The Wardrobe Malfunction Paradox

Colby Cosh on the current state of the Super Bowl halftime show—and how to fix it

by Colby Cosh

Fun fact: New Orleans jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain was part of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXIV. “Pete Fountain” was also the name of the central character in the concept album White City, released in 1985 by Super Bowl XLIV halftime performer Pete Townshend—the son of a jazz clarinetist.

As you can probably tell, I’m a fan of the Who and particularly Pete Townshend, but their performance at last night’s Super Bowl halftime lived down to my expectations. Townshend is still writing some good songs, and, believe it or not, the Who is still a perfectly viable live act performing the newer numbers written for Roger Daltrey’s 21st-century voice. But they should probably be confined to the indoors. A reader asked me, in twelegraphese:

Debate today during 1/2time: shouldn’t the Superbowl b used 2 foster unheard of rising stars? Band choice won’t increase eyeballs.

You can’t increase the number of eyeballs watching the Super Bowl, but you can certainly decrease the number watching the second half of a bad game if you pick a group or a performer that’s not popular outside its niche. There have been so many good Super Bowl games lately that we’ve forgotten the insurance function of the halftime show. The sponsors won’t switch to a “give a B-list act its big break” system anytime soon. (Nor are we going back to university marching bands and Carol Channing, much as we might like to.)

It so happens, however, that most of the qualified young A-listers are attractive women who wear skimpy clothing. And singers who fit that description haven’t exactly been welcome on the big stage since Janet. If you’re wondering how the Super Bowl halftime show suddenly became Oldies On Parade, it’s because the broadcast cannot tolerate the possibility of a “wardrobe malfunction”, and U.S. popular music is heavily predicated on creating precisely that possibility.

Even with that artificial restriction, there are more candidates left than you might think. Bon Jovi’s pretty much at the head of the line. The Foo Fighters have already appeared at the big show with Prince as Dave Grohl’s spirit medium; they’re young enough to kick ass and they’ve got the hits. Elton John and Billy Joel are still out on the road doing their thing. AC/DC? Kiss? A re-reunited Police? Queen with three or four different celebrity frontmen?

But there are a lot of other options. Remember, the headliner system for the halftime show is of very recent origin; U2 basically pioneered it in 2002. We could always go back to the 1990s paradigm of having several stars do about half a song apiece. And I suspect audiences are ready for some of the more notable Super Bowl successes to make return appearances. Is there some reason Springsteen can’t just do it every year? (I will always have trouble swallowing his Joisey working-man schtick, but the guy does give 110%.) What if we just appointed a semi-permanent compère for the event, Prince or Bono or somebody, and let him program the music with top-secret special guests?

The Wardrobe Malfunction Paradox

  1. Well, there are at least two young A-listers who'd have an acceptably low probability of malfunction: Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. I mean, that's the whole point of female performers in country music: gorgeous eye-candy that wouldn't upset the flyover demographic. But since they had Carrie do the anthem, I suppose it wouldn't work to have a similar act at halftime.

    • "I mean, that's the whole point of female performers in country music: gorgeous eye-candy that wouldn't upset the flyover demographic."

      That's what I was thinking about while reading Cosh's post.

      I agree with "it's because the broadcast cannot tolerate the possibility of a “wardrobe malfunction” but why has Super Bowl turned to clapped out old men instead of 'wholesome' country performers.

    • Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are hardly ever seen in public WITHOUT cleavage. It's not their personal conduct or their Paglian sexual personae that are the issue, just the costuming. And they're not really true A-listers in the sense one means when one is talking about the Super Bowl: somebody that several overlapping generations recognize and like, and who has had something resembling a second act in their career.

      • Country stars might also alienate a lot of younger fans the superbowl will need as time goes on. They'd have to have a really huge "pop" cross over success to be a valid choice. Even though many of the performers of the past few years have been older, in many ways hopefully they are timeless.

