The Military-Football Complex becomes more sinister every year. One should never be fooled into thinking the apogee of cynicism has been reached when the first Sunday in February rolls around and the beast’s infernal machinations are put on display for the nation and the world. For all its extremes of spectacle, this holiest of American Imperial rituals, one far more important than the recently observed inauguration of the US President, gives a frighteningly clear picture of the cultural contradictions of this bizarre country.
There have been moments before that revealed, if only fleetingly, just how close the Land of the Super Bowl is to imploding under its own hypocrisy. In the infamous Nipplegate of 2004, Justin Timberlake—who was also in New Orleans doing a show this Super Bowl Sunday, just not in the Superdome—appeared to expose Janet Jackson’s right nipple. This phantom flesh sent evangelical politicians, pundits, and clergymen into fits of moral outrage. They labeled the desecration of a high holiday with their most stinging denunciation: “inappropriate.”
That amusing tempest—in which NBC was initially fined a half a million dollars, though the judgment was overturned some years later on appeal—attuned the easily-titillated as well as the technologically-adept to the potential of the Super Bowl to tip towards farce. During the 2009 game the telecast in Arizona was jammed by a satirically-minded hacker who offered viewers some porn for the half-time show, rudely interrupting Bruce Springsteen who a couple of weeks earlier had done his ponderous ballad “The Rising” in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Switching from Bruce and his macho E-Streeters to naked bodies made the obvious point that whether nipples are bared or not the half-time show is all about sex—and that superannuated rockers don’t really offer what is needed.
This year’s half-time star, Beyoncé, set new standards of raunchiness with her leather fetish rig: high-heeled boots and fish-net stockings drawing the eye up to a gothic space-age skirt, which, in contrast to her two back-up singers, was permanently parted to reveal the snuggest of undergarments. Her relentless hips made the most of this sartorial ensemble. The surprisingly restrained beauty of her voice—supposedly singing live in expiation for her lip-syncing sins at the Presidential inauguration—served by contrast to amplify the sexual display of her dancing.
Like Springsteen, Beyoncé is a vital Imperial player, and the easy move from inauguration to Super Bowl indicates just how efficient the Democratic political machine is in projecting the message at key events. It wouldn’t surprise me if the entertainment giants behind Springsteen and Beyoncé are also big contributors to the Obama camp and that they duly reap the commercial benefits.
Beyoncé made Madonna’s show at last year’s Super Bowl seem nun-like by comparison. Madonna spent most of the twelve minutes of her half-time show in a surprisingly unrevealing outfit—a rather puritanical gladiatrix at the après-bout. Then again, Madonna is of a certain age, an inconvenient reality that even dry ice and blinding lights can no longer hide. It was Madonna’s back-up singers, with their blatant cheerleaders-as-prostitutes look, that crossed the line into the pseudo-pornographic.
As for Beyoncé, don’t get me wrong: I think she’s a terrific dancer, but don’t tell me this is family entertainment. That’s what is so bizarre: in America it is.
The furor of Nipplegate confirmed that the Super Bowl half-time show is supposed to represent wholesome American values wrapped in the patriotic paraphernalia of nationalistic songs, solemn tributes to the military, and fighter plane flyovers. That this is not just a game, but a ceremony of national and political significance can be seen on the lapels of the CBS football analysts arrayed at their concave desk like the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of them wear the American flag pins and present a united front not only to the national audience, but perhaps more importantly to the international viewers numbering more than a hundred million. Football as foreign policy: the Super Bowl is now the Military-Football complex’s version of the Doomsday Machine in the War on Terror.
Fortunately, that complex’s efficiency continues to show signs of steep decline. The long power outage that cut the lights in much of the stadium during the second half sent a sobering message to the nation and the world: in the very city of New Orleans where the American state had so flagrantly let down its own citizens during and after Hurricane Katrina, the Military-Football complex couldn’t even keep the darkness at bay. Could there be any clearer omen of the empire’s imminent demise?
Initially I assumed it was Beyoncé’s high voltage light show—or the disturbances sent out into the grid by the pelvic force field generated by her grindings—that drained the stadium of electricity. On further reflection, however, I concluded that Alice Keys’ butchering of the national anthem nearly two hours earlier had likely angered the energy gods and spurred them to pull the plug on the whole thing, Her doodling coda to the national hymn went beyond the standard pop decorations that are almost always deployed by singers thinking they’d better do something to spruce up the terrible melody. “Living in the land of the free, ooh, ooh” crooned the appropriately named Keys as her fingers ascended the ivories in a kind of AM-lite amen. Where was the outrage at such promiscuity with the national hymn?
Keys could just as well have been at a Las Vegas piano bar, which is anyway about right for the Super Bowl. Shots over the gleaming white piano—that naff veneer being the very symbol of suburban bad taste and therefore perfectly calibrated to this national celebration—to the singer were intercut with soldiers in camo crammed into the frame from Camp Courage in Afghanistan. The troops’ downcast eyes made it appear as if they were looking right down Keys polished décolletage.
The most unforgettably chilling moment came just before the national anthem when Jennifer Hudson sang America the Beautiful and was backed up by children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The first thing I thought of was the scenes of Saddam Hussein presenting American hostages to the world cameras. Here was America taking its own kids hostage in an attempt to assure the nation and the world that not even a senseless and preventable massacre could dampen the irrepressible American spirit nor curb its endemic insanity about guns.
Even for all their apparent elation at being on the world stage, the kids must have known that they had been kidnapped into a world of propagandistic illusion. Hudson had a microphone and may or may not have been “live” in the quaint conventional sense of the word, long since irrelevant to mass nationalistic spectacles. But the kids had no mikes and their mouths made it still clearer that they had either been pre-recorded or overdubbed by another kiddy choir. This was a shocking first in the history of exploitation: the Super Bowl’s underage human shields were lip-syncing.
Ensnared in the alternate universe of state propaganda, they looked simultaneously thrilled and anesthetized. In their khakis and white polo shirts they offered another striking contrast, this time to Hudson’s breasts swathed in form-fitting leather.
When the color guard marched out to the 50-yard line after this ugliest of America the Beautifuls, I braced myself for the clap of blanks from the white Enfield rifles and the post-traumatic scatter of the Sandy Hook choir. But no blast of gunfire came. The violence inflicted on reason had already been too great.
For what were kids doing here in the first place? Clearly they had been called on to buttress the devastated reputation of a discredited country on the occasion of its chief cultural celebration. This is a country where high school footballers in Steubenville, Ohio video a rape and post it on YouTube. Football itself is a brutal sport whose crushing hits are now the subject of a massive lawsuit by former players suffering from serious brain trauma, with the NFL’s own ads during the Super Bowl claiming hypocritically to want to make their sport safer. And then there’s the winning team’s hero, Ray Lewis. He’s a maniac who spouts incoherent nonsense about being chosen by God and who himself plead guilty to obstruction of justice in a double murder case in which the white suit he was wearing that fateful night was never found.
In the Super Sunday ritual itself, two halves of a blood sport are parsed by a Las Vegas adult floorshow. The Newtown kids might as well have been faking it at the opening act of a strip club with cage fighting.
The Super Bowl is a riot of sex and violence, propaganda and lies. That’s all to be expected and enjoyed, Budweiser in hand. But don’t be surprised that so many who watch it grow up to make war at home and abroad.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.