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How to improve the Super Bowl halftime show: Make it a competition

February 9, 2010 |  4:47 pm

Janet It's been a couple of days since the Saints told the Colts "Who Dat!" New Orleans has drunk its round of recovery Bloody Marys. Peyton Manning has had time to crawl into his Snuggie and contemplate his missteps (and missed passes). And the Who's "Pinball Wizard"-style laserfest of a halftime concert has been roundly discussed, criticized, defended and dismissed -- the latter by Roger Daltrey himself, sort of.

There's even been a call for the next generation of pop stars to take over the Super Bowl halftime show, which in fact would be a return to pre-Nipplegate, when all varieties of performer distracted us from what's usually a boring ball game. For years, this intermezzo was a multi-act affair, with only a few artists (Michael Jackson, Diana Ross) earning the entire spotlight. Only after the 2004 game in Houston, when Justin Timberlake caused mass hysteria by dislodging more of Janet Jackson's costume than was intended, did the event's producers opt for the relatively safe plan of having one well-rehearsed, popular touring act give a mini-concert instead of staging a Top-40 free-for-all.

But let's face it, this mode has become boring. Sure, Green Day or the Foo Fighters might rock a bit more vigorously than did Daltrey and Pete Townshend (though the famed guitarist daringly showed a bit of belly while doing his patented windmills, perhaps in honor of Miss Jackson). The Black Eyed Peas would jump around and have cool-looking dancers; Jay-Z would trot out his 50,000,000 best friends to share a verse. But no matter which star the Super Bowl folks secure, the mini-concert approach to halftime will still be a tiny, little, compressed version of an actual pop show. It will feel rushed and anticlimactic, especially because such snippets of live action are now so common on television, whether during awards shows or on episodes of "Gossip Girl."

It's not a geezer problem. Prince is the only performer who's really surprised us on this stage in recent years, and he's old enough to have had a hip replacement. It's a structural problem. The best televised guest spots by pop stars play up the connection between the music and the program featuring it. The MTV Video Music Awards are nutsy and chaotic, just like that network and its series. The Grammys are glitzy; so were Lady Gaga and Beyoncé this year. "Saturday Night Live" thrives on celebrity culture making fun of itself, which Taylor Swift did with her winning host turn.

So, for the Super Bowl halftime concert, let's see a competition.

I propose that the halftime show become the musical equivalent of the slam dunk contest that takes place during the NBA All-Star weekend: a flashy contest of skills that allows veterans and newcomers to show off their signature moves.

Applying the slam-dunk spirit to pop is easy. Identify the cliches of musical stagecraft and organize them into categories. Then select the top seeds in each and pit them against each other in sudden-death rounds. Since recent debate about the halftime show largely has been intergenerational -- the baby boomers versus the youngsters still waiting in their shadows, at least in this context -- why not make it a geezer-versus-upstart fest?

Here are a few examples.

Best Hard Rock Wail: Ann Wilson versus Adam Lambert

We need to get women back on the Super Bowl halftime stage, and who better to challenge the current king of the high note than the undisputed queen of post-Led Zeppelin rock?

Most Intense Guitar Face: Prince versus John Mayer

For Prince, sex and music are deeply connected. For John Mayer, sex and everything are deeply connected (read that recent Rolling Stone interview if you're wondering). Both bring their loving touch to their axe-work.

Most Dramatic Onstage Hissy Fit: Steven Tyler versus Caleb Followill

Sure, Caleb Followill trashed his irreplaceable guitar when the sound mix disappointed him during a Kings of Leon concert last year. (The instrument has since been repaired.) But Aerosmith's beloved dude nearly trashed his decades-long relationship with his Toxic Twin, guitarist Joe Perry, with some crazy on- and off-stage behavior. (The singer has since been repairing himself, in rehab). Sparks would fly with these two diva boys going throat to throat. 

Mellowest Glow: James Taylor versus Dave Matthews

Might have to let David Crosby in on this category too.

Best Acrobatics: Elton John versus Pink.

Given her recent aerial work, this would seem like an easy win for Miss Alecia Moore. But don't rule out Sir E -- the old racehorse just might still have some kick!

So what categories would you like to see in the Super Bowl Halftime Pop Star Face-Off?

-- Ann Powers


The Who at the Super Bowl: Playing their younger selves

Photo: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Credit: Reuters