Well, football season officially closed out last night with a fantastic Super Bowl, courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts and the new world champions New Orleans Saints. It was an overall exciting game, albeit perhaps a little low-scoring given the numbers the two powerhouse quarterbacks usually put up. Nevertheless, one can’t complain about an epic showdown by two perfectly matched teams who went nearly the entire regular season with undefeated records.
Okay, I take that back. One can complain, and quite vociferously, I might add. Not about the game itself, mind you, but instead the various musical acts surrounding it. And the commercials too (although, they also deserve some praise).
I suppose it all begins with Steve Winwood, an aging rock star whose hits (“The Finer Things,” “Valerie”) I’ve quietly championed for some time. I won’t lie: I thought he was the best thing ever in 1988, and quite honestly, he’d done little in the past twenty-two years to sway my opinion on that front. Well, unfortunately, that nifty preconception was completely destroyed yesterday when the guy appeared on a Super Bowl pre-show to sing my favorite of his songs, “Higher Love.” And by “sing,” I mean “butcher,” because that’s exactly what Steve Winwood did to this beloved song, nay, ANTHEM of my life. His voice, as expected, was not nearly as strong as it used to be, but that wasn’t truly the problem. As gravelly as SeÃ±or Winwood had become, he still could hit most of his notes (unlike his comrades in The Who). The real tragedy was that he opted to mix up the tune’s musical arrangement, giving it a jazzy Latin flair that did little but make the entire experience feel like some ill-conceived lobby act in a suburban Wichita Holiday Inn. Trust me, I did try to fend off all my snarky rebukes of the performance, lest I face the brutal reality that Steve Winwood is now over the hill, but as I watched him growling at his piano, floppy curls blowing this way and that, I just had to admit that the GOW (Glory of Winwood) had passed. It didn’t help matters that every backing musician around him looked like they were on break from their real job working as a server at some West Palm Beach retirement community. Meanwhile, the crowd was hardly having any of this disaster. I think I’ve seen more emotion from the rocks at Stonehenge. It was total, horrific sadness.
At least, Winwood’s performance was merely a sideshow and not anything intended to impress the masses. For that we’d have to turn to Queen Latifah, who appeared to us amidst a small army of red, white, and blue flags. The former rapper crooned out a barely serviceable and often out-of-tune rendition of “America The Beautiful,” and once again I was left wondering why Queen Latifah had suddenly become an acceptable choice for such performances. After all, just because she appeared in Chicago doesn’t mean she’s suddenly the second coming of Aretha Franklin. I like her as much as the next guy, but singing just isn’t her strong suit. However, if there were a Super Bowl of sass, she’d be a world champion four times over, but that’s neither here nor there.
At least Queen Latifah looked good. Same can’t be said for Carrie Underwood, who appeared on stage to sing the Star Spangled Banner in some pale denim getup that may or may not have belonged to Lurlene, the big-haired diner waitress who calls you “hun” and can be often spotted after hours clutching a pack of Virginia Slims and a brewski. I fear that women from across the country raced out to Wal-Mart today to get their hands on their very own tight-fighting denim-with-chains outfit, and for that alone, Carrie Underwood should be scorned. But sadly, Carrie’s sartorial choices weren’t the full extent of her mishaps. Her biggest problems lay in her singing, which is normally reliable, but for this big game proved to be a bit uneven. The good news was that we knew she wasn’t lip synching. The bad news was that we had to hear that final note, which proved to be a total misfire of Taylor Swift proportions. Okay, maybe not that bad. Nothing can be that bad. Or so I thought, but we’ll get to halftime in a moment.
Once the singing was finally put to bed, we were able to get into the game, which of course was thrilling and exciting and everything we could have hoped for. I’m not sure the same could be said about the commercials, which once again disappointed overall. The Betty White/Snickers spot was amusing, but only because it featured Betty White. People love this woman, and honestly, Snickers could have just filmed her picking flowers, and the commercial would have been beloved by all America. And yes, I would like to see such a commercial.
Coke tried similar stunt casting, but instead of Betty White, they employed The Simpsons for what looked like could have been an amazing spot. Instead, it sort of petered out with none of the classic Simpsons bite or cynicism (not to mention voices, save for Milhouse). I enjoyed the spot, but it did feel a bit half-baked.
Doritos, meanwhile, fared well with the masses (as judged by USA Today), but I personally found most of their spots this year to be on the stupid side, and I’m not saying “Stupid but clever” or “Stupid but funny.” I’m saying just out-and-out stupid. A bit about a dog putting its anti-bark collar on a human was somewhat amusing, as was a ninja type character who wields a Dorito like a throwing star, but overall, the spots summoned nothing but a light semi-chuckle from me. Let’s not even talk about the coffin full of chips…
And let’s not talk about the back-to-back underwear ads (and back-to-back little people ads too). None of these commercials were particularly intriguing, funny, interesting, or thoughtful. The casual Friday bit was especially strange, mostly because it seemed strange that a man would work in an office where no males wear boxers. Seems unrealistic. Also unrealistic but in a far creepier way was the miniature Troy Polamalu. The whole image of his head on a shrunken body was so unsettling that I don’t even remember what product or service was being advertised. Nor do I want to remember.
