Tom Petty’s Super Bowl Halftime Show: Thoroughly OK


Now watch the iTunes-chart spike

Most years, the insane level of pageantry is as much the point of the Super Bowl as the actual game. That wasn’t the case last night. Even people who wouldn’t ordinarily give a damn about football understood that this shit was a big deal: an undefeated team working to maintain unprecedented perfection, an unproven underdog fighting to shock the world. For once, nobody’s going to remember the ads or the halftime show nearly as vividly as the Giants’ insane last-minute drive. And the actual pacing of the game seemed to deflect attention from all the noise surrounding it; we’d get long drives, followed by furious barrages of ads, followed by long drives. And even though Fox built up to the game with a maddening, endless four-hour pregame show that forced its team of hyuk-hyuk commentators to share airtime with Ryan Seacrest, the spectacle part of the evening was conspicuously dialed down. Rather than a pregame tribute to the basically nonexistent musical legacy of host-city Phoenix, we got a quick medley from Starbucks-pop megalith Alicia Keys. And rather than an eyeball-melting halftime show from anything as divisive as an actual pop star, we got a quick set from Tom Petty, an unruffleable pro who barely seemed to notice that he was standing on the biggest stage of his life. Petty wasn’t a reason to keep watching at halftime; he was a reason not to change the channel.

Since the whole Janet-Jackson’s-nipple thing, of course, organizers of every major sports event have worked hard to find big musical names who will absolutely not offend. (Seacrest during the pregame: “Word is Tom Petty’s wardrobe is functioning. Thank goodness.”) And Tom Petty fit the bill beautifully. He’s a classic-rock radio mainstay with a ton of great songs. He’s only liable to court controversy when he’s talking about the music business. Nobody hates him, and everybody at least likes “Free Fallin'”; Bill Simmons even has a great column today partly about how that song came to symbolize the Patriots’ Icarus moment. Before the halftime show, Seacrest and assorted other commentators kept calling Petty and the Heartbreakers “one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time,” but that’s both off the mark and beside the point; it’s more that they’re one of the most solid. And they did exactly what they were supposed to do. They chugged through four pretty great songs, they sounded relaxed and competent, and they offered nothing to complain about beyond the big rushing drums on the “Free Fallin'” bridge going inexplicably missing. Still, as far as showmanship went, this halftime show was a wash almost by design; the only moment of actual spectacle came before Petty even showed his face, when the enormous neon flying-V guitar collided with the enormous neon heart to form the stage on some Voltron shit. (Tom Petty, it should be noted, has probably never picked up a flying-V in his life.) I liked the show just fine, and there was something almost refreshing in seeing someone play four individual songs rather than piling as many choruses as possible into a claustrophobic medley. Still, I wish a great sports moment could’ve had a comparably great pop soundtrack. Last year, Prince proved that it’s actually possible to stage a great Super Bowl halftime show. Tom Petty never tried for greatness because greatness isn’t a part of what he does.

As for the rest of the music on the show, eesh. Alicia Keys’ pregame show was just a remarkable pileup of bad decisions and failed spectacle: the beehive hair, the cameltoe-inducing pantsuit, the stiff banter, the obvious lip-syncing, the randomly rising and falling piped-in fake crowd noise, the awkwardly robotic choreographed dancing. Earlier in the pregame, Willie Nelson and Sara Evans did a version of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” so sleepy and withdrawn that it barely existed. Jordin Sparks’s national anthem was weirdly subdued by the inflated standards of these things. In the ads, Justin Timberlake and Busta Rhymes and Alice Cooper all made appearances that collectively amounted to pretty much nothing, and I still have no idea why Naomi Campbell and a bunch of CGI lizards were doing the “Thriller” dance. Worst and strangest of all: Paula Abdul. It makes sense that Fox would want to find some room for an American Idol crossover in its broadcast, but I can’t for the life of me imagine why that took the form of the first Abdul performance in forever. Abdul is way too much of a basket case to do an actual live performance, so they were smart to tape her thing on a soundstage somewhere. Still, the thing made it clear that Abdul is maybe the wrong person to judge a televised singing contest. For one thing, she was blatantly lip-syncing, as the headset mic and the T-Pain filter-effect made clear. And she’s not much of a dancer anymore, either; her whole act was elaborately but haphazardly choreographed. She just sort of looked like someone’s drama-nerd mom hosting a high-school talent show, and I was profoundly embarrassed just watching the thing. (Also, the big reveal near the end was Randy Jackson pretending to play guitar, which was at least funny.) The erosion of the monoculture means that the organizers of the Super Bowl, one of the last remaining events that everyone watches, are going to have a hell of a time coming up with music names that everyone knows in future shows. This year, that meant Paula Abdul. God only knows what we’ll get next year.

Voice review: Max Berry on Tom Petty’s Highway Companion
Voice review: Sean Carruthers on Tom Petty’s The Last DJ
Voice review: Matt Ashare on Tom Petty’s Echo