We don't need a Super Bowl halftime show. If the networks simply cut away at the midway point of the biggest American sporting event of the year and put on 30 minutes of exceptionally outrageous commercials, or maybe just puppies on a green floormat, it couldn't possibly lose viewers. The Super Bowl isn't New Year's Eve. You throw a Super Bowl party, the TV is tuned to the Super Bowl.
But like coloring Easter eggs and changing the clock for Daylight Saving Time, the undeservedly hyped halftime show is one of those rituals that has no answer to the question of "Why are we doing this, anyway?"*
For all the false hoopla generated by the announcement of each year's featured performer, the shows themselves are generally rote, passionless, and disposable. The 2004 halftime show — the one people remember best — only earned distinction after an otherwise sexless and robotic Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake karaoke session concluded with an FCC-horrifying "wardrobe malfunction." But without that obviously staged "malfunction," perfectly timed to the lyric "Gonna have you naked by the end of this song," this mid-game interlude would have ranked somewhere between Shania Twain and Tom Petty on a list of completely inessential greatest hits medleys by a long-past-their-prime artist.
How many more halftime shows could you even name, much less recall a memorable moment? There was Bruce Springsteen sliding crotch-first into a camera in 2009 and the hapless left shark flailing about beside Katy Perry last year, but don't even try to make Michael Jackson's 1993 one-man lip sync battle into a thing. Recall the king of pop through whatever rose-colored glasses you wish, but by the time MJ took his turn at the helm of halftime, he had been hawking the same album for a year and a half and had already descended into self-parody with his emaciated Benito Mussolini persona.
There was one, and only one, Super Bowl halftime show that lived up to the hype. This was one performance so exciting and authentic in its dramatic virtuosity that it stands alone among more undistinguished peers. I'm referring, of course, to Prince's 12-minute set at Super Bowl XLI in 2007.
To be fair, like nearly all Super Bowl halftime performers, Prince was past his prime** and, with the exception of one verse of another band's song, his entire set was comprised of tunes more than two decades old. He also employed some obvious made-for-TV affectations, like how his guitar and the sprawling stage were both shaped like his unpronounceable gender-symbol-looking thing, a nod to his early '90s "Artist Formerly Known as Prince" period.
What made Prince's set special, shocking even, is that it was an authentic musical performance, performed by human beings with live instruments capable of being knocked out of tune. The mini-concert flourished with joyful spontaneity, blessed with a convergence of factors beyond the NFL's choreographic control.
Shortly after the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears made the long march to their respective locker rooms, Minneapolis' greatest musical export took the stage to the familiar refrain of Queen's ultimate stadium anthem, "We Will Rock You." Then the lights went up on a strange, diminutive man in a teal and orange suit befitting his locale, who addressed the Miami crowd:
"Dearly beloved, we gathered here today to get through this thing called life…."
And so goes the intro to "Let's Go Crazy," the opening track on the Purple Rain soundtrack album, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, an anytime party song. One filthy guitar solo later, he segued into "Baby, I'm A Star" and ad-libbed the lyrics.
"Somebody take my picture, with all this rain," he said, noting that, oh yeah, it's raining for the first time ever at the Super Bowl.
The whole thing was in danger of falling apart during a bold but frankly confusing medley of cover songs (Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," the Foo Fighters' "Best of You"). It was fun, but a little disappointing to watch a guy who is basically his own greatest hits jukebox ignore his own canon.
But then it became clear that the remaining four minutes (a third of the entire set) would be devoted to the one track everyone knew he had to close with: "Purple Rain."
Though Prince is primarily characterized as an R&B artist, the throbbing guitar riff and blistering post-chorus guitar solo of "Purple Rain" cements his status as an all-time rock guitar deity. It was during this solo that a giant silk screen obscured the performer, creating a silhouette of his gender-symbol-looking guitar, which now resembled a frighteningly large and deformed phallus. He didn't hold the pose long though, he's not a one-trick shock pony.
And then it dawns on you, this guy is playing legit electric instruments in the pouring rain, and he's playing Purple effing Rain!
Bringing it all home, Prince asked the crowd to sing the song's closing lyrics, which are not even words so much as beautifully anguished howls. It was a perfect, cathartic way to wrap up the best 12-minute party you've ever been to.
If the prospect of spending this Sunday's Super Bowl halftime with the Born to Mom-Rock adult contemporary stylings of Coldplay don't get your blood pumping, you can always watch the jingoistic history lesson that was the 1966 Pro Bowl halftime show, featuring a high school marching band performing in formation as a swastika. Or you can queue up The Purple One, who nine years ago gave us an evergreen halftime alternative for the ages.
* Technically the reason we still have the rock-concert halftime show is probably because the last time the NFL tried to do something else, and featured an ice-skating celebration of the winter season at the 1992 Super Bowl, Fox broadcast a special live episode of In Living Color at the same time and everyone changed the channel. A lot of them didn't come back. But the nature of television is very different today. People can DVR things and watch multiple stations simultaneously; they'll come back.
** The autotuned Black Eyed Peas, who performed in 2011, never had a prime.