The Super Bowl Needs a Hip-Hop Halftime Show

The scandal-weary NFL still has cold feet and memories of nipple-gate.

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Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Dear NFL:

It’s that time of year again. Your favorite time of year, I would imagine. The Super Bowl is what we all look forward to. But the hyped halftime show—the alleged highlight of the NFL Championship for the greater part of its 43-year history—has been a 50-50 viewing option for me over the years. 

The new millenium brought a reduced enthusiasm in halftime viewership, and in 2004 NFL marketing mavens decided to turn the hype machine up another level with a halftime show that featured Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, Kid Rock, P. Diddy and Nelly for Super Bowl XXXVII. The lineup was meticulously designed to represent a broad racial demographic and artistic spectrum. Paraphrasing Michael Bivens, it was hip-hop, smoothed out with an R&B feel to it.

Those chosen were urban artists with an unusually large pop-culture fan base. This likely would have been the beginning of many urban acts to follow, but "the Incident" occurred, altering the halftime show selection for years to come. While the sultry Janet Jackson was performing with then-soul music up-and-comer Justin Timberlake, Jackson’s right nipple was briefly exposed to thousands of fans. Some conspiracy theorists believed that Jackson and Timberlake had planned the debacle all along, but even they could not have imagined the repercussions.

In a dubious display of hypocrisy by the NFL (whose many beer sponsors often use sex to sell its products), CBS and the politically motivated FCC, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were raked across the coals. Critics included President George W. Bush and then FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Powell called the aptly named nipple-gate scandal "a classless, crass, deplorable stunt" and ordered a thorough and swift investigation into the matter. People were sued, apologies were made and young football fans had to sit through another six years of halftime shows that were better suited for their parents because of it. 

In the beginning, the musical celebration was largely an afterthought, as traditional college marching bands represented the core of the presentation. HBCU bands performed at the Super Bowl for the majority of its first 14 years in existence. Grambling University, Florida A&M University and Southern University all have performed at halftime at least twice from 1967 through 1981. The University of Arizona, Southeast Missouri State, USC, Florida State and the University of Florida have appeared as well.

However, starting in 1970 with a performance by Carol Channing, the Super Bowl slowly began to switch from a college-style halftime celebration to an ensemble-oriented halftime offering. Starting in 1971 the entertainment ensemble Up With People would begin its infrequent appearances at the Super Bowl. This lasted until 1986, and they would return in 1991 to perform the pregame show at Super Bowl XXV. The 2009 documentary film Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With the People Story reveals that the group, which was funded by Halliburton, General Motors, Exxon and Searle, was created to counter the hippie culture that was prevalent in the '60s and '70s, and espoused extreme right-wing political views.

The Black Eyed Peas were the first hip-hop act to ever headline the halftime special, in 2011 for Super Bowl XLVII, but even with the addition of Usher and Slash of Guns & Roses to the show, it was rather vanilla and lacked any discernible edge. Edge is the hallmark of modern urban music. It wasn’t really hip-hop music and could hardly be considered urban. Madonna’s halftime show for Super Bowl XLVI was very hip-hop-themed. She was 51 at the time and needed to make herself relevant to a generation of viewers who weren’t even alive in the '80s and would not have watched her show if not for the addition of rappers Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.

However, the urbanization of the halftime show took yet another hit when M.I.A. gave the middle finger to the crowd and it was caught on camera. Madonna acted like she was pissed amid the media firestorm, but probably encouraged the behavior. After all, she does have a risqué reputation herself.

Beyoncé rocked the main stage last year. She was sexy, sultry and not the least bit controversial in her delivery (at least at that time). She’s the perfect blend of pop and soul, and it went off without a hitch. Her success likely played a role in the pop-soul balance of the next act.

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