Keeping the Super Bowl super

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February 8, 2007

9:54 PM

At some point in its 41-year history, the Super Bowl became a vested American tradition. At another, perhaps more nebulous point during this span, American pop culture evolved into something so fragmented and mixed, with so many niche markets, that catering to everyone became something of an impossibility. With last Sunday’s Super Bowl XLI, however, the NFL and its myriad of sponsors attempted to achieve the ultimate mass media feat — to make something that was appealing to every person in the country.

p. College kids, those notoriously hip and fickle crowds, seem to have been wooed successfully. In fact, my friends were gathered around the television in heretofore unseen numbers — I doubt even an open bar could have brought us together with the force of the Super Bowl. What interested me most was that, in our liberal-artsy crowd, precious few of us even followed football. I, for example, didn’t know who was playing until I arrived at the party, by which time I had missed Billy Joel crooning the Star Spangled Banner. Rats.

p. It seems that somehow, even with the entertainment interests of Americans having grown more disparate and specialized than ever before, the Super Bowl still has us in its grasp. When a television broadcast has the ability to severely reduce the amount of traffic on the roads, something must be up. A mere game becomes a “media event,” something with the uncanny ability to make people stop what they’re doing and come together — in a way that perhaps even Thanksgiving, which was created for just such a purpose, can no longer rival.

p. Last year I sat in a mostly empty Daily Grind and used the game as an opportunity to catch up on my reading. (Perhaps it’s telling that, despite it being relatively early in the semester, I was already far behind.) During a break I visited our beloved Wawa — which, even at 4:00 a.m., can be trusted to have at least a few patrons—and found myself to be the only customer in the store. The cashier asked me if I knew the score. When I said I didn’t, his reactive “oh” was laced with such disappointment that I almost felt guilty. In some strange way, skipping the Super Bowl was like skipping church on Christmas Day. It was, to some, tantamount to heresy.

p. For XLI, however, the NFL managed to reel me in. Though I’ll confess that I watched them much more closely than the game itself, it can’t be said that I was in it “for the commercials” –an interesting concept, because it means that people are eagerly awaiting being advertised to. It’s no wonder that ad space during the Super Bowl is the most coveted of the year: people are demanding to see products. One wonders why corporations aren’t struggling to get this kind of hype more often, perhaps frequently debuting witty new commercials during the more popular primetime shows. If it had hilarious ads, could I be roped into watching Grey’s Anatomy? Well, no — but I’d at least give it a few seconds more thought.

p. What got me for Super Bowl XLI was its halftime show, and the promise that it would feature one of pop music’s greatest talents: Prince. The halftime show exists, one must assume, to attract more viewers than would otherwise be interested. As the New York Times pointed out, the decision becomes more difficult every year, particularly given the recent “wardrobe malfunction” debacle. Ever since Janet Jackson’s bra runneth over, sexuality has been banned by the NFL. Any advertiser knows that sex sells, but these days, musicality has to do the trick. That means the league needs to recruit good musicians, and how many of those remain popular?

p. Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, Prince’s two halftime predecessors, were both safe choices that still smacked a bit of “has-been” syndrome, but Prince’s controversial past makes him the perfect choice. His searing performance of “Purple Rain” traded microphone stand-humping for plain-and-simple guitar wizardry, but the jazzy, sexy excess that made Prince’s work in the 80’s so masterful still echoes in his contemporary performances. Granted, there were certainly viewers who weren’t interested — probably older, blue-collar white men who think that Prince is a diminutive homosexual and revel in the Super Bowl as a celebration of all things stereotypically masculine — but for most of the population, The Purple One was the ideal entertainer in an era with too few of them.

p. But the Super Bowl’s All-American status may be nearing its expiration date. Prince is not gay — he’s made love to Carmen Elektra, which is more than anyone reading this column can likely say — and those who denounced and feared him as such are proof that it’s becoming harder to keep everyone satisfied. A relatively innocuous commercial featuring Kevin “K-Fed” Federline as a daydreaming fast-food employee has already been labeled offensive by the National Restaurant Association. In several months, I’ll struggle to remember who won the Bowl, and then, in several more, fail to recall who was even playing. By the time XLII comes along, most of us will reminisce about last year’s commercials and Prince more than the game itself. We will continue to be alternately entertained and exasperated. And if Americans can’t even agree about what makes for good television, how is anything more substantive to be accomplished?

p. __Dan Piepenbring, a junior at the College, is a Staff Columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of The Flat Hat.__

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