With Sunday night’s (Feb. 4) Super Bowl behing held in Atlanta, the Halftime Show was an opportunity to highlight the city’s rich musical history and continuing legacy.
Before the official performer was revealed months ago, fans speculated wildly as to who would be perfect for the show: a legendary act like OutKast reunited on that stage would be major, or maybe a beloved contemporary superstar act like Future or Migos? This was a chance for the NFL to attempt to connect with fans in one of its most high-profile cities. But this was an awkward year to attempt such a connection — and it was going to be, even if you had a litany of Hotlanta representers taking the stage.
This year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show was already a major topic long before the game or show took place, and it wasn’t just for the usual reasons. When it was announced in November that Maroon 5 would be taking the stage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, there was immediately discussion regarding not only Atlanta hip-hop, but representation, and accusations of ongoing blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick by the NFL. Several artists revealed that they’d declined invitations to perform at the big game as a show of solidarity with the quarterback, who drew a spotlight via protesting police violence against Black citizens by kneeling during the National Anthem before games.
There was criticism of rapper Travis Scott agreeing to perform as Maroon 5’s guest, and it came after superstar JAY-Z announced he wouldn’t take part in the show. Soul icon and Atlanta native Gladys Knight also faced a backlash after revealing that she would be singing the pre-game National Anthem. But the NFL officially confirmed in January that in addition to Scott, Big Boi of OutKast would be joining him for the performance; so despite the controversies, there would be some Atlanta spirit on that stage. (The band also made a charitable donation along with the NFL to Big Brothers Big Sisters America, partly in response to the backlash, while Levine claimed in an Entertainment Tonight interview, “I’m not in the right profession if I can’t handle a little bit of controversy… we expected it. We’d like to move on from it and speak through the music.”)
The show opened with Maroon 5 launching into their 2003 breakthrough hit “Harder To Breathe,” as smoke billowed up from the stage and the audience cheered as Adam Levine and Co. offered a fairly straightforward take on their smash early singles (“This Love” followed “…Breathe” on the set list), with flames bursting periodically behind them.Then, with a classic Spongebob Squarepants clip announcing his arrival, Travis Scott “dropped” (via an animated fireball projected onto the stage) in to perform his hit “SICKO MODE,” with the requisite mutes for non-Super Bowl-friendly lyrics. Scott ended things with a stage dive that probably felt more dramatic than it looked.
As things switched back to focusing on Maroon 5, the band launched into their hit “Girls Like You.” The Hot 100-topping smash features Cardi B, but the rapper reportedly turned down an invite to appear during the show. The band then once again trotted out an oldie: — “She Will Be Loved” from their blockbuster debut Songs About Jane — before Atlanta finally showed up, as Big Boi rolled to the stage in a classic Cadillac, sporting a fur coat and requisite ATL cap, with his Purple Ribbon All-Stars supergroup’s “Kryptonite” blaring behind him. The Georgia rap godfather then launched into his 2003 classic “The Way You Move,” with Sleepy Brown and Levine providing backing vocals. Exiting stage right to chants of “ATL, ho,” Big Boi’s moment was brief, as things swung back to Maroon 5 and the band launched into another hit, 2014’s “Sugar.” Most predictably, closed things with that earworm from almost a decade ago, “Moves Like Jagger.”
The reaction from social media was fairly middling, at best. Fans were lukewarm on Scott’s performance, and underwhelmed by what felt like a fairly by-the-numbers show. There was also no shortage of jokes about the shirtless Levine’s bared nipples — a pointed reference to Janet Jackson’s infamous controversy at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004, and the subsequent CBS-led backlash that permanently affected her career.
Atlanta has been centered in popular music for a generation now, and this would have been a great time to highlight that. Future has a just-released album, local legend Jermaine Dupri is a revered hitmaker who could have brought out a litany of superstar guests to perform well-known chart-toppers that would appeal to multiple generations; Usher is another veteran star with multi-genre, multi-generational appeal.
However, following a petition with over 100,000 signatures to get the band not to perform — and with pop megastars like Rihanna opting to stay away from the big game — it was a complex time to try and pay tribute to ATL’s musical legacy. Artists who took part might not have been warmly received given the timing and, the NFL and Pepsi would have seemed like hollow panderers in trying to win the people by putting together a hometown lovefest. Would it have gone over better than Maroon 5 and their pair of guests? We’ll never know.
But we do know that the show that we got was just okay. On the heels of some of the Super Bowl’s most talked-about performances (Katy Perry, Coldplay with Bruno Mars and Beyonce, Lady Gaga), this year’s halftime felt safe. Maybe that’s what most of us expected. Maybe that’s all it could have been.