When this year’s half-time show performer was announced in the hype-filled run-up to the Super Bowl, it seemed to me that a pop star who shared his stage name with that of the God of War must be the perfect choice. Behind the rampant insanity of the Super Bowl and its literal mash-up of violence and narcissism lies the rational desire of its owners and organizers to pitch the nation’s leading products to the world. The biggest exports of post-industrial America are entertainment and war, and in Bruno Mars we have what sounds like a singer whose brand might promise to unite the martial and the musical.
Bruno and his handlers know of the potential windfall from this advertiser jamboree. Even though he didn’t make a dime for doing the show itself, Mars eagerly agreed to take the gig so he could reach mega millions and boost his already colossal fame and fortunes. On a larger level, too, the Super Bowl is a valuable PR exercise that projects America’s cultural and military hegemony, even if the rest of the planet sees in the excuse for the blitz — the game of football itself — a nonsensical sport of fitful, if occasionally spectacular, action intermingled with brutal injuries. It’s irrelevant that virtually no one beyond this continent would even considering playing the game: the global audience doesn’t want to watch football, it wants to see how America sees itself.
The thing is, this nimble little falsettist of a Mars turns out not to fit the traditional image of war-loving deity that his stage-name suggests. Lacking sword, shield, and helmet, this pop star god appeared instead as a sequined embodiment of the modern, leaner American fighting machine. This was not the frontal assault many a previous Super Bowl musical act — the lumbering armored divisions of The Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Springsteen. Indeed, Mars the crooner of “Gorilla” (that unforgettable hit that takes its title from the gracious line: “you and me baby we’ll be fuckin’ like gorillas) was something of Guerilla on stage. He deployed at lightning speed on the drums and after beating them to a pulp, he seemed to vanish, undetected by radar or optical surveillance methods, before materializing in front of his band with microphone in hand. Mars has not only learned the necessary lessons of his pop forbears but also those of asymmetrical warfare: never stay still; hone your commando skills on a diverse arsenal of smart musical weapons; dance but never drop. Rather than pulverizing power of the rockers of yore, Mars even at his most frenetic was all stealth and style.
It was clearly to dramatize the novelty of his approach that Mr. Mars invited the hulking Red Hot Chili Peppers for what he initially termed a “collaboration.” Shirtless and tattooed, the Peppers looked like they’d busted into Mars’ glitzy Las Vegas floor show from the Braveheart backlot: they weren’t just a good decade obsolete, they were downright medieval. Lumbering about and seething with dangerously high levels of testosterone these barbarians appeared more thirsty for blood than for Super Bowl celebrity.
Mars and his Men responded quickly to the threat. Floating and feinting as if he himself were an unmanned aerial vehicle, Mars infiltrated the invaders for a few back-up vocals, feigning interest in the invader’s claims to relevance. In reality his interventions expertly contained the eruptive assault that was the Pepper’s bellicose ode to flagging virility, Give It Away. Once disarmed, the Pepper’s disappeared from the stage and from history without leaving a mark on Mars’ unblemished skin, on his high-energy show, or on the legacy of that most sacred temple of pop culture — the Super Bowl halftime show. Not force but finesse had quelled the insurgency.
Somewhere behind the darkened glass of the maximum security Boy Scouts of America luxury box in the MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, former defense Secretary Robert Gates shook his booty in approval. Like the “swift-moving expeditionary force” envisioned by the so-called Gates’ Doctrine, Mars had avoided a land war with the Peppers. Instead they were nothing more than a quickly forgotten insurrection, burning mildly at both ends before being flushed away. Their assault had inflicted little damage on America’s most cherished institution.
If the fleet-footed and fleet-voiced Mars marked an entertaining innovation in the annals of Super Bowl music, a visitation from a goddess of high culture marked another. After all those ululating pop queens typically summoned to do the dreadful Star Spangled Banner, Renée Fleming was an unexpected and welcome outbreak of pretentiousness, her stark black-and-white gown and mantle presenting an austere formality all the more imposing as it was flanked by a mixed choir in military dress. The staging of this year’s anthem was as operatic as the famous singer, her voice vaguely recognizable through the stadium sound system’s reverb: as Fleming’s soprano rose up with the “rockets’ red glare” a tremendous barrage of fireworks was launched from the ramparts of the stadium.
This fiery battle scenario reached its apotheosis when Fleming took her final liberties with the anthem itself, liberties only a diva wrapped in the accouterments of high culture would dare to take. Having her way with Francis Scott Key’s dismal poetry, she repeated the words “the brave,” her voice climbing up the octave and towards the heavens just as a squadron of Apache helicopters swept overheard. At this point, the Fox network director opted not for another shot of the grinning Fleming, but for a close-up of the grizzled Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning squinting up at the din like a Vietnam field commander calling in an air strike. Perhaps the deafening roar of the choppers numbed his hearing and therefore led to that opening snap sailing over his head — a demoralizing error ushering in the ensuing debacle.
The most startling musical development was not the operatic overflight of gunships, however, but Mars’ invasion of virgin territory in the shameless and bizarre exploitation of children. Many were dismayed last year when a hapless and dazed suburban kiddy choir of Sandy Hook school shooting survivors had been drafted into Super Bowl service. However sickening their exploitation had been, at least they had been asked only to lips-synch a white-bread patriotic hymn, America the Beautiful. Twenty years ago, when Michael Jackson was chosen as the first pop star to supplant the marching bands and convert Super Bowl halftime event into the blockbuster event it now is, he called on a children’s choir for We are the World, a richly-deserved moment of maudlin self-indulgence after the electricity of his Billie Jean.
But when Mars’ show started with a children’s choir, my jaw dropped. Would he run afoul of child pornography laws given the explicit sexual content of so many of his lyrics?
But rather than sex, these youngsters sang of money — though the difference is often merely semantic in the lexicon of pop music. The waifs stood there piously, the word “Prepare” in dazzling lights behind them. One might have thought this motto was intended to impart a religious message about the Second Coming or serve as an injunction to military readiness in the War on Terror. But instead the kids were dreamingly lauding me-first consumerism and a blind desire for celebrity: “The world better prepare from when I’m a billionaire.” Not only did the youth choir lay bare the American core values of greed, waste, and cynicism for the world to marvel at, but their hymn also served as a prelude to Mars’ hit Locked Out of Heaven — heaven referring here to the vagina. After expressing their hopes and dreams for piles of lucre, the kids were rushed from the stage as Mars gave full throat to the line: “your sex takes me to paradise.” That Mars has something of the aspect of Michael Jackson vaulted the scenario from the merely inappropriate to the brazenly perverse. So inured have even Christian moralists become to such Super Bowl excess that any complaint was as tepid as the Bronco’s offense.
Wrapped in glittering raiment, this Mars, this new god of war, showed that in the looming battles of the twenty-first century no one is too young to fight for the world’s hearts and minds — and money.