The NFL just can’t seem to get it right, can it?
Remember Super Bowl XL (or 40, for those who don’t like Roman numerals)?
That was the year the game was played in musically rich Detroit, where the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 in one of the more controversial games in Super Bowl history. The Steelers won despite Big Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles as a second-year QB (and thanks to some questionable calls that went his team’s way).
It was February 5, 2006, and the Patriots’ Tom Brady was there also – just as he’ll be this Sunday – only not as a player back then. In Detroit, he gave the coin toss as the previous year’s SB MVP, in keeping with tradition.
The Rolling Stones were there too…as halftime performers.
Why them, you ask?
Well, because nothing quite says “Motown” like a British rock band with a lanky lead singer strutting aimlessly across the stage while showing us some “real” moves like Jagger, despite the abundance of Detroit musicians and former Motown artists who were still alive then and could have easily filled a Motown Review worthy of the world’s biggest stage.
The NFL and ABC (that year’s broadcaster) threw Detroit music fans a salty bone during a pregame show by having Stevie Wonder – a Motown legend and Michigan native – perform a medley of his hits along with John Legend, Joss Stone and Indie.Arie, three artists with no Detroit connection whatsoever.
Motown legends The Four Tops performed pregame also, but their stint was not televised because, well…oh never mind.
That was also the first Super Bowl after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged New Orleans and the surrounding areas nearly six months earlier. So crooner Aaron Neville was on hand for the National Anthem, along with Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin, but mostly to honor those in New Orleans who were affected by Katrina, not to pay musical tribute to the game’s host city.
Fast forward to 2019, and the similarities to SB40 are uncanny, although this time it’s likely an outcome the NFL and CBS could do little to alter given the lightening rod that the NFL has become in the wake of its handling of former QB Colin Kaepernick.
This year’s game pits the New England Patriots against the Los Angeles Rams and takes place in Atlanta, a melting pot of a city that is at the center of the hottest, most consumed genre of music in America the past two years – hip-hop and R&B. For the unenlightened, the “Star of the South” has taken over hip-hop from former meccas New York and L.A., both of which had claims to rap supremacy in the past – but no more.
Indeed, Atlanta and its huge cadre of big name musical acts like Future, Usher, Migos, 21 Savage, 2 Chainz, Childish Gambino, Gucci Mane, Janelle Monáe, T.I., Jeezy and many more have carved out names for themselves in the music industry – a fact that has made “the ATL” one of the music capitals of the world, similar to what Motown did for Detroit more than half a century ago.
Yet, for SB53 in ATL we get Maroon 5, a musically vanilla pop/rock band from California with about as much hip-hop in their veins as whoever their most recent featured artist happens to be (Cardi B, who declined to perform on this year’s SB stage, guest starred on the group’s recent No. 1 pop hit, “Girls Like You,” which they will no doubt still be performing).
Maroon 5 – with omnipresent frontman Adam Levine – will be joined by two other hip-hop artists onstage: Travis Scott (no Atlanta ties) and rapper Big Boi (of the duo OutKast). The latter – having hailed from Atlanta – is one of the pioneers of southern hip-hop with a legacy that predates even that of Maroon 5.
As part of OutKast with former partner André 3000, Big Boi scored three No. 1 singles on the Hot 100 beginning with 2001’s “Ms. Jackson,” plus a plethora of other hits. So his presence onstage during halftime lends a shred of hometown legitimacy to the affair.
On hand for this year’s National Anthem will be another legend – Gladys Knight – who was born in Atlanta and has maintained her lifelong ties to the city. Similar to what the late Queen of Soul Aretha did in Detroit 13 years earlier, Ms. Knight – known as the “Empress of Soul” – will perform in front of a hometown crowd and offer another small local connection for a Super Bowl otherwise devoid of it.
Knight, whose plans to perform were announced a few weeks back, received some flack for the decision (and for her subsequent written statement explaining it), particularly in light of the recent protests of the NFL’s policy on players who have taken an on-field stance against police brutality and racism in America by kneeling during the very song Knight will be singing.
Big Boi and Travis Scott received similar criticisms for their decisions to perform at this year’s game.
Other artists – specifically, superstar names like Rihanna, Cardi B and Jay-Z – admittedly with no Atlanta ties to speak of, have either declined to perform at the event or shunned it.
With none of those acts – other than Gladys Knight and Big Boi – being from Atlanta, it’s not clear if the NFL even approached others who are. So there’s no way to tell – unless the NFL reveals its ask list – whether or not this year’s tone-deafness is due to the league’s own lack of awareness that SB53 is literally taking place in one of the biggest music centers in the world, or whether it’s another fallout from the lingering controversy that has been a stain on the league for the past three years – and counting.
Of course, it’s a stretch to think that the NFL or the major TV networks that televise their games would ever be willing to feature a full-on southern hip-hop review in a hometown tribute to the city that birthed the genre, even if it is the most consumed music among a significant portion of its audience. The backlash from the Rudy Giulianis of the world would be too much to handle (think back to Beyoncé’s “Formation” performance of 2016).
And don’t think for a minute that the NFL hasn’t forgotten about Nipplegate and the wardrobe malfunction of SB38. Imagine how fast the producers’ censor fingers would be working if one of today’s artists decided to go “explicit” version on ‘em.
Still, one thing’s for sure: the lack of a significant onstage presence by artists representing the true essence of a music capital as important as Atlanta illustrates the proverbial hot potato the NFL has become. It’s a virtual tug-of-war that people on either side of the anthem protest issue have with what is still America’s most-watched sport, despite all the controversy.
Just last month, for instance, the AFC Championship game featuring the Patriots vs. Kansas City was the second-most watched conference title game ever.
That fact – along with the prospect of seeing Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick trying to win their record-sixth SB rings (with many outside of New England watching with hopes to see them fail) – figures to bode well for this weekend’s ratings, which also suggests that many of those who are giving this year’s musical performers the snarky eye-roll or blasting them on Twitter will be right in front of their TVs watching the big game…and the halftime show.
And so it’ll be Maroon 5 who gets to “Move like Jagger” did 13 years ago (sorry, couldn’t pass on that opportunity). Levine and Co. will get to bring their radio-friendly, genre-bending, L.A. brand of pop to the world stage and strut their stuff in front of a billion viewers while Atlanta’s Gladys Knight and Big Boi play the role of hometown musical footnotes similar to what Stevie and Aretha did 13 years ago to the real Jagger and company.
And the NFL (and CBS) will get to ride out yet another wave of criticisms for what could have been an avoidable situation – one way or the other.
Fast fact: Maroon 5 has had four No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 among their 20 top-forty hits, which is more than any other group during the current millennium. So they’re definitely no slouch in the hits department and surely deserve to be on the big stage given what they’ve accomplished.
For their part, Maroon 5 has decided to remain above the fray by avoiding any of the big game’s normal pressers (which would have no doubt included questions about the controversy) and letting their music speak for itself on Sunday.