The Super Bowl halftime show used to be an afterthought, background noise before the second-half kickoff.
For years, the time was filled with performances by college and high school marching bands, including the Southeast Missouri State marching band, which performed with Up With People during halftime of Super Bowl V in Miami in January 1971.
These days, the halftime show is its own extravaganza, a privileged opportunity for its performers to get a blast of worldwide attention and, usually, a measurable financial boost.
When it was announced in December that the British band Coldplay will be the primary entertainment during this year’s halftime show, the news was met mostly with shrugs, furrowed brows, rolled eyes and a concerted, lukewarm “meh.”
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The past few halftime shows seemed to confirm that what is required from the performers is everything Coldplay isn’t: a dynamic band that is visually entertaining, with upbeat music that appeals to a wide audience and a lavish presentation that translates over a two-dimensional medium.
That’s everything Katy Perry was at last year’s Super Bowl. Her show was an orgy of cartoon sights and neon-pop sounds that burst through TV screens and into living rooms, man caves and sports bars around the world. It had all the pomp, pizzazz and grandeur of an Olympics Games Opening Ceremony.
Perry arrived onstage riding an animatronic tiger, performing her hit “Roar.” She performed a duet with Lenny Kravitz, danced with sharks, palm trees and beach balls, soared airborne over the crowd and welcomed special guest Missy Elliott, who delivered a dynamic medley of her hits. It all happened in a whirlwind 13 minutes.
Perry’s performance came a year after Bruno Mars introduced himself to millions of viewers at Super Bowl XLVIII. It lacked the visual gusto of Perry’s spectacle, but Mars, who turned 30 in October, made plenty of new (and older) fans. They responded positively to his music, which taps into retro pop, funk, R&B and soul, and to his skills as a singer and musician.
Like most Super Bowl performers, Mars enjoyed a big financial bounce. Tickets for his 2014 tour went on sale the day after the game, and Forbes reported: “The average price for his Moonshine Jungle Tour is up $150 to an average price of $500. While there are some tickets left on the primary market for select shows, many are already sold out.”
Billboard magazine reported that sales of his “Unorthodox Jukebox” album increased from 15,000 copies the week before the Super Bowl to more than 40,000 the week after, a jump of more than 160 percent.
Mars was an unconventional pick for the halftime show, a young and relatively unknown performer who at the time had only two albums in his catalog. In hindsight, he was the very kind of performer the NFL ought to be showcasing: talented, charismatic and wholesome.
From the Los Angeles Times’ review: “Before long, Mars’ touring band, a great funk-soul combo in the tradition of the O’Jays or Earth, Wind & Fire, had joined the singer for snapped-tight renditions of the reggae-tinged “Locked Out of Heaven” and the R&B throwback “Treasure,” each a lively demonstration of how much fresh energy Mars brings to familiar styles.”
That year’s show was deflated, however, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who appeared long enough to deliver an uninspired version of their ancient rock-funk anthem “Give It Away.”
Mars’ show was seen by a then-record audience of more than 115 million people. That record was broken last year by Perry, who drew an audience of 118.5 million. This year’s game and performance is likely to break that record, Forbes has predicted.
Coldplay has a 2016 world tour to promote, and the Super Bowl performance will probably stimulate sales of concert tickets. In December, the band released its seventh studio album, “A Head Full of Dreams.” Sales in the United States are at decent 360,000. Its first single, “Adventure of a Lifetime,” however, barely cracked the Top 40.
“Dreams” is a collection of wistful and melancholic ballads and midtempo anthems that don’t step outside the Coldplay playbook. Most of the music is a mix of British rock with electronic accents and trimmings.
“The band’s big, bittersweet sound is, as ever, wonderfully immersive: whalesong cycles of electric guitar echoing through a buoyant soup of synths that sound both pleasant and forgettable,” wrote a reviewer for the Telegraph in the band’s native U.K.
Beyonce has already been announced as a special guest, so it’s very likely they will perform “Hymn for the Weekend,” the album’s second single on which Beyonce is a guest vocalist. The song packs a gentle bounce and bump but hardly sounds like something that will invigorate a stadium crowd of nearly 70,000 and a TV audience of more than 118 million. (The song’s video has drawn widespread criticism for appropriating Indian culture).
Perhaps Coldplay will pull out a song from an older album, like “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” its most popular and successful recording. Or maybe an unexpected cover is in the works.
Bruno Mars has also been announced as a guest performer, and reportedly the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will lead the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. And Lady Gaga, who will sing the national anthem, may also be available.
The NFL has hit several grand slams in its halftime picks. Prince was outstanding (2007). So was Michael Jackson (1993). Beyonce (2013) and Madonna (2012) both delivered lavish, memorable performances. Mars proved a guy leading a big band can deliver the goods. But the Who (2010) was bad, and even the Rolling Stones (2006) and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (2008) appeared static and uninspired.
But all of the above have legendary or superstar status, something Coldplay hasn’t achieved yet, which is what makes their selection seem odd and random.
Something extra, it seems, will be necessary to give Coldplay the kind of crackle and verve needed to resonate among a large TV audience. “Pleasant” doesn’t cut it for a crowd that is tuned in for high-octane performances, on the field, in the commercials and during halftime.