The power of context, or the greatest halftime show ever

Sunday night Coldplay and Bruno Mars took the stage at the 50th Super Bowl while Beyonc√© and a team of backup dancers took the field. It was a very typical halftime show. Some loved it some hated it. It was what it was: entertainment designed to give the sponsor their money’s worth, and keep viewers in their seats.

No Super Bowl has yet been defined by its halftime show, but halftime shows are relentlessly compared to each other.

Springsteen and E Street?

Michael Jackson?

Paul McCartney?

Madonna?

The Who?

Wardrobe Malfunction?

Dexy’s Midnight Runners?

Context matters

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers the NFL almost did not have a halftime show for the 2002 Super Bowl. Most tours had been canceled. The league office was about half-an-hour away from calling Bill Gaither.

Not really; but close.

Les Carpenter paints the scene:

It was Oct. 25, 2001 and the NFL had a problem. Only weeks before, the planes had smashed into the buildings and the country was still in a deep mourning. Now the league had to plan a Super Bowl halftime show but nobody was available. Jim Steeg, the league official who ran the Super Bowl, had booked Janet Jackson. Yet like most artists, she had canceled her tour. She was not traveling. Almost no one was.

The task of finding a replacement fell to John Collins, who was the executive in charge of the halftime show. That night he went to see U2, one of the few bands still touring, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was a long show. The band played 14 songs and five encores. But the best moment came late in the concert as the list of the people killed on Sept. 11 was projected onto the crowd and the names scrolled across the roof of the arena.

“I could hear people going: ‘Oh my God,’¬†” Collins recalls. “Then people started breaking down.”

Phone calls were made, and the band agreed to play halftime at Super Bowl XXXVI at the Super Dome.

The concert, barely 12 minutes and 3+ songs, was overwhelming. The somber, scrolling names of NYPD and FDNY dead accompanied by Where the Streets Have No Name could not have been more fitting. The song is variously interpreted as describing heaven metaphorically, or Ethiopia or Ireland physically. That night it was heaven.

It may also be the only Super Bowl halftime where you’ll ever see a genuine prayer offered by a performer (starting around 6:34).

There are moments when you can see the weight of significance on the members of the band. Bono went beyond entertainment. Dare I say it–they ministered to a nation still reeling. Their performance was salve on a national psyche gashed like the New York skyline.

When Bono pulled open his coat to reveal the American flag? Heart stopping.

And, I’m pretty sure we didn’t see any lip-syncing.

It isn’t because I like U2 a lot–and I do–that I think it’s the greatest Super Bowl performance ever. It’s the context. Not many groups could have performed with the gravitas, urgency, and energy U2 clearly did, nor had the authenticity make it count. It felt legit, because it was legit.

But, it is not the performance itself that makes U2’s halftime the best ever. It’s the context.

Here’s hoping it remains the best of all time. Here’s hoping a better one is never needed.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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