Prince at the Super Bowl: Pretty Good, Yeah
Baby he's a star
The biggest-selling album of 2006, the High School Musical soundtrack, sold about three and a half million copies in the United States, which means that about 298 million Americans didn't buy the album. Music is fundamentally a niche thing, an obsession for a few of us and a persistent background thrum for everyone else. Pop music only gets to overcome narrowcasting and take the national stage a couple of times a year, and even then it has to twist itself all around to convince the world to give a shit. American Idol clawed its way into the national consciousness, but about half the people who have won the show have faded back into target-audience oblivion as soon as the show has ended. The show is more about the process of competition than its end result, the idea that anyone can become a transcendent star rather than the cold, hard reality that transcendent stars don't exist anymore, at least not in music. The Super Bowl halftime show is pretty much the only other context in which music becomes common cultural currency, something that we all experience. Even then, it's not much: maybe ten minutes in the middle of an hours-long sporting spectacle, more a soundtrack to pyrotechnics than an actual performance. Looking at Wikipedia, the Super Bowl has only been using pop stars as halftime material since roughly (oof) Chubby Checker in 1988; before that, it was a chaotic cocktail of university marching bands and Up With People. In 2004, things got a little bit too pop-music, and since then the NFL has gone uber-safe, tossing out first Paul McCartney and then the Rolling Stones, neither of whom has recorded a single great song in my lifetime. Last year's sad spectacle of Mick Jagger's jowls flapping in the wind made me embarrassed for old people everywhere. Even without all that history, though, last night's Prince performance was still a surprising triumph, the first Super Bowl halftime show I can remember that worked as an aesthetic experience on its own terms rather than just a montage dizzy and ridiculous enough to keep me from changing the channel until the game came back.
Prince hasn't had an honest-to-God hit single in something like thirteen years, and he's had a tenuous relationship with sanity for as long as we've known him, so he was a risky choice for the NFL, to say the least. For years now, he's been as much a rumor as a star, a rare and spectacular bird who darts momentarily into the spotlight before disappearing again. He's opened the Grammys and performed on the American Idol finale, but last month he couldn't even manage to accept the Golden Globe he won, and how hard is that? Prince has cultivated a reputation as a magnificent live performer, but his shows tend to stretch out over hours, and there wasn't any guarantee he'd be able to find and keep a groove last night in the eleven minutes that the network allocated to him. He also had to deal with all the usual distractions that Super Bowl halftime shows impose on its performers: ridiculous dancers, ostentatious fireworks, marching bands wearing glow-in-the-dark uniforms. James Brown, probably Prince's closest spiritual forbearer, seemed totally lost when the NFL shoehorned him into its perplexing tribute-to-the-blues thing a decade ago. And since Prince became a Jehovah's Witness, he's been refusing to play some of his wedding-staple songs, so couldn't lean on some of his best-known material. And still, Prince found a way to make it all work.
Prince made it work by immediately forgoing the idea of groove, highlighting his Hendrix side rather than his James Brown side. He also jammed a ton of material into his set, only about half of it was his. He's been doing time in Vegas lately, and he must've been honing his sense of pandering; I'm not sure how else to explain the chorus of "Proud Mary" he threw into "Baby I'm a Star." And he must've also been honing his sense of the absurd; I'm imagining the Foo Fighters sitting around last night watching the game and peeling their jaws off the floor when Prince launched into "The Best of You." But he found room for fierce displays of raw technique: liquid falsetto yowls and shockingly discordant squalls of solo guitar. And he finally had a platform big enough to fully explore the outer limits of his sense for spectacle, prancing around a stage shaped like the symbol he stopped using seven years ago and casting an enormous shadow across a billowing sheet during one solo. A part of me wonders if he didn't somehow create last night's torrential downpour himself just to give us the moving visual of a stadium bathed in purple light and soaked to the bone as he finished "Purple Rain" without a hair out of place.
It's fun to speculate about what might've happened if Prince had done a halftime show before his inevitable religious awakening, back when he was at his omnisexual peak, though even now virtually no one else on the face of the earth could've rocked his aquamarine-on-peach suit and made it look conservative. And it's fun to imagine Prince using the year's biggest TV event to play my own personal favorites ("7"! "Starfish and Coffee"!) rather than the monster hits he was always going to play. Quibbles aside, though, Prince Rogers Nelson still provided a quick taste of transcendent pop genius on a night when the goddam motherfucking Colts won the Super Bowl, and I needed it.
Voice review: Carol Cooper on Prince's 3121
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Prince's Musicology
Voice review: Robin Rothman on Prince's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic