With the world watching, a devastating indictment of American music and culture was served up. Was MTV trying to incite and justify the jihad?
All the world is in thrall to American popular culture. The Super Bowl halftime show beamed out across the nations of the world, and to all the ships at sea. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan tuned in, perhaps understanding for the first time the true meaning of their liberation.
And why not? The American tradition of popular music is the world's richest. Take a moment to consider this list: Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, Peggy Lee, Janis Joplin, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams.
But something went wrong. When it came time to showcase our aesthetic riches to the world, all we managed to do was to turn aside momentarily from "Jacko's" pedophiliac legal entanglements and dress up his sister in red lingerie and black vinyl armor, a sort of fascist armadillo. She bounded about mumbling incoherently.
Nelly came on and "said," over and over, "It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes." Then the genius of Justin Timberlake was applied to ripping off Janet's outfit in a "wardrobe malfunction."
The feculent ego known as P. Diddy emerged from backstage, saying: "I'm the definition of half man, half drugs." He was surrounded by strippers dressed as cheerleaders who proceeded to chant, "Hey Diddy, you're so fine / You're so fine you blow my mind / Hey Diddy!" Diddy, we can assume, wrote that, which in this case means he inserted the word "Diddy" into a preexisting song.
MTV's halftime extravaganza a mind-numbing assemblage of huge, meaningless special effects, talentless schlumps, simulated decadence, and extreme musical puerility was a devastating indictment of American music and American culture. There was not a single moment of artistic meaning, or a moment free of bombastic titillation. Were these folks trying to incite and justify the jihad?
Then, of course, there were the much-anticipated advertisements. Perhaps the pressure to deliver something memorable in a 30-second ad that cost more than $1.5 million has brought a whole industry into a moral and creative crisis.
Cedric the Entertainer got a bikini wax in the name of Bud Light. Bud also explored horse flatulence in detail (it was a good preview of the halftime music). In a movie commercial, Van Helsing fought Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein in 30 seconds, continuing the replacement of the profound human psychology of horror with the machine psychology of computer animation.
The reasonably compelling football game became nothing more than a frame for infinite witlessness.
If you have money, bombastic spectacle is easier than art. One thing that has become clear about America: We have the cash to indulge in any and all possible forms of excess and corruption. The spectacle of the Super Bowl was a display of infinite, pointless, undeserved wealth and what it does to people. But beneath the elephantine emptiness of our culture there still lurks art, truth, power, vitality.
For next year's Super Bowl, how about this: cut down, scale back, think about beauty, dignity. Think about moving the people you're connecting with.
But I know I'd be talking to computer animations. I'd offer to book the great blues band Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers, or the hip-hop poetry of Atmosphere, or country music treasure George Jones. They'd just stare at me blankly and recruit another S&M armadillo.
Crispin Sartwell's most recent book is "Extreme Virtue: Truth and Leadership in Five Great American Lives" (State University of New York Press, 2003).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times