Super Bowl LV is set to play out in Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium on Sunday 7th February – but it’s not just the on-field action people look forward to each year.
The Super Bowl halftime show has become a major cultural phenomenon in itself, that has produced some of the most memorable performances and moments, from wardrobe mishaps to viral memes.
The show has secured legends in the music world including Beyonce, Prince, Paul McCartney, and more. The Grammys may have snubbed the Weeknd, but his record-breaking 2020 will be seen by many as culminating in the biggest performance of his career in the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show. But is it enough to simply turn up and perform a few hits anymore? Now, fans demand a truly ‘wow’ spectacle to guarantee legendary status for the performer.
You can see the attraction for artists – they get to play a gig that’s 13 minutes long which is an extravagant feast for the eyes and ears, get exposure to a global audience of over 100 million viewers, and remind fans exactly why they deserve their superstar status.
The benefits are clear; in 2018, Justin Timberlake’s catalogue saw an uplift of 214% on Spotify while he also covered Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” as a tribute to the late artist, which saw a 916% gain in streams. Last year’s performers, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, saw spikes in Spotify streams of 230% and 335% respectively.
These boosts are helped by the advent of social media, adding a whole new element for artists, for better or for worse. Audiences across social media have the power to make or break a performance. In 2019, fans left no stone overturned when it came to judging Maroon 5’s performance with many of them bashing the “boring” and “tedious” display in comparison to the 70% positive sentiment of tweets for Lopez and Shakira’s performance.
Some results go sideways for the artists – yes Katy Perry’s performance in 2015 was well received, but the limelight was stolen by one of her backing dancers, the infamous “Left Shark” that became an internet sensation for days after across social media.
That’s the beauty (or the curse) of the Super Bowl halftime show in the digital age, even if they didn’t watch it “live”, social media commentators have the ability to provide an artist with a viral moment that gets their name trending, can add to (or detract from) their legacy, and draws the attention of non-Super Bowl viewers after the actual event, a hard feat when modern attention spans are growing even shorter.
In recent years, however, the halftime show hasn’t escaped controversies and negative press for its headline artists. Since 2016, the NFL has been embroiled in a row related to kneeling protests against police brutality and racial inequality, figure-headed by then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Critics accused the NFL of failing to address the issues raised and then going on to blackball Kaepernick, effectively exiling him from the league.
While this is a complex issue, one impact was that it led to many artists reconsidering their stance on supposedly the biggest show on earth. Rihanna turned down the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show in solidarity with Kaepernick, stating “I couldn’t be a sellout” and Cardi B rejected the lucrative opportunity, stating “mixed feelings” about the NFL.
The NFL has tried to take steps to right its public image, including in summer 2019 when Jay-Z, who famously rapped about turning down the Super Bowl in his 2018 song “Apeshit”, revealed he was partnering with the NFL to help manage the league’s music events as well its new social justice campaigns. This caused further debate as critics accused him of aiding the NFL’s campaign of blackballing Kaepernick and questioned his supposed previous support for the quarterback.
So what does this all mean for artists? In the age of social media, both the NFL and artists such as 2021’s act, The Weeknd, are themselves are subjected to more scrutiny than ever. Artists are having to think carefully about whether the prestige of the Super Bowl could outweigh social commentary about their involvement – but there’s no doubt that the magic of the halftime show still holds a great deal of magic and intrigue for viewers.