In the mecca of conspicuous consumption that is the Super Bowl, Madonna – the most material of all the girls – was right at home Sunday as the queen of halftime.
Wearing a winged tiara and knee-high leather boots, she entered like Cleopatra as part of a glittering parade, apparently on her to way to an S&M party in Ancient Egypt.
She strutted down nostalgia lane with “Vogue,” her vaunted dancing somewhat constrained, perhaps because of her high heels. She did sit astride another dancer, however, in keeping with the party “theme.”
By the end she was flogging a world peace message during the once-controversial “Like a Prayer.” If nothing else, the Super Bowl teaches us that even the biggest trend-setters and button-pushers tone it down and become acceptable eye-candy between halftime dips into the chili bowl.
She was accompanied by a cast of hundreds: dancers, drummers, tightrope-jumpers, plus pop stars LMFAO, Nicki Minaj and Cee Lo Green. The one outlier was M.I.A., a singer-rapper with the kind of underground resume unusual for Super Bowl halftimes. But if you turned away to reload on nachos, you probably missed them -- each performer got only seconds of screen time. This was Madonna’s party and besides breaking off bits of her greatest hits to remind people of a time when she was the biggest pop vixen on the planet, she had important career-advancing work to do.
Madonna, after all, never does anything unless she’s got something to sell, and with a new studio album due out in March and a tour to follow, she had plenty on her to-do list. The Super Bowl has become the biggest stage for shills of all kinds, pop stars included, and halftime has turned into a 12-minute branding opportunity in recent years for artists brandishing new albums, whether Bruce Springsteen or the Black Eyed Peas.
“Give Me All Your Luvin’,“ the new song inserted into the set list, had a – surprise! – football theme, a techno take on Toni Basil’s 1980s cheerleader anthem, “Mickey.” The song was glutted with cameos by Minaj and M.I.A., who dutifully moved their lips along with the backing track being piped through the stadium speakers in Indianapolis. M.I.A. did manage to insert herself into the post-halftime chatter, however, by flipping a left-handed, one-finger salute. ("The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show," NBC-TV said in a statement to the The Hollywood Reporter web site. "Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers.")
Twenty years ago, one might’ve expected such rudeness from Madonna herself, but in a pregame interview she vowed no “wardrobe malfunctions” to match the Super Bowl scandal pinned on Janet Jackson a few years ago.
Madonna has never really been about “live” performance; her concerts are essentially theatrical exhibitions accompanied by piped in music (Jeff Lanahan, a microphone technician who worked the halftime, said the vocals were performed live over recorded music). This performance was no different. But the song fell flat for other reasons – it just isn’t arresting in the way prime Madonna could be. Rhyming “Ya wanna” with “Madonna,” recasting herself as a cheerleader for a sport that she’s barely noticed in decades past – it was the Material Girl who couldn’t deliver the goods.
The National Anthem was notable if only because the performance by Kelly Clarkson was so straightforward. Unlike last year, when Christina Aguilera tried to make the song all about her and flubbed a line in the process, Clarkson gave a strong, dignified reading backed by martial drumming and a children’s choir. Not coincidentally, Clarkson’s rendition checked in at 1:34, a full 20 seconds more concise than Aguilera’s gymnastics exhibition. Clarkson’s anthem was preceded by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, who dished up dignity with a twang on “America the Beautiful.” Understatement at the Super Bowl – what a concept.
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