. looked up from the iPad to pay attention to.) The set list—a medley of hits, plus obligatory new song “Give Me All Your Luvin’”—wasn’t surprising, and the closing image (“World Peace” spelled out in lights on the field) was like a parody of a lame pop message. But it all could have been so much worse. Have we forgotten the Black-Eyed Peas already?

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The other big event at halftime was Clint Eastwood‘s commercial for Chrysler, the most stark, arresting Super Bowl ad since, well, Eminem’s ad for Chrysler a year ago. (Claire Suddath, Glibert Cruz and I tag-teamed the Super Bowl ads this year, and you can see the results here; I got the first quarter, arguably the most boring stretch of ads of the night.) Beginning with Clint rasping at us in a dark alley, as if he’s about to ask us if we feel lucky, punk, it lays out an unpretty but grittily optimistic picture of an America at “halftime,” talking itself back up after a rough few years and making comeback plans—much like, the ad suggests, the automaker, which was on the verge of failing just a few years ago.

No joke, for the first fifteen seconds or so, I actually thought that someone had bought air time for an election ad in the Super Bowl: it had all the hallmarks, from the shot of a front porch in early morning light to the “[Time of day] in America” construction to the shots of protest signs and talking heads on TV. And even given that it was actually a car commercial, it was nonetheless one of the most political feeling apolitical ads I’ve ever seen—even if it didn’t take a position, it prodded directly at the themes of hard times and recovery that candidates will most likely be hitting come fall. What complicated things were the different political valences of the spot: on the one hand, Eastwood is a well-know Hollywood Republican, and on the other, the ad was a pretty blatant argument for the value of the bailout of American automakers by the Obama administration. (A move that Mitt Romney, for one, has said we should never have made, in a 2008 New York Times op-ed titled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”)

Chrysler, I’m sure, made the ad purely in its own interests, which just happen to overlap with the politics of 2012. But I’m guessing that President Obama would not mind if this ad campaign was on the air in, say, Michigan in October.

How do you vote on this year’s halftime show? Clint? Madge? Or none of the above? And who/what would you like to see on stage next year?