Big on emotion, with a dour tone: Super Bowl entertainment was fit for a pandemic

Perhaps it was inevitable, considering the game was being played in front of thousands of cardboard cutouts in Florida, a state that’s still experiencing almost 10,000 new cases of COVID a week, but the spectre of the pandemic lingered all over this year’s Super Bowl entertainment.

Canadian singer The Weeknd, who was said to have contributed $US7 million ($9.1 million) of his own money to ensure his plans for his halftime performance could be carried out safely, offered perhaps the darkest, most discomfiting halftime show the Super Bowl’s seen (at least ever since the morbid fallout to Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” almost two decades ago).

For starters, many would’ve already been questioning, “Who?” He’s having a moment, but this year’s halftime headliner doesn’t command the superstar status of, say, a Beyonce or last year’s JLo/Shakira pairing. The Grammy winner, real name Abel Tesfaye, is perhaps best known for his inescapable hit Can’t Feel My Face and last year’s Blinding Lights, which held the #1 spot on the ARIA charts for 11 weeks, more than any other single all year.

Already mysteriously brooding in his pop career (especially with the ultra-bloody aesthetics of his recent After Hours album cycle), the 30-year-old launched into hit Starboy backed by a choir of red-eyed demon violinists, only to then take the field – an option that was seemingly outlawed, his performance having started in the bleachers to avoid his troupe potentially infecting the players’ bubble – with a swarm of bandaged doppelgangers hobbling around like an encroaching zombie invasion.

If his intent was to evoke America’s ongoing end-times scenario, he succeeded – even if those watching at home yearned for something more escapist, sending names like Shakira and Bruno Mars, feel-good performers of halftime shows past, trending on Twitter.

The Weeknd performing at the 2021 Super Bowl on Monday. Credit:

Even the game’s infamous TV ads – which reportedly clocked around $US5.5 million per 30-second spot, and featured a distinct lack of the usual blockbuster teasers as cinemas remain largely shuttered – were smothered in pandemic-inspired nostalgia, with a Wayne’s World reunion for Uber Eats urging Americans to support their local restaurants amid the ongoing disaster.

Another viral ad for Cadillac’s new hands-free electric vehicle also turned to the ’90s, with Timothee Chalamet and Winona Ryder doing a spoof of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. A computer driving an SUV, The Weeknd’s bandaged contagion, and no more cinemas – hi football fans, who’s still optimistic about the future?

The dour tone had been set early with pre-show entertainment that was big on emotion, a tribute to America’s frontline workers. Grammy-winning artist H.E.R. delivered a guitar-shredding version of America the Beautiful that just made everyone think about Prince, and the genre-crossing national anthem from country singer Eric Church and R&B star Jazmine Sullivan was the sort of jarring cultural metaphor the Super Bowl commands.

Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate who last month won over the world at Joe Biden’s inauguration, became the first poet to ever recite a poem at the Super Bowl – a tradition I can’t imagine catching on at the State of Origin – and put a spotlight on the US’s pandemic’s true “leaders”: teachers, nurses, veterans.

“They’ve taken the lead, exceeding all expectations and limitations… We celebrate them by acting with courage and compassion, by doing what is right and just,” went Gorman’s piece.

Like The Weeknd’s performance, it brought the ongoing disaster lingering just outside the stadium’s walls right into the stands next to those cardboard cutouts.

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