The Black Eyed Peas at the Super Bowl: Pop absurdity at its finest
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As the Black Eyed Peas’ Super Bowl halftime performance in Arlington, Texas, halted and revved up for its final act, there was a brief glimpse at the band that could have been. The retro-future stage -- outfitted with multiple moving platforms and a multitude of lights, as if the Peas had blown up Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade -- rearranged itself to spell out the the word ‘Love.’
Peas ringleader will.i.am stood straight and looked directly into the camera. Outfitted to look something like a cross between an astronaut and a ‘Star Wars’ character, will.i.am updated the lyrics to ‘Where Is the Love?’ and called upon the president to ‘create jobs so the country stays stimulated.’ As political commentary, it was far from divisive, but the 2003 hit was a brief reminder of the Los Angeles act’s roots. The Peas were once a socially-conscious hip-hop act, and as recently as eight years ago were interested in more than simply overly stimulating their audience.
But that shift in direction -- these days, the Peas have time for only mindless partying -- is largely what made the act quite possibly the most perfectly suited contemporary group for a Super Bowl halftime show. Since the 2004 Janet Jackson disaster, the NFL has targeted the boomer crowd, with little success. Bruce Springsteen hammed it up in 2009 to pander the mass audience, and the Who ran out of gas last year, trying to play the part of an act that still mattered.
The Peas, however, didn’t really have to change a thing. The Peas of 2011 embrace all things commercial and ridiculous. Corny? Please. In the world of the Peas, nothing is too silly and everything is built for exaggeration.
Fergie, who plays the role of ‘the one with sex appeal’ in the group, wore a glittery top that looked like butterfly-shaped battle armor. It was absurd and somewhat laughable, yet the Super Bowl isn’t the place for subtlety or veteran rockers trying to garner headlines.
So, as dancers with lampshades on their heads surrounded the band, the Peas once again proved that there is no outfit, no dance move and no lyric (‘Mazel tov!’) too silly to be shouted to the hinterlands. The Peas, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are the group this game of hype deserves.
Smartly, the Peas largely stayed away from their stinker of a recent album, ‘The Beginning,’ dipping only briefly into ‘The Time (Dirty Bit),’ with will.i.am and Fergie copping a prom-like embrace. Yet the tune isn’t really a song as much as it is an excuse to show off some nifty digital sounds, a compilation of parts that approaches songwriting as if it’s a commercial.
Indeed, the band can do those too, as will.i.am even directed his own Super Bowl ad, and unavoidable songs such as ‘Let’s Get It Started’ and ‘Pump It’ are little more than a collection of game-day slogans. The Peas largely stayed still during the performance, letting the backup dancers in ‘Tron’-like get-ups do much of the work and provide the eye candy. And eye candy it was, as -- and all apologies to Daft Punk -- there’s nothing in Disney’s ‘Tron: Legacy’ as goofily surreal as a band singing the phrase ‘Boom Boom Pow’ in Lazer Tag fashions.
The whole performance wasn’t a winner. When Slash emerged from beneath the act’s rotund stage/space shuttle launch pad, it was a turn for the worst. Here come the overcooked guitar lines and moment of nostalgia, but as Slash and Fergie ran through a snippet of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ it was a small consolation that Fergie can do a better Axl Rose than Axl these days.
Usher then descended from the ceiling to show off his dance moves, and the verses for his ‘O.M.G.’ were the only moments when the halftime show approached anything near risque. Much has been made of the Peas appearing at the Super Bowl, as pop-culture pontificators wondered whether the former rap group would do anything controversial. But no worries, as even Fergie’s skirt was at an appropriate length. Really, the Peas had zero interest in alienating, even if they persuaded Usher to wear a suit that was missing only a Stormtrooper mask.
Plenty may bemoan the absence of a more straight-ahead -- and, let’s face it, artful -- act such as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, but the Peas’ music is made for short bursts. This is the rare band that can shine with a medley.
Also, as far as music entertainment at this Super Bowl goes, the Peas were something of a revelation at Cowboys Stadium. Christina Aguilera bungled a line of the National Anthem, and stretched and yelled the word ‘brave’ as if she were giving a lesson in what tinnitus sounded like. Pregame, Maroon 5 was adult-pop at its most bland, and Keith Urban, despite his stylish guitar playing, was indistinguishable country-pop.
The Peas, however, are singularly unique, even if they’re far away from their more thought-provoking early days. The set came to an end with ‘I’ve Got a Feeling,’ and Fergie chest-pumped as she sang the words ‘pa-pa-pa-pa-party everyday.’ Nonsense? In the hands of nearly any other chart-toppers, yes, but the Peas approach partying as if it’s some sort of battle cry. Their weapons are little more than tuneful chants, and their army is fluorescent, but it’s built for stadiums.
-- Todd Martens