A main requirement for a halftime performer at the Super Bowl is indestructibility. Too much is on the line for anything but. The halftime show is time-constrained, highly choreographed and responsible for keeping hundreds of millions of people around the world entertained between aggressive bursts of football and extremely expensive bursts of commercials. It is a show, but more important, it is the glue that holds the night together, the short money that keeps the long money flowing.
But there was no way to anticipate that the reliably malfunction-free Beyoncé arriving in New Orleans for her turn at immortality would be a vulnerable one. At the presidential inauguration ceremony last month, she sang the national anthem over a prerecorded vocal track, leading to a minor scandal, putting her on the defensive. Beyoncé, bionic, isn’t used to having her reputation impugned. Vulnerability is not her bag,
She is, though, up to the challenge — in this case, the conundrum of how to make her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show, which she had been planning for months, not only a spectacle in its own right, but also a conclusion to the messy affair.
And so for 12 or so minutes at the center of the Superdome field on Sunday night, she balanced explosions and humanity, imperiousness with warmth, an arena-ready sense of scale with a microscopic approach to the details of her vocals. Amid all the loudness were small things to indicate Beyoncé was answering her skeptics, quietly but effectively.
First, there was the voice, or rather, the myriad voices. After emerging on stage accompanied by a Vince Lombardi speech — “The spirit, the will to win and the will to excel, these are the things that endure,” and so on — she played with “Love on Top” like Play-Doh, stretching out some parts, tearing off little bits here and there, switching from fast to slow, all more or less a cappella.
At the end of “Crazy in Love,” she was virtually growling, giving that song a ferocity it has never before had. During “Baby Boy,” she maniacally screamed “dutty wine!” over and over again, and on “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” her voice turned grimy, burrowing into primal Bessie Smith territory.
What’s more, she filled the television screen, a human pneumatic drill of intensity, constantly bouncing and whirring. This is part of what set her apart from some past performers, whose songs were big enough, but whose attitude and presentation weren’t. At the beginning of “Crazy in Love,” she dropped to one knee, then sprawled on her back, continuing her choreography for the cameras in the sky.
She opened “End of Time” with ferocious stomping, flailed madly during “Single Ladies” and, during “Baby Boy,” was accompanied by a screen full of Beyoncés, arranged in careful placement like a Vanessa Beecroft installation.
Beyoncé’s image-restoration campaign actually began days before the game. On Instagram and Tumblr, she posted photos of casual moments between what were certainly strenuous rehearsals, including one in which she wore a sweatshirt that read “Can I live?” On Thursday, she divebombed into her official news conference with a sterling rendition of the national anthem, for which she made the accumulated reporters and photographers stand at attention and which she concluded with the primo dirt-off-her-shoulder taunt, “Any questions?” (Maybe just one. Regarding the inauguration, one brave, or comic, journalist asked, “Did any sound come out of your vocal cords?”)
These are Beyoncé’s little pokes. She’s not the sort to resort to vulgarity, or subversion, or insubordination. She retaliates with intensity and fervor, and the sort of wink that doesn’t invite a reply.
Her show was never going to be scandalous, even if a scandal was hovering over it. Certainly she would never be as risqué as Prince, who played in 2007, and who she said was her favorite halftime performer in an interview with the NFL Network. She would never risk a malfunction, wardrobe or otherwise, that would recall the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake imbroglio of 2004.
(That year, Beyoncé happened to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl in her native Houston, when Destiny’s Child was still a going concern, and she had yet to arrive fully into her mojo.)
The most uncertainty she allowed was the will-they-or-won’t-they chatter about a Destiny’s Child reunion during her set, although by showtime, it was clear it was happening. Late in her set, Beyoncé was joined by Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, her former sidekicks, for snippets of “Bootylicious” and “Independent Women Part I.”
Rowland and Williams then helped Beyoncé out on “Single Ladies.”
This was not only an act of generosity to her former group mates, and a bone thrown to longtime fans, but also a tacit admission that Beyoncé’s biggest hits as a solo artist — excluding “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love” — don’t have the caffeinated quality that makes for great halftime entertainment.
Destiny’s Child’s best songs were their most energetic, and the pyrotechnics the threesome had — both in harmonies and in the actual fire surrounding them on stage — were impressive. (Thankfully, they skipped the deeply temperate “Nuclear,” the first new Destiny’s Child recording in eight years, which was released last month.)
After Rowland and Williams left the stage, Beyoncé brought the arena to a hush with “Halo,” the ethereal ballad that closed her set.
Her voice sounded just a tad deflated here, but by design. After 10 minutes of extravaganza, she wanted to leave with something tactile.
Beyoncé the machine had made her point. This was proof of life.
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