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Forget the clash between the 49ers and the Ravens. Speculation in the run-up to Super Bowl Sunday was all about Beyonce. Would the sizzling human volcano erupt with 12 minutes of booty-popping, hip-thrusting, hair-flipping fabulousness? Or did being a wife and mother, an Obama intimate and a Serious Artist mean Queen Bey would tone down the sexual heat and shift into pop-gospel goddess mode? Would hubby Jay-Z make a “Crazy in Love” cameo? And would Destiny’s Child reunite on the Superdome stage?
Well, despite advance denials designed to keep us guessing, it surprised nobody that the R&B vocal trio did indeed reconvene, to the joy of ‘90s nostalgists across the country who were more than ready for this jelly. Jay-Z stayed home, perhaps feeding the rumor mill that he is holding out for the 2014 Super Bowl gig in New York. But most importantly, the Bey-boss uncorked a whole mess of molten lava.
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Madonna smashed ratings records with her 2012 halftime show by amping up the theatricality and enlisting a backup crew of younger, hipper flavors in the old girl’s tireless bid to stay relevant. So Beyonce had a tough act to follow. But she pulled together a slick, hits-laden performance that combined the tightly choreographed spectacle of Madge’s show with her own thoroughbred vocal pyrotechnics.
After her lipsyncing controversy at the Presidential Inauguration in January, Beyonce appeared to be singing live at the Super Bowl. However, given the physical exertion of her dance routines and the fact that canned tracks are commonly used in halftime shows, some audio assist was quite possibly employed. But when an entertainer has this much command, who cares?
Ever since Michael Jackson redefined the Super Bowl break exactly 20 years ago, the event has become about giant stars capitalizing on the mammoth audience to push new tours, albums, reunions, hits compilations or whatever latest career evolution is in the works.
In the 21st century years especially, the organizers have bounced around all over the pop-rock map in their schizoid choices. The sparks generated by pairing Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake in 2004 were overshadowed by the ridiculously outsize Nipplegate ruckus. And the bid to harness the hip-hop edge missed the mark when the Black Eyed Peas did a belly-flop onstage in 2011.
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An attempt to cover a broad spectrum in 2001 by throwing together Aerosmith, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly smacked of disharmonious desperation. And the parade of aging rockers through much of the past decade — Paul McCartney (2005), the Rolling Stones (2006), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (2008), Bruce Springsteen (2009) and The Who (2010) — were generally considered safe choices that spoke to old-timer football fans without troubling the younger crowd too much.
Perhaps the acts that came closest to hitting a bull’s-eye were U2, whose bombast was made more palatable when deployed in the service of a genuinely moving 9/11 memorial tribute in 2002, just months after the attacks had taken place, and Prince, whose brilliant musicianship and killer guitar licks invigorated the 2007 show. Who doesn’t want to sing along to “Purple Rain?”
Where Beyonce lands in the Super Bowl halftime rankings will doubtless be the subject of next week’s water-cooler debate. But from the moment she appeared as a giant silhouette against a plume of smoke while the late Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s legendary “excellence must be pursued” Super Bowl speech was heard, Beyonce turned on a high-energy, sexually charged performance with exciting multimedia elements. The most eye-popping of these techno-tricks was a double image of Beyonce’s face outlined in lights, with a sea of flowing fabric tresses.
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Starting with a few bars of “Love on Top,” she segued into “Crazy in Love,” with lots of power stomping and some foxy Busby Berkeley routines on the electronic stage. Just to raise the temperature a little higher, she whipped off a couple layers of her leather-and-lace warrior-woman outfit and hurled them into the crowd. (Look out for those on eBay.)
For a 12-minute set, Beyonce chose wisely. Some of her hits seem tailor-made for sports-stadium presentation, notably “End of Time,” with its incorporation of marching band drumline sounds and Fela Kuti-influenced Afrobeat rhythms. Likewise “Baby Boy,” which marries Jamaican dancehall with Arabian and Indian riffs.
Everyone who ever wept for girl-group members who got left behind when the star singer went solo could feel heartened by the arrival of Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. Clad in matching black-leather dominatrix-wear, they literally bounced onto the stage via elevators to join Beyonce. The girls gave an obligatory nod to “Bootylicious” before getting serious behind a wall of flames on “Independent Women,” replete with iconic Charlie’s Angels pose. The surprise kick, however, came when the Destiny’s Child ladies joined Beyonce on one of her biggest solo hits, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” making playful nods to the fact that unlike Mrs. Carter, they are both unwed.
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Despite advance reports that the reunited Destiny’s Child would perform their new single, “Nuclear,” someone obviously made the smart decision that the song’s chill throwback ‘90s groove would have slowed things down too much.
When Beyonce reclaimed the solo spotlight with one of her mellower tracks, it was a punched-up version of “Halo” during which she lashed some lucky fans down front with her hair and a few flying droplets of sacred sweat.
I had boned up in advance on Beyonce’s signature dance moves, thanks to a helpful video breakdown of the Top 47 on Buzzfeed. I lost track during the telecast of how many of those dance flourishes Bey executed and how many new ones she debuted. Was that a “double stanky leg” in “End of Time?” Or a “bodacious body strut” in “Crazy in Love?” Or a “diva earthquake” in “Baby Boy?” No matter. What mattered was that a fan-nation anxiously awaiting the Bob Fosse-inspired “Single Ladies” sashay and shuffle was not disappointed.
In addition to her own backup dancers, Beyonce got terpsichorean support from the Saintsations, the 32-girl cheerleader troupe of host-city New Orleans team the Saints. With even her horn section onstage made up of female musicians, Beyonce continued in the vein of Madonna last year, steering the Super Bowl away from dad rock to embrace girl power. Maybe that was the cause of the subsequent Superdome outage?
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