Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Super Bowl Halftime Show and the History of Rock n' Roll

Since the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” debacle of 2004, the National Football League (NFL) has turned to “safe” musicians with traditional star power for its Super Bowl halftime shows.  ‘60s icons such as Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and the Who have performed as well as ’80s stars like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Prince.  The NFL’s choices reflect the decline of the culture wars of the 1960s as well as the enduring power of artists from the mass culture era of the 1980s.

When rock n’ roll emerged out of a fusion of rhythm and blues, country, and gospel in the 1950s, it was immediately controversial.  The backlash against artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard led to a domestication of the music by the early 60s.  Groups like Frankie Avalon and the Four Seasons, whose story has been revived in recent years by the musical “Jersey Boys,” and others promoted a brand of music that lacked the aggressive sexuality of the early rock n’ roll.  Some observers even suggested that rock was going to fade away.

The emergence of the Beatles and the British Invasion bands of the mid-1960s dispelled such thoughts.  Rock music reached new heights and these groups were often controversial given the social battles of the period.  The Beatles drew the ire of many Christians when John Lennon suggested that the Fab Four were “bigger than Jesus.”  The Rolling Stones, who sought to be more confrontational than the Beatles, were particularly galling to traditionally-minded people in the era of the “generation gap” as young and old clashed over the counterculture, civil rights, and Vietnam.  In 1966, a poll showed that rock was the most unpopular music in the nation, disliked by almost half of adults (“Forty Years After Woodstock, a Gentler Generation Gap,” p. 2).

As time passed and the baby boomers aged, the music of the 1960s became “classic rock” and Generations X and Y embraced it with enthusiasm.  A recent survey revealed that the Beatles are virtually the favorite band of both people between ages 50 and 64 as well as those between ages 16 and 29.  Rock n’ roll is now the most popular music of every age group except those 65 and older (“Forty Years After Woodstock,” 18, 3).   As a result, the 60s counterculture is now prime material for the family-friendly halftime show.

Similarly, once-polarizing 80s performers like Madonna, who courted controversy with her songs and videos during the Reagan years, is now acceptable.  The Material Girl, like Springsteen and Prince, was a star of the last era of mass culture in music.  As I noted in my post on the evolution of the music industry, http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2011/11/20th-anniversary-albums-and-changing.html, the MTV/FM radio era of the 80s and early 90s that gave musicians a wide audience has faded, leaving fewer acts that can garner the attention of the nation.  Last year’s disappointing performance by a more contemporary group, the Black Eyed Peas, demonstrated this phenomenon as the Peas had to cover other artists’ songs during their show.  They simply did not have a broad enough catalog of their own recognizable hits.

But there is a problem the NFL will have to face soon as the league is fast running out of entertainment options.   There are no remaining 60s artists able to perform and the supply of 80s and 90s stars is also rapidly diminishing.   I predict we will be watching Green Day at a Super Bowl halftime in the near future.

Sources:  “Forty Years After Woodstock, a Gentler Generation Gap,” Pew Research Center, August 12, 2009

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