This week I finally talk about the Super Bowl and Madonna's halftime show. I'm both fascinated by and suspicious of the spectacle we witnessed, and so I ask, What's the value of the solo performance? And what sort of armor do we put on when everything in our culture is grandiose and awe-inspiring? If you'd like to contribute to our blog -- as a parent, teacher, or player -- email me at email@example.com.
(Photo by Stephen Luke)
Unlike most other Americans, I did not tune into the Super Bowl two Sundays ago. I have to admit that I just wasn't that interested in the game ("What's wrong with you?" my friends asked, genuinely concerned about my viewing habits and health). My explanation that I've always been a soccer fan and not a football was met with incomprehension. Besides not being a huge football fan, I also admitted that I felt a little fatigued with the enormous spectacle of the Super Bowl. More blank faces.
What was strange, though, was that I did tune in for the halftime show, and I got a huge kick out of it. It, too, was a spectacle on a huge scale, but I felt that 15 minutes was a more reasonable investment than four hours. I turned on the television. Before I could really figure out what was happening, Madonna, in regal Egyptian dress, was singing and stomping around on a pedestal. What seemed like thousands of gladiators (or even Egyptian slaves? I couldn't keep the Egyptian/Roman themes straight, though I'm betting neither could the costume designer) processed into the stadium. There were lights. There was LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, a dude slacklining, and tons of talented dancers. It was a spectacle, big, bizarre, and though it was conflicted in its thematic aims, its aim to awe and please and promote was unambiguous.
Don't get me wrong. I ate it up. I'm not immune to being swept up, Elijah-like, by arena concerts and sports.
And maybe these things aren't all that different than the historical spectacles in the fine arts, though we would like protest that real music is nothing like Madonna's show. Was the Super Bowl halftime show more like a military parade or a gladiatorial contest than music? I'm wondering, though: classical music, too, has its overblown spectacles. Wagner and pretty much any opera out there. Many orchestrations are lush and dramatic in their own right, and the early epics of Western literature -- The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid -- must have swept listeners off their feet. I'm simultaneously attracted to and suspicious of this feeling (check out David Brooks's December NY Times article on All Things Shining for more on our American "arena culture").
I wonder about art's relationship to vulnerability, though. Is there an armor of spectacle now in most of our art? When I read my work as a writer, it's in front of a small audience. I just have my voice. There's a vulnerability in this solo performance, as there is in the solo piano, violin, or acoustic guitar performance, and that vulnerability is moving to me. You have to make more with less, and the silence of the auditorium is your necessary intimate. I wonder if Madonna's performance was less human -- less about one individual on a stage -- and, in its over-the-top lights and crowd of performers, was more about mirroring the crowd and its culture instead of challenging and opposing it.