More successful in my mind was a Bridgestone spot featuring a killer whale and a bunch of harried men racing to the ocean. Not only was it funny, but the commercial had a narrative arc with a distinct payoff. Same goes for a lovely Google ad, which allowed us to see one man’s life through Google searches. Surprisingly, the spot didn’t rank so highly with USA Today‘s readers, but I think that’s more a reflection of them than the commercial. These are the same people who gave five stars to the E-Trade talking baby, a campaign that surely deserves to suffer from SIDS. Why these ads rate so well and why they keep coming back (with more and more babies in them) is beyond me. I’ll just chalk it up to warped perceptions of good comedy thanks to the growing meth epidemic in the midwest.
Speaking of red state entertainments, the Super Bowl also saw the premiere of the controversial Tim Tebow ad, which proved to not only be a big nothing, but a big STUPID nothing. The thrust of it was that Tim’s mom spoke vaguely about how difficult it was to give birth to Tim and that she worries about his health to this very day. Then, out of nowhere, Tim up and tackles his mom before apologizing and smiling like a goofball. Kind of made no sense. I mean, why is he tackling anyone? He’s a quarterback, not a cornerback. And why would he tackle of all people his mother? Seems a bit hostile. If it was unintentional, this doesn’t speak well of his abilities on the field. Surely he should be able to differentiate between another football player and HIS MOTHER. Either way, I think we can all agree it didn’t make sense, but at least no agendas were forced down our throats.
Just about the only message we were inculcated into believing was that women are bad. Well, this is nothing new, but at least some of these commercials finally had the balls to say it. Okay, I keeed, but seriously, there was plenty of mild misogyny to go around. Among others, a Dodge Charger commercial highlighted the many emasculating things men must do for women, and a Jim Nantz spot for Flo TV derided guys “without a spine” who were stuck following their lame-ass girlfriends’ every whim. I don’t know where this rage came from, but perhaps it has something to do with millions of laid-off men across America somehow feeling neutered by their inability to be the provider for their families. Or maybe ad execs are just a touch too henpecked these days. Either way, it was a strange, unsettling trend. Not sure women appreciated it (but then again, what do THEY know??).
Of course, if I’m sounding a tad highfalutin, fear not. I too giggle at stupid crap. Take, for example, the T-Pain Bud Light commercial. It’s territory that isn’t exactly the freshest, and the commercial certainly could have been a bit more clever, but hey, I thought it was hilarious nonetheless. What’s even better is that it can’t be made into a stupid catchphrase Ã la “Waaaaaassssssaaaaapppp” etc.. And for that we should be thankful. We should also be thankful for the absence of the Black Eyed Peas, who I thought for sure would have stunk up a commercial or two with either their presence or their music, but no, they were nowhere to be seen (unless I missed them in some awful pre-game performance). Of course, Super Bowl organizers are always about two or three years behind the curve; so chances are we’ll see the BEP in 2012, still most likely singing “I Gotta Feelin'” to the cheering crowd around them. (Full disclosure: I still like the song; although, its prominent use on the Miss America telecast has truly tested my will).
Speaking of halftime shows, I think it’s about time we settled something once and for all: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake ruined halftime forever. Since their wardrobe malfunction, we’ve been stuck with largely bland performances, often by bands that only people over 50 (a.k.a. all the corporate attendees at the Super Bowl) enjoy. It’s not that these are bad musical acts — Tom Petty, Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones are all great and legendary — but they’re just so… old. Their halftime performances have suffered from the sort of unspoken lameness that comes with seeing someone over forty wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. (Actually, make that someone over twenty). Granted, Springsteen last year was very good, the Rolling Stones did have a certain amount of energy, and Prince was actually one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows of all time, but that all went out the window this year when the old, shabby remaining members of The Who took the stage and belted out a medley of their greatest hits that sounded more like Abe Simpson at karaoke than anything else. Yes, Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend are rock legends, but quite honestly, this was a miserable, miserable performance. Stuck in the middle of what looked like a neon steamer basket, the band huffed and puffed its way through various songs, occasionally being so kind as to hit a note or two. The guys are past their prime, and no number of fireworks or aerial shots could make this sad display seem remotely exciting.
Thankfully, we had a great game to save the day with a thrilling climax. Oh, and there was Undercover Boss, which was so astoundingly awful, I almost went back and watched The Who again, just to cleanse the palate.
What did you think about the game? Thoughts on the commercials? The performances? Undercover Boss?