      • They do show cleavage but if it's the probability of a catastrophic breakdown in attire they're worried about, then that's dependent on the performers' persona (i.e. would they let themselves go that far). Not to mention real-life double standards on this kind of thing (see my post below)

        I totally agree that their repertoire is too thin though. I guess we're working with different definitions of "younger".

      • We need some kind of clause/contract that enforces standards: you can only perform in a way that your grandparents would approve of. But now that I think about it, standards are decreasing across all age levels, so something your nan would be ok with might not be good enough.

        But somehow Super Bowl does need to get modern/current artists to adapt some kind of Victorian spinster standard while performing.

      • it isn't just costume it is how it is used and the SB programmers would know there is no chance of 'misuse' from underwood or swift. they sell 'purity' slightly tarted up as Kelvin suggested.

  2. I have always wondered why Ms. Jackson took all the flack for the "Wardrobe Malfunction" while the skinny white boy lurking behind her who then "assaulted" her and tore the breat cover off seems to have got off scott free.

    • There is probably a high probability that people who give a damn about the performers' sex and race are those who'd give a flying flack about exposed breasts (though not sure about the converse).

      • I for one don't "give a flying flack about exposed breasts" but I do find it curious that the one who did the actual pulling off of the piece of leather/material/whatever didn't suffer anywhere near the opprobrium that Janet Jackson did.

  3. The problem isn't the band it's the "audience" which wants to hear the same hits they have been overexposed to for much of their lives (hence the CSI medley instead of other great Who tunes) .

    If Jesus showed up at half-time he wouldn't be able to tell us any new possibly more relevant parables because the audience would be yelling out "Do Prodigal Son!" or "Good Samaritan rocks!"

    • "the audience would be yelling out "Do Prodigal Son!" or "Good Samaritan rocks!"

      Hilarious! But sadly probably true too.

    • "the audience would be yelling out "Do Prodigal Son!" or "Good Samaritan rocks!"

      Hilarious! But sadly probably true too.

  4. Townshend's belly didn't count as a wardrobe malfunction?

    • You'd think he would have had that jacket pinned down; it was clearly getting in the way

    • Indeed. Equally yucky, in its own way. Still, the performance itself was enjoyable.

  5. Taylor Swift has great audience appeal but a pretty weak voice; I'm not sure if anyone cares about lip-synching in such a bizarrely synthetic environment as a Super Bowl halftime show, though.

    • She's got a big audience but, true story, on a podcast I listen to regularly, a late 20s host and his team were discussing the Grammys and Swift's success there, and the host (again, a man in his late 20s, not some over the hill totally out of it person) said "Am I the only one who doesn't know who the Hell Taylor Swift is?!?!". He had heard of her of course, but was certain that he couldn't pick her out of a line-up, and DEFINITELY couldn't name (let alone hum) one of her hits.

      I found myself relating (and I'm just mid-30s myself, hardly completely out of the loop!!!). I actually DO know what she looks like and I'm certain I could pass her on the street and not notice. And if a song of hers came on the radio, I'd be just as likely to guess "Carrie Underwood", or "Miley Cyrus" as to correctly guess "Taylor Swift".

      I'd also guess that I'm much more likely to be watching the Super Bowl than the average Taylor Swift fan (though, maybe that's exactly why they should bring in Taylor Swift!).

      • Mainstream music has collapsed into niches in the iPod age, natch; if you don't want to hear country, you never have to. But she has sold 10 million albums, in an age where NOBODY does that.

  6. It's NOT just a "catastrophe" they're worried about. Post-Janet, even leaning over a little too far in a gown would be an apocalyptic issue. Stupid but true.

  7. I'm a bit of a traditionalist. Not such a fan of music productions.

    Back when I used to watch US college ball quite a fair bit, it was always inspiring to hear the Notre Dame marching band kick into their fighting song after a touchdown – bonus if Ohio State was playing at home and at halftime, after the band wrote out "Ohio" on the field, to watch in anticipation to see who would be that week's honouree, running out at the last minute to dot the "i".

