Michael MacCambridge's 2004 America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation:
Against this backdrop of conflict over the future direction of the league, there was the runaway spectacle that was the modern Super Bowl. It was at once the league's crown jewel and its most anomalous product, the football game put on by the NFL that looked and felt least like an NFL football game.
For cultural impact, the game and the civic holiday weekend surrounding it were unrivaled. Two out of every five American households were tuned into the game. It was the weekend each year in which Americans scheduled the most at-home parties and the fewest weddings. Thanksgiving was the only day they consumed more food. The Super Bowl was the TV program most watched by men each year, of course, but also the program most watched by women, and by children, and by senior citizens, and by blacks, and by Hispanics.
It rose to this prominence on the power of the interest in the game itself. The Super Bowl's halftime show, through much of its first twenty-five years, had often been considered a forgettable dud. Rozelle's own musical taste tended to the comically bland (Mantovani among them), but even he grew fed up with the saccharine pep of Up With People, who'd played in Super Bowl IX, and returned for Super Bowl XIV. Rozelle began his postmortem meeting with his staff the day after that game by announcing, "There are three words that I don't ever want to hear again: 'Up With People.'"
Through the '80s, the game's halftime extravaganza was less obviously awful, but every bit as bland -- parade float extravaganzas, stadium card shows, and B-list entertainments like a presentation featuring eighty-eight grand pianos, Chubby Checker, and the Radio City Rockettes -- and that owed more to amusement-park theme shows than any meaningful adult entertainment.
But with Super Bowl XXVI in Minnesota, held in 1992 with the Redskins beating the Bills, the league faced competition. The Fox TV series In Living Color announced it would produce a live twelve-minute sketch that would being the same instant the halftime show did. The following year, the NFL responded, by luring pop music's biggest name, Michael Jackson, to conduct a frenetic ten-minute halftime mini-concert. From there, the league moved quickly toward making all of the ancillary elements of the game live up to that scale of spectacle. In 1998, just minutes after the scintillating Broncos-Packers finale in Super Bowl XXXII, at a time when the crowd was transported by John Elway's ultimate triumph and the AFC's first win in fourteen years, the league felt compelled to wheel out the '70s act Three Dog Night to play a song as a prelude to that trophy ceremony.
In an effort to incorporate more popular musical acts into the Super Bowl pregame and halftime shows, the league often chose the unique illogic of television awards shows, drawing from numerous genres of entertainment to increase interest. The result was that music presentations, already taken out of their customary context, seemed to have no internal logic whatsoever, as in 2001 when Ray Charles's moving, beatific rendition of "America the Beautiful" was used as a lead-in to the boy-band heartthrobs the Backstreet Boys performing the national anthem.
The entire spectacle could at times come off as catering to the worst impulses of American execs. Writing about the Buccaneers' victory over the Raidres in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003, Slate's Robert Weintraub noted the schizophrenic array of acts that accompanied the game. "On the whole, the game of games seemed to play second banana to San Diego's version of the American Music Awards, starring [Celine] Dion, the Dixie Chicks, etc. If I were a Bucs fan, I'd be pretty upset that the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, the moment that made a quarter-century of acute psychological pain worthwhile, had to wait for a performance by Bon Jovi."
"At some point," said Packers GM Ron Wolf in 2000, "the Super Bowl no longer became a game, but it became a show. And from that, football no longer became a game, it became a business."
Tags: Michael MacCambridge, America's Game, Super Bowl