You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Why Rihanna Saying No to the Super Bowl Matters (Column)

The NFL has courted superstars for years, but its stances are pushing them away

From the moment news broke that Maroon 5 was to be this year’s Super Bowl halftime show headliner, it seemed clear that there was something more afoot. After all, this is a performance that typically is viewed by even more people who tune into the game itself. And that game is TV’s marquee event of the year, the one remaining broadcast with the extant power to bring together viewers of all stripes, if only to take in the spectacle. The artists booked usually bring a bit of spectacle themselves. While taking nothing away from the success Adam Levine and his band have enjoyed, there’s a bit of a differential in star wattage between the frontman seen on every episode of “The Voice” and incandescent past Super Bowl stars like Madonna, or Katy Perry, or Bruno Mars, or Beyoncé (twice!).

Or Rihanna. The megastar, whose profile certainly suits that of a performer taking on the most-watched and speculated-about stage on Earth, is reported to have turned down the booking in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. The former NFL quarterback whose exile from the league, perceived as being due to his protests during the ritual performance of the national anthem at games, has been one of several recent sources of scandal for America’s most popular sporting event. And Rihanna’s reported choice not to participate makes clear that, even as ratings for football are up, the sport sits on one side of a culture war, while many of the stars it’s spent so much time and energy trying to bring over as allies are firmly planted in the opposing end zone.

In recent years, the Super Bowl halftime show has been a mutually beneficial enterprise for stars and the NFL. The musicians, encouraged to put on ambitious shows that cover their entire bodies of work, see both a bump in sales (most recently experienced by this year’s performer, Justin Timberlake) and a leveling-up in their reputations. To choose one example: Beyoncé was not, quite, yet the Beyoncé we currently know when she took the stage in 2013. But after a dazzlingly ambitious run through her catalogue, she’d defined her place in the pop ecosystem, and primed the public for the release of her category-breaking self-titled album later that year. When she took the stage again in 2016, she redefined herself again as a political actor, choosing costumes for her dancers seemingly inflected by Black Panther aesthetics and debuting her new single “Formation” before as wide an audience as could ever exist.

That’s the sort of moment Rihanna could have enjoyed — a career-capping performance reframing her for her next decade of artistry and public life. (She’s been in contention for a while: As early as 2014, she was reported to be on the “shortlist” for halftime with two other acts, both of which ended up eventually taking the stage.) But in 2018, the venue matters more than the viewership. To perform at the Super Bowl means something different than it might have in an era before Kaepernick became one of several news stories vexing the NFL, along with widespread critiques of general mishandling of broader protests during the national anthem, fueled by the interference of President Trump, and persistent news about the brain damage endured on the gridiron. As news about chronic traumatic encephalopathy spread, it was surprising to see stars like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga accept the Super Bowl booking, but they had messages to send: Beyoncé communicating all she had to through “Formation,” Gaga using the platform to send messages of unity and inclusion in the immediate aftermath of the divisive 2016 election.

But despite the opportunities the audience provides, the stage brings with it too much baggage. Owners have individually shunned Kaepernick, and the league in general has instituted a policy that moves protests during the anthem to locker rooms, away from public view; by reportedly declining the Super Bowl, Rihanna effectively did the same thing, moving her performance off the NFL’s airtime and onto her social channels. She is able to say vastly more through her absence. Through her music, through thriving beauty and fashion lines, and, crucially, though endless content on social media, Rihanna has cultivated a vast and targeted fandom that trusts her to balance artistic productivity with a loyalty to her own brand. That the most aggressively forward-facing platform in the world isn’t a fit only means she can devote more energy to her direct broadcast to her fans. (With some 65 million Instagram followers, how many more passive Super Bowl watchers does she need on her side?)

The NFL has spent years courting superstars, planting them at halftime and seeding them throughout the season, as witnessed by Carrie Underwood’s continued gig singing the theme song for NBC’s Sunday-night broadcast or this year, rising singer Shawn Mendes performing at the NFL kickoff. That the league has grown toxic at the exact moment that pop icons no longer need it seems like an interesting historical accident, or a divergence that had been building for some time. For years, the entertainment portion of football was more or less post-football — so far removed from the events on the field that it was effectively a little concert meant to entice viewers who wouldn’t otherwise have tuned in. But in an era of rapid response by fans and detractors alike, context matters. And it’s easy to imagine that many more stars at Rihanna’s level of ultra-fame will similarly step away from a sport that has already taken a larger step away from the concerns of so many outside its sizable base.

The NFL has proven that they’re catering to their core fans, and one of biggest pop stars out there chose simply to follow suit. When it comes to who can motivate more people, I’d bet on Rihanna.

More Music

  • First still from the set of

    Composer Michael Giacchino on Setting the Right Tone for 'Jojo Rabbit'

    Michael Giacchino is a widely respected film composer, with an Oscar and a Grammy for “Up” and an Emmy for “Lost,” as well as a Grammy for “Ratatouille.” He is stirring up Oscar buzz again with his score for Fox Searchlight’s “Jojo Rabbit,” written and directed by Taika Waititi. Giacchino talked with Variety about the [...]

  • Album Review: The Muffs' 'No Holiday'

    Album Review: The Muffs' 'No Holiday'

    It is heartbreaking that Kim Shattuck, the forthright singer and cocksure songwriter for the Muffs, died at the beginning of October. Renowned for her short, sharp brand of power-pop punk song, yearning but prickly lyrics, and screamy, shredded vocals with a tender, expressive edge, Shattuck — who spent time in the Pandoras, the Coolies and, for [...]

  • Hear Prince's Acoustic Demo of 'I

    Hear Prince's Acoustic Demo of 'I Feel for You'

    In honor of the 40th anniversary of Prince’s self-titled second album, “Prince” — which was released on October 19, 1979 — late artist’s estate and Warner Records have released a previously uncirculated, solo acoustic demo recording of his song “I Feel for You,” available on streaming services and as a limited-run 7” vinyl single. The demo features [...]

  • Issa Rae Launches Raedio Label With

    Issa Rae Launches Raedio Label With Atlantic; Watch First Release, TeaMarrr’s ‘Kinda Love’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Raedio, the new label co-founded by Emmy-nominated actress-producer-writer Issa Rae, and Atlantic Records have announced a new partnership, which kicks off with today’s release of the new single, “Kinda Love,” by singer-rapper TeaMarrr. The companion visual, directed by child (Ari Lennox, Lucky Daye), features cameos from Rae and comedian Jessie Woo — watch it below. [...]

  • Fall Out Boy - Patrick StumpLeeds

    Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump to Release 'Spell' Soundtrack, Hear First Single Here

    Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump continues his extensive work in the film/TV soundtrack realm with the release of “Spell,” which comes on Nov. 1 on Milan Records through Sony Music Masterworks. The soundtrack features Stump’s music from Crush Pictures’ psych-thriller, including the ballad “Deep Blue Love.” a soulful, blues-tinged ballad performed by Stump and [...]

  • Nancy Matalon

    Spirit Music Group Names Nancy Matalon VP of A&R, Announces Additional Hires

    Publishing company Spirit Music Group, which recently saw a $350 million recapitalization, has made some key staffing moves. Nancy Matalon, a veteran A&R executive who’s worked wit the likes of Fergie, Jennifer Lopez, Public Enemy and Echosmith, among others, has been appointed vice president of A&R. In addition, Spirit has promoted Melanie Santa Rosa to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content