    Of course, Canadian college ball has its traditions as well. A bad rendition of Hogan's Heroes was always expected at halftime at JW Little Stadium (though this apparently biased account of the band wars should be accepted with a grain of Waterloo salt):

    September, 1980

    Imprint: Band an anodyne to fans

    "Last Saturday at the University of Western Ontario's Little Stadium, the University of Waterloo Warriors Band inaugurated its new instruments and new image by trouncing the Western Mustang Band 28 – 24. Highlights of the game included a marching version of "Chicken" at halftime, and antiphonal renditions of "Colonel Bogey" and "Hogan's Heroes" played as duets between two bands 50 yards apart. The Warriors Band established its superiority early in the concert and never looked back, outplaying the Mustang Band 38 tunes to 4.

    http://www.warriorsband.com/History/annotated/ann

    • Reminiscient of the Hirt-Mangione "Battle of the Horns" at the Carol Channing Super Bowl (IV, the Vikings-Chiefs game where Joe Kapp got hurt)!

  8. The award shows have benefitted big-time lately from a collective decision not to use Unimpeachable Icons as their hosts (Bob Hope, Steve Martin — actually, odd how they turned into Icons given how they started, but anyway), but to pick solid B-listers who have some spark of individuality. I don't think most people watching the last Oscars or Golden Gobes actually knew who Hugh Jackman and Ricky Gervais were when they tuned in, but now they do, because both hosts were dynamite.

    Could you do the same thing with bands? I think so. You don't need a bunch of wheezing sexagenarians; you need vital bands at their peak, even if they're not top-of-the-pops household names, that frequently play for crowds of 15,000 and can really bring it to the bandstand when needed. People will come away saying, "damn, that was a good band; I should check them out more." I'd nominate the Killers and Coldplay. There must be 40 others.

    • You could extend it by six minutes and have an "opening" act before the main band.

      I nominate the Hold Steady.

    • Wilco, Scissor Sisters, Norah Jones, Kings of Leon…

      • I love Norah Jones, but she doesn't scream "Halftime at the Super Bowl" to me.

        • You're right. I was sort of thinking about some of her honky tonk/roots inspired material, but even that's a bit tame for the Budweiser masses.

          They'd be too unknown for the Superbowl, but the Sam Roberts Band would be perfect for a gig like that.

        • You're right. I was sort of thinking about some of her honky tonk/roots inspired material, but even that's a bit tame for the Budweiser masses.

          They'd be too unknown for the Superbowl, but the Sam Roberts Band would be perfect for a gig like that.

    • Seems like the Oscars can afford more adventurousness because the people who are going to watch the Oscars are going to watch the whole thing no matter what. An Oscar telecast is episodic; anything (almost literally ANYTHING) could happen at any moment, irrespective of what you've already watched. A Super Bowl game is one continuous event which can have all the suspense sucked out of it in the first 15 minutes.

    • Ah …. a little bit country, a little bit blues, a whole lot of wit, songs everybody knows ( usually done
      by other people – including The Who ) …… Mose Allison with a full laser show on a zooming stage
      doing Your Mind Is On Vacation …..

    • Most dudes in my experience head for the nearest bathroom/lawn/sink, beer cooler, and wings platter at half-time (in that order). The show is mostly over by the time you're all stocked up and reseated for the second half.

      Ergo they should pick chick bands for the half-time show to attract more female viewers. Can't say I know which bands those are, but I'm sure there are some.

  9. I was actually pretty impressed by The Who. The first few moments I had my trepidations, but I was quickly caught up in it being the Who, and pretty darned good I'd say, and in the end I thought it rocked over all. Just me?

