Monday, February 4, 2013
Super Bowl XLVII: Bowled Over by the Red, White, and Blue
I’m not what you’d call a pro football fan. Still, I felt obliged to watch last weekend’s Super Bowl XLVII. After all, the Super Bowl is a huge part of our national media life, far more important to many Americans than the inauguration of a President.
You could even say that the Super Bowl encapsulates an All-American religion, one based on a blend of piety, capitalism, patriotism, and star power. (All, of course, providing a backdrop for the most brutal sort of athletic competition, in which hugely muscled men try to crush one another.) Since the USA is alone among nations in preferring football to soccer, a championship game is a fundamentally American celebration.
Perhaps that’s why such emphasis is placed on the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the game. This year’s soloist, Alicia Keys, was seated behind her white piano on a dais painted to mirror the National Football League’s star-spangled logo. Keys’ rendition of the National Anthem was both respectful and soulful, ending in a heartfelt reminder that we’re “livin’ in the home of the brave.” She was followed by a real lump-in-the-throat moment: Jennifer Hudson fronting a choir of grade school youngsters from Sandy Hook Elementary School, all of them crooning “America the Beautiful.” Each sported a green ribbon to memorialize classmates slain by a shooter last December. Camera cutaways to the players and coaches during these songs solidified the impression that the combatants were patriotic men, deeply moved by all the flag-waving. (Commentators chose not to dwell on the fact that Ray Lewis, a leader of the victorious Baltimore Ravens, was in 2000 indicted on charges of murder and aggravated assault, following a brawl that came out of a Super Bowl party. A plea bargain let him off with a misdemeanor.)
Television has made the Super Bowl possible, and it’s the home audience -- much more than the folks filling the stands in New Orleans -– at whom much of the hoopla seems to be aimed. The Super Bowl’s famous commercials are a dramatic, not to mention costly, way in which advertisers hawk their products to those of us sitting at home, munching chicken wings in front of our big-screen TVs.
I saw the intermingling of patriotism and commerce most clearly in the evening’s various car ads. Some promised adventure and opportunities for personal bravery (e.g. Audi’s focus on a kid who borrows his father’s car to go dateless to the prom, as well as the Mercedes Benz ad in which the devil tempts a young man with the promise of a very cool ride). But –- perhaps because of the U.S. government’s bailout of the domestic auto industry -- several commercials for American-made vehicles doubled as testimonials for the American way of life. One beautifully crafted black-and-white spot, which opened with a quote from Oprah Winfrey, was a montage showing soldiers returning home to their loving families. Only at the very end did we recognize this as an ad selling Jeeps (while also paying tribute to the USO). An equally artful ad for the Dodge Ram truck solemnly elevated farmers into saints, intoning “So God made a farmer,” before signing off with a salute “to the farmer in all of us.”
Then there was the game’s halftime show, featuring a stunning Hollywood diva, Beyoncé, clad in a few shreds of black leather. Some of the special effects in her act, including kaleidoscopic overhead shots à la Busby Berkeley, were obviously aimed at TV viewers. Beyoncé’s performance hardly inspired pious thoughts, but sex appeal seems part of the American religion too.