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.