    Now, I'm a big Who fan, so there's that (though, who isn't), but for me it didn't disappoint, and I was worried that it would. Maybe my expectations were just appropriately set? Was it The Who, Live at Leeds, 1970? Of course not. I'd take yesterday's show over Janet and Justin any day though. And I like Janet and Justin.

  10. AC/DC should definitely play

  11. I thought of them too. They may from the last musical generation, but their live show absolutely kicks butt (at least when I saw them at the Toronto SARS concert, it did.)

  12. I remember when I was like 11/12 years old singing "well I'm upper upper class high society …. and I always fill my ballroom …. the biggest balls of all … " at home and thinking I was naughty/cheeky and now we are talking about bringing in ac dc because they are reliable.

    Cognitive dissonance!

    I think The Who should have quit after Moon died and certainly after their '82 farewell tour.

  13. I remember that naughty feeling too (about the same age). That, and dozens of school yard myths about KISS, suitably gruesome and invented beyond all reality.

    As a band, the Who sucked last night, but Townshend's vocals were as good/bad as ever (I joked to my wife that it's a bad sign when the deaf guy is outsinging the lead singer). If he were to back off trying to replicate 1960's Pete, he'd put on a hell of a show with his own band, I reckon.

  14. WADR, look at the demographics of the Super Bowl audience (in the stadium/TV) vs the demographics of pop music purchasers. I would hazard a guess that there is very little overlap, and even less of an overlap with respect to musical taste. I think most of the audience wants to be entertained by talent rather than assaulted by the vulgarities of Prince, Janet Jackson, and others in recent Super Bowls. Me, I'd rather see one good entertainer than forty "edgy" "artists".

    • "I think most of the audience wants to be entertained by talent rather than assaulted by the vulgarities of Prince…"

      WHAT?!?!?!?

      Sorry, but I stopped paying attention to what you were saying when you put talent in one column, and Prince in another.

    • Goodness knows, football fans are the first group that comes to mind when I think of discerning musical taste and an aversion to boobs and sex allusions.

      • Actually most of the most erudite people I've ever met were football fans. Methinks you are falling into a common stereotype trap here.

        • Erudite people can like boobs and sex allusions!!!

          • Well yes.

            That was not the riposte I expected. I thought one of our resident members of the Lefty Elite would charmingly weigh in with "yes, but those are just the most erudite people you've ever met, Gaunilon." Just goes to show, sometimes people don't live down to one's expectations.

  15. And also, mopey, self-regarding bands, even very mighty ones, don't really do the trick; you need music you would play at a party. There's a reason none of us have mentioned Radiohead.

    • Though I know of at least one thirtysomethin, oddly going against what I said yesterday, who actually did tune in only for the Who concert (he eschews all leagues & forms of football) and kept watching the rest of the game in curiosity. He even enjoyed it.

      Today our running joke is that the next time he'll watch the Superbowl is in 2031 when Greenday is the halftime entertainment. Radiohead would probably lure him in too.

  16. By "mopey, self-regarding bands" are you referring to Coldplay and the Killers? 'Cause while they each certainly have songs that fit the point you're making, I think they each also have songs you would play at a party, or so I'd say.

    • I'm going to risk a mob with pitchforks at my doorstep, but I'd like to go on record saying that I don't get the appeal of Coldplay. Great musicians, and few unusual tunes, but they're kind of like a stiffer, soulless, British version of Steely Dan. There, I said it.

  17. Oh god, anyone but Bono. I don't think Jesus could handle the competition if his brother Bono made it on stage at the Superbowl.

  18. My brother had a simpler solution – one of the old guys just needs to expose himself on stage.

  19. Live at Leeds – that's all The Who you need (I have performed Magic Bus several thousand times with my hockey stick – got it down to an art form worthy of a grant)

  20. Clearly, the halftime show needs The Killers with guest vocalist Carol Channing. " Syomebyody tyold me that you hyad a byoyfryiend who looked like a gyirlfryiend that…<i/>"

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