Monday, February 21, 2011

Perhaps Phil Spector produced the halftime show

Halftime shows and national anthems have made the news the past month and the only time that usually happens is when someone grabs a crotch or flashes a nipple. First Christina Aguilera performed a tribute to the late Leslie Nielsen while belting out some - but not all - of the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the Super Bowl. A few hours later the Black Eyed Peas performed at halftime, and a few seconds after they left the field people began asking questions like, "Can their career recover from this?"

Really, why does anyone agree to ever sing the national anthem anymore? At this point, no one wants to hear anyone's interpretation of the song and every time someone mangles it, people engage in a fresh round of speculation about whether it's time to stop singing the song before sporting events or finally change the anthem to "America the Beautiful." That's if the singer's lucky. If the populace is in a particularly foul mood, the singer will stand accused of being a commie hellbent on destroying the good ol' United States of America. What's the upside for the artist? A note of appreciation from one of Francis Scott Key's heirs?

When I attend a sporting event these days, I'm always a little grateful when someone simply pushes a button before the game and a pre-recorded version of the song - perhaps made by some high school band in 1982 - blares over the speakers. No kids, no grannies, no choirs and no American Idol finalists. Just a canned version that's over in a few minutes.

And halftime shows? Has anyone actually ever enjoyed watching one of those performances? If it's a band that made its name when LBJ sat in the White House, their fans whine about how the group sold out while others wish they'd simply die out. And younger acts inevitably make people yearn for the old folks, you know, the people who made music back when it was real music. Before they sold out.

Of course, during major sporting events we only get to the national anthem after a pregame show that spans hours, if not days, and includes interviews with everyone from presidents to peasants, anything to fill the time until the big game. Remember the commercials about the guys who have attended every Super Bowl? How about a commercial for the guys who have watched every hour of every Super Bowl pregame show? Throw a parade for them. Identify them. We need to know their names, so they can be immortalized by Visa, enshrined in Canton or institutionalized elsewhere.

But for awkward pregame festivities and halftime entertainment, it would be difficult for anything to again match Super Bowl XXVII, from January 1993, when the Cowboys crushed the Bills. The anthem that year? No major problems. Garth Brooks sang it, while Marlee Matlin signed it.

No, the pregame weirdness that year came courtesy of NBC and the NFL, though at the time nothing seemed out of the ordinary. During the 32-hour pregame show, NBC decided to shed some light on the hot new video game, Madden NFL, by pitting a pair of legends against each other: Mike Ditka and O.J. Simpson.

The Juice wasn't finished. Before the game he walked out for the coin toss. He arrived to cheers and left with them. And after the Cowboys rolled through the Bills in the second quarter, the spectacular halftime show began:

Michael Jackson, surrounded by thousands of screaming children.

At the time the halftime show proved a big hit. Viewership reportedly increased during the halftime show compared to the game. Obviously no one could have predicted that within a year Michael Jackson would stand accused of molesting a child and Simpson would be charged with brutally murdering two people. O.J.'s video game and Jackson's performance only look creepy when looking back, because we now know what was ahead. Even if no one foresaw a crime of the century in O.J.'s future, someone - a producer, a family member, Paul Tagliabue, Bob Costas, Dick Ebersol, John Madden, Al Davis - should have prevented Ditka and Simpson from clashing in the "Computer Bowl." NBC billed it as a matchup of "wit, strategy and luck," but only one of those was present. The ending was actually remarkable, as O.J. pulled off an improbable victory that left an entire nation sitting in front of their televisions in stunned silence, unable to comprehend the injustice they'd just witnessed. It wouldn't be the last time he did that in his life.

Simpson, who most likely had never played a video game until someone bullied him into that basement, rallied from a 13-0 deficit in the final three minutes. The Juice - whose arthritis did not appear to be bothering him during a brief celebration dance - takes the lead in the closing seconds and holds on when Ditka's hapless kicker botches the potential game-winning field goal.

Despite this exhibition, Madden still managed to become one of the most successful video games in history.

The Juice on the pregame and the King of Pop at halftime. Imagine another Super Bowl prominently featuring two people who, within a year and a half, are involved in two of the most sensational criminal cases of the century. Seems impossible. Yet, in a world where someone approved "Computer Bowl '93," anything's possible.

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