I’ve seen numerous lists this week that have been ranking the all-time greatest Super Bowl Half Time Performances. For most of the lists, the ranking vary depending on taste. Some think that Tom Petty gave one of the greatest (I disagree with that), while others say it was one of the worst (I agree with that.) Others also tend to be a little revisionist when it comes to Aerosmith. If it were Aerosmith in the ’70s, a little revisionist history would probably be ok.
Almost all of the lists seem to agree that Prince and U2 gave the two best performances. To the general public, both artists peaked in the ‘80s with Purple Rain and The Joshua Tree respectively. But other than that, the two couldn’t be more different from each other.
Prince forged his career on a futuristic hybrid of funk, R&B and rock. Live instrumentation mashed with electronic beats and keyboards at every second. Even more shocking was his blatant sexuality, which in some songs is still pretty shocking today. Dirty Mind still might be the horniest album ever made.
U2 ran with the idea that idea that rock and roll should mean something. Few bands or artists have believed that popular music can change the world that U2 has. They created anthems for the soul. Their songs may not always be the ones you want to hear, but often they’re the ones you need.
That of course, means that U2 was a natural choice for the first Super Bowl Halftime Show after 9/11. There was a general feeling in the air whether the country should be allowed to celebrate. Was it too soon?
No other band or artist could have pulled off such a feat. Even Bruce Springsteen another artist like U2 who believes in the power of music – who gave one hell of a Super Bowl performance of his own years later – might have faltered under the weight of this occasion. U2 were made for these types of events.
U2 performed only 3 songs: “Beautiful Day”, “MLK” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Their show opened with Bono singing in the middle of the crowd. It’s something he’s done numerous times, but this time the effect was different. He was one of us. “Beautiful Day” was the perfect opening song for this moment. It’s an upbeat anthem with a soaring chorus with a mix of joy and sadness. With one single stroke, U2 were telling the American people it was ok to feel joy. The fallen will not be forgotten.
But being U2, they kept pulling at the nation’s heartstrings and succeeded with every passing second. After “Beautiful Day”, they dipped in the funeral-hymn of “MLK”. It’s a lullaby to Dr. King and was perfectly suited for that moment. And to top it all off, during “Where the Streets Have No Name” they projected the names of all of those who had died on that fateful day. They had done something similar during the last leg of their Elevation Tour the previous fall (which saw many bands and artists canceling their tours). But it never seemed more appropriate than when it was on the national stage.
There’s little doubt that U2’s show was very good. It was the show they country needed. We needed U2 to heal our hearts and our minds. The only problem with U2’s show is that it hasn’t aged well. It was extraordinary for its time – in that moment. But having re-watched their show, now it seems very distant. The world isn’t the same as it was that February, for better or for worse. In a world where opinions and attention spans are so fractured it seems nostalgic to think of a time when one artist could command the world’s attention and express exactly what everyone was thinking and feeling.
Five years later, when it was Prince’s turn the mood had changed. The Super Bowl had turned back into a party. Still, there was a weird feeling in the air. After Nipple-gate, the Halftime performances became conservative (though arguably better musician wise) and safe. Prince seemed to be on the fence between the two. He was an established act who probably wouldn’t rock the boat too much. But ironically, in era when explicit material was under the scrutiny they chose a guy whose music led to the parental guidance labels on records.
I grew up listening to U2 and know most of their songs word for word. With Prince prior to his performance, I knew very little of his catalogue. I knew what to expect from U2. With Prince, I had no clue. And I’m not sure not the only one.
One of Prince’s greatest gifts is that he’s unpredictable. His mercurial nature is what fueled his early masterpieces – Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999. And after the mega success of Purple Rain, he went the other way and got all trippy with Around the World in a Day. And the list goes on…the Batman Soundtrack, the un-pronounceable name, refusing to play some of his dirtiest songs.
From the get-go, everyone knew that Prince would not take the easy way out. Even I knew that. U2’s performance as great and emotional as it was, seemed calculated. No detail was left untouched. But Prince? He tore through some of his biggest hits – “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” – with an authority and intensity most musicians his age never had. The wild man of the early ‘80s was still there, but in a more mature way. He still reeked of sex – the way he held his guitar and pranced around. He also threw the wildest curveballs ever seen on a Super Bowl stage: covers of Foo Fighters “Best of You”, CRR’s “Proud Mary” and Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. It was probably calculated just as much as U2’s set was, but because it was so completely unexpected it felt spontaneous. If you didn’t think that Prince was a great guitar player (and really who doesn’t) after that night, he proved the naysayers wrong.
And he capped it all of with “Purple Rain”. In what he seems like a gift from the heavens, it actually rained during that song. By the time the show was over, I knew that I had just witnessed the greatest Super Bowl Halftime show ever. It made me appreciate Prince in a way I never had before.
U2’s performance was great, but Prince’s was legendary.
(Unfortunately, Prince’s show is extremely hard to find online. Oh well.)