As my pal Chris Spargo has already noted, Beyonce decimated history with her Super Bowl performance last night. Like, Madonna was great last year. Absolutely great. And Prince was great. And when the Ancient Greeks got on stage to invent theatre with the original performances of Oedipus Rex and Antigone, they were great. But you know what was better? A line of digital Beyonces shaking their things with the real Beyonce in the center.
And let me tell you something: It wasn’t just Beyonce who benefitted from her awesomeness. It was the Super Bowl, too. The Super Bowl needed Beyonce to bring her thunder.
Why, you ask? Well, it’s not because the Super Bowl was boring. At least not if you’re a football fan. It was actually a really exciting game, with a last minute surge from the 49ers and a tenacious victory from the Ravens and (oh yeah), the homophobic jerkwads losing it all.
But for the Super Bowl to maintain its place as one of America’s most culturally dominant institutions, it has to be more than just great football. It has to demonstrate the best of American entertainment, full stop. At this point in its history, it has created a near-impossible standard, and if it doesn’t live up to that standard, then we all get frustrated.
That’s because, at this point, the Super Bowl represents many of our national identities all rolled into one. It harnesses our capitalistic spirit (those ads), our creativity and ingenuity (those ads on another level), our bone-deep enthusiasm for competition, camaraderie, and contest (the football game), and our never-ending desire to celebrate the power of the individual. The halftime show, really, is never just about the songs. It’s about seeing that one special person work hard (like Americans are supposed to do), be unique in their presentation of themselves (like Americans are supposed to do), and ultimately wow us with their unmatchable talent and power (which Americans love.) Even when there’s a band playing, we tend to remember how, say, Bono rocked the stage. It’s almost always about one person standing in for us all.
And you can feel weird about those things that person represents. Is it great to live in a country that turns watching commercials into an annually bonding exercise? Maybe not. And obviously, that’s not everything that America is. But still and all, I’d argue that the Super Bowl reflects all those qualities back to us, and those qualities—at least for one day in January—make us feel American. They show us ourselves in our energies and excesses, and like it or not, those things define a large part of our national character.
And Beyonce’s sky-rattling performance reflected all that. Let’s consider these things:
* It was incredibly professional — My girl has taken a LOT of heat recently about lip-syncing, and when she sang the National Anthem a cappella at that press conference, she plainly invited the haters to step to the back. So right there, the stage is set for the Iconic American Story: A strong individual overcomes adversity to prove her awesomeness. Going into the Super Bowl, Beyonce had history on her side. And then killed it. When you watch again, notice how well she works the enormous crowd, confidently telling them when to shout and sing and clap. At one point, she even demands that they send her their energy. Because why not? Pop star. Religious leader. Who can tell? The point is, she stepped out and took charge. And just an importantly, she sang live and sang well. While doing sick dance moves. She commanded our attention because she earned it, thus eradicating the nasty rumors of last week.
* It was technologically innovative but also approachably human — That’s SO important at an event like this. We want our icons to be innovative, but we don’t want them to forget they’re one of us. That crazy contradiction has hurt a lot of public figures who only master one side of the coin, but Beyonce navigated it perfectly. On the one hand, her crazy techno-light show was cool and surprising. (Which dancers are real? Why are those faces kissing?!?!) On the other, Ms. Knowles brought out Michelle and Kelly for a Destiny’s Child reunion, and then she stepped back from her own show to let them sing for a minute. She even let them sing part of “Single Ladies,” which wasn’t even a DC song.
And sure, Madonna let M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj sing last year, and Justin Timberlake and Janet infamously shared the spotlight a few years ago, but last night’s spotlight swapping had a different message. It said that Beyonce hasn’t forgotten her roots. It said she’s still gracious enough to throw love to those who have been part of her life. Her perpetual ability to seem polished, powerful, and generous is a big part of Beyonce’s appeal.
* It went over the top, but it left us (or at least me) wanting more — The show was not subtle, not was it always coherent. There were long stretches that replaced songs with random shouts and hollers, and no song lasted for more than 45 seconds or so. (Compare that to the year that Michael Jackson pretty much sang all of “Heal the World.”) But at the same time, Beyonce had the charisma and the technical help to keep us hurtling forward, and because she didn’t sing all of her biggest hits (No “Irreplaceable!” No “Survivor!”), she also left us (or at least me) hungry for a little bit more.
I know it’s a huge claim to say these elements reflect America back to Americans during one of our culturally defining annual events. But I believe it’s true. We use these massive celebrations to figure out who we are, and on a night like last night, Beyonce helped the Super Bowl deliver that message with thrilling clarity. And flawless hair.
Mark Blankenship may never, ever be ready for this jelly. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship