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Few phenomena in American mass entertainment can approach either the gargantuan reach or the potential for awkward pop-cultural collision of the Super Bowl Halftime Show. So the 49th edition, headlined by a bravely jubilant Katy Perry, promised the fascinating social experiment of turning millions of beer-sozzled, adrenaline-pumped male football fans into purring Katycats, going “aah-aah-aah” as their colors burst. Or “oh-woah-oh-oh-oh” as we got to hear them roar, louder than a lion. Would everyone, like, head out of the stadium with arms linked to go get glittery mani-pedis?
Maybe not. Hits such as “Firework,” “Roar” and “Dark Horse” are ready-made anthems with big fat hooks, ideal for arena presentation. But let’s face it, they’re super-girly. Perry’s stratospheric popularity — 64 million Twitter followers, and counting — is built on a media-savvy blend of whimsy with a sexy edge and all-inclusive access to her own brand of exuberant, unmistakably feminine joy. From her wild outfits to her rainbow hair hues, she’s a self-confessed human cartoon — Wonder Woman on a sugar rush, Josie minus the Pussycats, Jem sans Holograms, a Betty-and-Veronica super-shake. But something was missing tonight.
It would be great to be able to say Perry candy-crushed it like she was to the football field born. But despite the big splash of the spectacle, the show lacked cohesion and seems unlikely to be ranked among the more memorable game breaks. If she represented an aggressive push to woo fledgling Super Bowl fans from a younger demographic, it’s hard to imagine their parents and grandparents being wowed.
The halftime show is inevitably a big trial-and-error gamble. The ludicrous puritanical Nipplegate outcry over the Janet Jackson–Justin Timberlake show in 2004 sparked a safe retreat into palatable “dad rock,” spanning Paul McCartney in ’05 through The Who in 2010. But more recent halftime acts have upped the estrogen dosage, from Madonna‘s vampirish pop-priestess theatricality in 2012 to Beyonce‘s imperious R&B warrior woman in 2013, beneficently sharing the stage with the help. Oops, I mean, her former Destiny’s Child handmaidens.
Last year, however, Bruno Mars rolled up with an impeccable balance of the now with the nostalgic, channeling vintage Motown moves, sounds and threads in a metrosexual-male package. While the critical verdict was muted on his show, it drew a record 115.3 million viewers.
This dispassionate home spectator found it a perfectly calibrated 12 minutes of slick showmanship, incorporating a dash of sentiment (a multiethnic kids’ choir), an ungainly but invigorating blast of dude-rock swagger (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a closing surge of emotion (video messages from Armed Forces members serving abroad, leading into the catchy swoon of “Just the Way You Are”).
But the bar that Perry set for herself was more likely that of equaling, maybe even topping, Madonna and Beyonce. Nice try, but no prize.
Directed by Hamish Hamilton, the Brit ringmaster behind the show since 2010, the halftime interlude included six of Perry’s biggest hits. Wearing a Jeremy Scott-designed “girl on fire” dress, she opened, unsurprisingly, with “Roar,” astride a giant metallic lioness operated by bunraku-style puppeteers (a la Julie Taymor) that gracefully trampled the Pepsi logo.
The field then transformed into an arrestingly illuminated graphic chessboard with athletic dancing pieces while Perry performed “Dark Horse.” It looked like a Tron-inspired video game, and was visually very cool. But we were ready for, ready for, a perfect storm, perfect storm, and this wasn’t quite it.
If Perry risked seeming a tad fluffy compared with past Super Bowl musical heavyweights, flanking herself with guitar supremo Lenny Kravitz showed chutzpah as they teamed for a sexed-up take on “I Kissed a Girl.” (Work that ponytail, Katy.) The singer then lurched into 3D cartoon funtime, with bouncing sharks, palm trees, surfboards, beach balls and a matching sundress for “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls,” backed by dancers in polka-dot retro bikinis.
Then something unfortunate happened. The opening bars of “Get Ur Freak On” — one of the most insanely infectious riffs of the past 20 years — were heard and everything else became instantly irrelevant the minute semi-reclusive hip-hop genius Missy Elliott strode on to take possession of the stage.
“Surprise” guest Elliott was featured on the 2011 remix of Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” the song that prompted vocab-curious tweens across the nation to ask, “Mom, what’s a menage a trois?” But despite predictions, that hit was not on the Super Bowl setlist. Instead, Elliott, clad like a futuristic racetrack mechanic in black leather, breezed from “Get Ur Freak On” into “Work It” and “Lose Control,” looking and sounding like the indisputable leader of the feline pack. Her dancers, many of whom seemed to be kids, also killed it. And the hair — “Baby, baby let me fix my weave” — was all kinds of crazy hot.
It was either a rare display of self-effacing intergenerational respect or a major miscalculation for a headliner, but Perry allowed herself to be rendered superfluous in her own show. She became like wadded-up bubblegum stuck to Elliott’s shoe.
Perry did what she could to reclaim the stage with a slow-build rendition of “Firework” as the sky exploded with echoes of that title and the singer was airlifted on a gliding comet, wearing a star-spangled silver disco sheath. The Katycats no doubt were right up in the heavens alongside her, even if the lousy audio mix made her voice sound strained. But new converts are likely to be outnumbered by nostalgic freaks craving more from the queen of the “Old School Joint.” All hail, Misdemeanor.
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