The safe bet is that if overt politics infiltrate the Super Bowl, it will happen before the game itself starts — either by players kneeling in protest or through patriotically loaded performances, like Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that took on special resonance during Operation Desert Storm.
By contrast, the Super Bowl halftime show traditionally aims to entertain crowds through popular music, beginning with marching bands in the 1960s and evolving to today’s star-studded musical spectacle. But while such performances seem to eschew overt political messages like taking a knee during the anthem, the halftime shows are, in fact, ideologically loaded because they aim to be culturally relevant. By attempting to create a national identity, the halftime show becomes a battleground over what social and cultural values should be celebrated as American.
This has been true from the very beginnings of the Super Bowl. At Super Bowl I in 1967, which featured the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs vying for the championship, the nation’s problem with racism was laid bare during the halftime show. In a performance containing a “musical visit to the four corners of the United States,” the University of Arizona marching band honored the American South by marching into the formation of a river steamboat and performing the Dixie anthem “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” The song focused on a steamboat traveling on the Mississippi River in the 19th century to receive a cargo of cotton from southern plantations. It was once sung on Broadway by Judy Garland in a performance that included a minstrel sequence and performers in blackface.
Later in the show, the Arizona band welcomed the Grambling State University (then Grambling College) marching band to join them. The historically black college ensemble had been watching the show the entire time from the sidelines — underscoring the awkwardness of including a racist anthem in the performance.
A wealth of performers joined the two bands, including “dancing girls in Indian costumes,” as the press put it in the days after the game, and the performance ended with the patriotic tune, “This Is My Country.” This scenario exposed how racism was embedded in the very fabric of American identity and its cultural representations in the 1960s. A supposedly wholesome, patriotic celebration included a racist anthem and costumes that insulted a second ethnic group, even while striving for inclusiveness.
In the 1970s and 1980s, other halftime performers sent ideological messages at the big game. The mega musical group Up With People performed at four Super Bowls: 1976 in Miami, 1980 in Pasadena, 1982 in Detroit and 1986 in New Orleans. Up With People was a youth-outreach program of the Moral Re-Armament movement of the early to mid-20th century, which focused on a renewed spirituality in the United States.
Singing songs such as “Surfin USA,” the group exhibited a wholesome and clean-cut style, in direct contrast to the 1960s and 1970s counterculture and hippie movements. As Herbert Allen, the musical director, put it, the group was “a revolt against the cynicism and moral relativism” of the era and they had “a determination to take a responsible part in the task of society and nation building.” The Super Bowl allowed the group to demonstrate a cultural spiritualism they deemed important to the construction of American identity.
But what was not celebrated on the stage mattered as well. Although the band, according to one member, had “a huge percentage of gay guys,” there was a “supposition that no one was gay.” Closeting sexual identity reflected a political choice to adhere to the cultural landscape shaped by the Christian Right and the Reagan administration.
The ideologies and messaging of the halftime shows aren’t always culturally conservative, and in recent years have notably shifted to celebrating values advocated by the political left. During the halftime of Super Bowl 50, featuring the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, Beyoncé stole the show with her performance of what the HuffPost called the “unapologetically black” song “Formation,” which was released just a day before the game. Dancers donned the black berets made famous by the Black Panthers and formed an X on the field in honor of controversial political activist and civil rights leader Malcolm X. After the show, some of the performers held a sign in honor of Mario Woods, a black man shot and killed by San Francisco police officers a few months before the game. The performance sent cultural messages aligned with the hugely divisive, but growing, #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Beyoncé and the other performers used their show to bring the movement’s message and goals to a broader audience, and did so through the guise of entertainment, a trend in the halftime shows since the 1960s. Thus, while these spectacles don’t always make overt political statements like we often see in the pregame festivities or this year’s protests, they have turned into an arena in which cultural values battle for representation and validation. Entertainers craft messages that symbolize various (and sometimes competing) versions of American identity in an attempt to sway the public to their vision for the nation.
While many will be on guard looking for politics during the pomp and pageantry before the Eagles and the Patriots kickoff (and wondering how Trump might respond on Twitter), we also ought to be watching Justin Timberlake’s halftime show to see what messages he sends, and whether they accentuate the cultural narratives and schisms in our country and help sort out what it means to be an American in 2018.