Panem et Circenses: In defense of the Pop Spectacle

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. I’m not much into the NFL (I prefer college ball), but I tend to tune in every year because I enjoy the spectacle. Because let’s face it, that’s what it is. For diehard NFL fans, I imagine it feels more like what the Stanley Cup playoffs or March Madness do for me, but for the vast majority of viewers, it’s really just about the pageantry. The commercials. The halftime show.

It’s that last one that prompts me to write. I’ve seen chatter on my social media feeds about the actual game and even more about how the commercials are downers (being that I’m streaming it online, I get a limited variety of commercials, so I can’t really comment). It wasn’t until halftime, though that the claws really came out.

You’d think that somehow it was a shock to people that the Super Bowl organizers decided to go with someone who can put on a spectacle at halftime. Katy Perry was just not up to some posters’ standards: “She’s hiding her lack of talent behind lights and costumes,” “I’d rather see someone just perform music,” “What’s with the dancing sharks?”

Meanwhile, I watched it and thought: This is exactly what a Super Bowl halftime show should be.

That giant mechanical tiger? That was flippin sweet. The stage made to look like it was rippling, tilting, and changing shape? Wicked cool. Pyro and flying platforms. Quality guest appearances. And yes, the dancing sharks. It was all fun and over the top. A vocal group of my social media contacts may not have appreciated it, but I’m happy to see Rolling Stone and others did.

This isn’t the forum for subtlety. This is a game for which the lowest ticket price is $800. The LOWEST. A mere 30 seconds of air time will cost an advertiser $4.5 million. There are weeks of commentary, TV specials, and concerts. Millions of people will be tuning in around the world for a sport that is essentially only played in America. Parties are planned months in advance just for this night. This isn’t Woodstock, people, it’s the Roman Coliseum.

I tend to think the disgruntled posts come from two phenomena: a low tolerance for that which we do not immediately enjoy (another post for another time, I think) and a fear of losing credibility over liking the musical equivalent of a popcorn movie.

So, maybe Katy Perry isn’t the world’s best singer (I happen to think she’s pretty damn good and incredibly entertaining, but I also don’t dispute there are better voices out there), but let’s not discount the value of showmanship. The musicians who endure—either in the form of long careers or in our memories—do so for two reasons: talent or spectacle. There are those enduring acts we worship for their gift of songwriting and performing (The Beatles/Paul McCartney) and others more for their particular talent for putting on a show (Kiss). Some manage to deliver both (Bruno Mars—seriously, listen to that man sing and try to argue with me).

I think we somehow have made talent and spectacle mutually exclusive. Although it may be more difficult to have and maintain pure musical talent, it also takes  a great deal of talent to put on a show. There is no less value in appreciating someone’s ability to entertain you with the right amount of razzle dazzle than there is in appreciating their voice. You know why Justin Timberlake was the one member of  NSYNC to have a successful solo career? It’s not because he had the best voice (that was JC—again, listen to him and try to dispute me), it’s because he has a good voice AND knows how to put on a show. I can’t help but appreciate that.

As a reformed music snob, it took me a while to get to this point. I spent a lot of time despising acts simply because they were too popular or—god forbid—manufactured or overly showy.  I musically came of age with the rise of grunge. I embraced the culture, which valued authenticity above all. So when I found myself sometime in the late 1990s humming along to the Backstreet Boys, I was horrified. I hid it. I lived in denial. Until I couldn’t stand it anymore and just bought the damn CD. I played the crap out of it. I bought a ticket to their concert, and had the time of my life. So I went again on the next tour, and had an even better time. It took me a while to figure out how to reconcile my flannel shirts and Doc Martens with my Teen Beat pullout posters. And then I realized: grunge and alternative culture was against labels and categories and confining yourself to a box. Yet, in my quest to be the epitome of “whatever,” I spent more time crafting an image of alternative-ness than I did just enjoying what I love. It wasn’t a betrayal of the culture to like pop music, it was perhaps the truest embodiment of it.

Don’t get me wrong: I have my opinions on those in the musical world. I’d rather live in a Taylor Swift-free world, and I constantly wonder how someone with the mind-blowing talent of Tony Lucca still toils in relative obscurity. But I appreciate what each musician brings to the world of music. Take Swifty, for example. I dislike her voice and I find her less-than-genuine as a person (this could be a whole separate blog post, so I’ll leave it at that), but I find that when I hear covers of her songs, I rather enjoy them. I appreciate her contributions as a songwriter, but I’d still rather have Tony swimming in record sale royalties than her.

Everyone has their preferences. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think we miss out on a lot of enjoyment by not allowing ourselves to appreciate a little musical popcorn now and then (or at the very least, just saying “meh” and moving on). Everything has a time and a place. The Super Bowl halftime show? That was a place to hear Katy Perry roar.

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~ by yellowbrickrodeo on February 1, 2015.

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