Perhaps it was inevitable, in an era of “Full House” reboots, nostalgia for the early Obama Era, and highly publicized reunions of bands not five years disbanded, that we would get a Super Bowl Halftime Show Tribute to Recent Super Bowl Halftime Shows. That’s certainly the easiest way to sum up Super Bowl 50’s hyperactive slurry of musical half-thoughts, busily choreographed kitsch, irreconcilable tonal shifts and, periodically, brief snippets of quality music best experienced as a series of GIFs. Despite Coldplay’s status as the nominal headliners, a mid-set invasion from Beyonce and Bruno Mars brought the only thing approximating heat, while a closing clip reel of recent halftime highlights — from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson — only served to underscore the senselessness of the whole endeavor.
Coldplay, first announced as the halftime headliner back in early December, is not a popular band in certain cred-obsessed corners of the Internet. They are, however, arguably the only mass-appeal pop-rock act not yet eligible for Social Security that could make a reasonable claim to the sort of universality that has become the gig’s primary pre-requisite, so their booking certainly made sense. Yet with the far flashier Bey and Mars — both of whom turned in solid halftime slots in recent years — announced as secondary performers shortly thereafter, Coldplay seemed resigned to politely allowing themselves to be played right off their own stage.
The band’s quick, four-song medley opened the set mid-field, accompanied by some Up With People-style choreography, but with knowledge that the bigger guns were yet to come, they ultimately felt like an opening act. (Although, to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin’s credit, he at least made an effort to introduce some tiny glimmers of rawness into an inevitably canned performance, allowing several audience members to sing into his mic.) The quartet hardy had a moment to catch their breath, however, before the cameras swiveled over to the right, where Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson and a posse of leather-clad dancers slammed through a good 90 seconds of “Uptown Funk,” with a soupcon of James Brown and Morris Day thrown in for good measure.
Then, of course, it was over to Beyonce on the other side of the pitch. As evangelically, performatively worshiped on social media as Coldplay are snarkily dismissed, Bey gave an arresting, drill-squad-style rendition of her just-released single, “Formation.” Offering the show its only shiver of sex appeal, only shot of menace, and only ghost-note of political engagement, Beyonce was clearly inhabiting a different, far cooler planet than Martin, Mars & Co., but before even she could hit her groove, we were back to center stage. The motley crew then crooned an almost post-musical medley of “Fix You” with stray lines from halftime performances past, while the archival montage did all it could to make viewers forget they were supposed to be watching an actual live performance.
It was, in short, a mess, and all that was left at the end were the questions: Is it hopelessly old-fashioned to wonder if Coldplay wouldn’t have been better served simply playing a song or two in their entirety, rather than trying to cram as many orphaned choruses as possible into a short frame? (Kids these days may not have time for full LPs anymore, but surely they can handle a complete three-minute pop song without changing channels, no?) If Mars is one of the only truly old-school, razzle-dazzle song-and-dance men of his current generation, why not simply let him play every year? And as theoretically admirable as it was to see Beyonce bring a bit of meaning to her return to the Super Bowl spotlight — her dancers were outfitted in Black Panther chic, with “Formation’s” lyrics offering sly rebukes to race-based beauty standards — how much did the political subtleties of her performance really register amongst the portions of CBS’ viewership who didn’t already know to look for them?
Prior to the start of the game, Lady Gaga continued into year two of her mission to prove to everyone’s Midwestern aunt that she really can sing, delivering a strong, classy, brassy take on “The Star Spangled Banner.”