' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Prince's Super Bowl Halftime Show

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Some Drivel On...Prince's Super Bowl Halftime Show

Famously, when Prince attended the mandated press conference ahead of his Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, he forewent answering questions to just play a concert. The three-song setlist opened with “Johnny B. Goode,” an appropriate choice given that Chuck Berry’s single was included on 12-inch gold plated records placed inside both Voyager 1 and 2 when they made their trips toward interstellar space. If Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, also included on the space bound record, encompasses the whole of classical music, so does Berry’s encapsulate rock ‘n’ roll, sonic explainers to any E.T.s out there that despite war and famine and social media discourse, Earth ain’t all bad. And though it can be hard to recall now, ahead of Rihanna and after Shakira, and after Lady Gaga and Madonna, and Katy Perry’s mechanical lion and dancing sharks, and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar and the time BeyoncĂ© gloriously hijacked the entire show from Chris Martin and company, back in 2007 the big football game’s halftime producers were seeking not so much a return to normalcy after the 2004 affair that got the puritans in an uproar as an upgrade in style, verve, and pure, simple entertainment. In accepting this mission, and in commencing this mission with “Johnny B. Goode,” Prince was essentially stripping the whole operation down, Super Bowl halftime show as musical reformation, going back to the beginning, the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll.

If another Bruce Springsteen might have opened a Super Bowl set with something like The Blasters’ “American Music,” the one we got in 2009 was content to paint between the lines and play pitchman for his own new album by playing its title track, “Working on a Dream.” As an artist, though, who ditched his own name for a while, confusing everybody but himself, Prince was never just going to play the hits, and didn’t, sandwiching his own “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” around a mid-set medley of CCR’s “Proud Mary,” with Shelby J. on co-vocals, segueing into Dylan’s Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” which just sort of mystically, ineffably, incredibly melted into Foo Fighters’ “Best of You,” all of which taken together felt like The Purple One’s condensed syllabus of rock. What I had forgotten, however, or maybe never even truly realized, was just how much his set-up on the field in Miami Gardens mirrored the small set-up at the Super Bowl press conference. I mean, yes, ok, sure, he took to his preferred Love Symbol stage, and there were fireworks, even simulated lightning, and there was the Florida A&M Marching Band, and there was the literal rain, indelible cosmic accompaniment, but really, when you drill down, it was Prince, his backing band New Power Generation, and Australian dancers The Twinz, Nandy and Maya McClean, and that’s it. Well, them and Prince’s guitar (or: four guitars).

“Can I play this guitar?” Prince asks before launching into the immortal “Purple Rain” solo. As if he needed to ask. As if he really is asking in the first place. It’s a rhetorical question. Can he play this guitar? Yes, he can, and he does. If most Super Bowl performers, good or bad, seek to marry their performance to the gargantuan event’s sense of spectacle, Prince, bless his eternal soul, went the other way by rendering enormity from intimacy, taking the biggest television show on Earth and remaking it entirely his own image, the rare act of ego not run amok but objectively earned. If in any other singer’s voice in the same situation functions as mere backdrop to the pyrotechnics, when Prince unleashes one of his patented shrieks mid-show, it seems to manifest the two pyrotechnic jolts that follow. More than that, though, he noticeably brings his guitar up in the sound mix to ensure it virtually dwarfs everything else, making it the star of the show, recalibrating Super Bowl XLI’s whole reason for being, never more than his version of “Best of You.” 

If some have speculated that Prince covered the Foo Fighters as retaliation for them covering him, well, who’s to say, and even if he did, a little brass, a little swagger is part of rock ‘n’ roll too. Right there, live on TeeVee, brought to you by Pepsi, Prince takes that song, just like Hendrix took “All Along the Watchtower,” by not so much by transforming it as lifting it up into another realm, a rock ‘n’ roll spiritual, excavating fire and brimstone the original didn’t even know it possessed, the serendipitous falling rain underlining how Prince seems to be conjuring his version from the earth and mud, the image of the gyrating Twinz framing Prince as he seems to move the whole planet in the churning of his primal yet futuristic guitar chords an impeccable distillation of the whole genre as both lascivious and religious. It’s everything. Transmit that to the stars and an intelligent species might just finally deem it time to write back.

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