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Is it really a Super Bowl halftime show if Americans aren’t upset?

The Weeknd has promised a ‘more respectful’ show in Tampa as the Bucs face the Chiefs. But it likely won’t be ‘Up With People’ again

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The Weeknd performs at Lollapalooza in Chicago on Aug. 4, 2018. The Weeknd is promising a PG-rated performance for his upcoming Super Bowl show in Tampa, Florida, saying the halftime entertainment will be appropriate for families.

Rob Grabowski, Invision via Associated Press

Canadian singer The Weeknd is promising a PG-rated performance for his upcoming Super Bowl show in Tampa, Florida, saying the halftime entertainment will be appropriate for families.

“I definitely want to be respectful to the viewers at home,” the singer, whose given name is Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, said at a press conference Thursday. 

If that happens, it will be a departure from the singer’s usual repertoire and also unusual for the modern halftime show itself, which in recent years has prompted thousands of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.

Last year’s show, which featured Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, was dubbed by some people on Twitter as the “Stripper Bowl” because of the singers’ sexually suggestive dances and revealing costumes. The year before, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine upset some viewers when he bared his heavily tattooed chest. 

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Shakira and Jennifer Lopez perform during halftime of the 2020 Super Bowl game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

The 2014 show featuring Madonna and M.I.A. resulted in a financial settlement and apologies from the NFL and NBC after M.I.A. made an obscene gesture during the show.

And, of course, the mother of all offenses was Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 show with Justin Timberlake. Both artists apologized for what was called an accidental exposure of Jackson’s breast on national TV, but there is lingering suspicion that the incident was planned.

Observed over time, the frequency of controversy related to the halftime show was beginning to look more like intention than malfunction, particularly since the core NFL audience is aging and the league is reportedly working to attract younger viewers.

The shows have become edgier over time, according to Yvan J. Kelly, an economics professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, and co-author of “The Economics of the Super Bowl.” There is little evidence of the ancestral lineage of today’s glitzy, multimillion-dollar productions and earlier shows that featured college marching bands and, for a few years, the wholesome musical act “Up With People,” he said.

And, ironically, the conservative Fox television network played a role in the development of today’s eyebrow-raising shows.

It’s unclear if The Weeknd’s promise to be family-friendly came at the directive of the NFL or was a decision by the singer himself. It’s also unclear if The Weeknd’s idea of “respectful” is a vision that will be shared by socially conservative Americans. 

But in a country of 328 million people who are racially, economically and culturally diverse, it would be an extraordinary feat to perform for 12 minutes without offending at least a couple of million of them, especially when the singer is a provocative storyteller who has recently taken to performing with his face covered with bandages.

In fact, if some Americans aren’t upset, is it really a Super Bowl halftime show?

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Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson are seen during their performance just before he pulled off the covering to her right breast during the halftime performance at the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, Sunday Feb. 1, 2004.

David Phillip, Associated Press

Is Fox to blame?

Like everything else surrounding the Super Bowl, today’s halftime show is almost unrecognizable from its earliest renditions.

The marching bands of the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona and Grambling College (now Grambling State University) performed at the half of the first Super Bowl, held in Los Angeles in 1967, according to Peter Hopsicker and Mark Dyreson, editors of “A Half Century of Super Bowls.” 

“From many perspectives, the inaugural Super Bowl fell short of achieving its ‘super’ superlative. The game was hardly the cultural touchstone it would become in American society,” Hopsicker and Dyreson wrote.

There were 35,000 empty seats in the Los Angeles stadium, leading then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to declare, “Never again is there going to be a championship game that isn’t a sellout.”

The Grambling marching band was back the next year, and an Air Force flyover was added. But the halftime show didn’t change significantly until early in the 1990s, said Kelly, co-author of “The Economics of the Super Bowl,” along with David Berri and Victor Matheson.

That change occurred because of a “watershed moment” in 1992 involving the then-fledgling Fox television network.

CBS was broadcasting the Super Bowl that year, and instead of surrendering the ratings, Fox decided to broadcast a live sketch from the comedy show “In Living Color” during halftime. The network ran ads prior to the event encouraging viewers to change the channel to Fox while the players were off the field. It was a gamble that worked.

Nearly 29 million people tuned into Fox when the second quarter ended, and not all of them returned to the game for the second half. “The Super Bowl’s ratings for the second half crashed by 10 points,” David Peisner wrote for Rolling Stone.

The next year, Kelly said, Fox had the rights to the Super Bowl and introduced the first superstar act: Michael Jackson. From then on, the show was a flamboyant snowball of a spectacle that seems to get bigger each year. 

And Peisner’s description of the Fox experiment — a “sweet spot: just enough controversy to get people talking, not enough to incur legal action” — has come to reliably describe the halftime show as well.

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Justin Timberlake performs during halftime of the 2018 NFL Super Bowl game Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis.

Morry Gash, Associated Press

A unifying event

Hopsicker, professor of kinesiology and associate dean for academic affairs at the Pennsylvania State University, Altoona College, said that despite the outrage that provocative halftime shows can generate, the Super Bowl is one of America’s most unifying events.

“As I tell my students, it’s one of the few times in our life experiences when what you’re doing and what you’re watching is being engaged in by most of the country you live in. Try to wrap your head around that; there’s not really any other time we do that,” Hopsicker said.

According to Nielsen ratings, two-thirds or more of Americans are doing something Super Bowl-related on the day of the game. 

The halftime show is just a part of the Super Bowl experience, which also includes parties, special foods, the commercials and, for those interested, 60 minutes of football (which this year features a ratings-boosting matchup between celebrity quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kanas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes). There’s division among Americans, of course, in who they root for, but as a cultural event, there is a general sense of unity in the days leading up to the event, Hopsicker said.

After the game is when that shared sense of unity frays again, and negative reaction to the halftime show often figures into that post-analysis, he said. “Now we go back to — dare I say real life? I believe in this, you believe in that, and how did that play out in the Super Bowl?”

Because the Super Bowl has become such a defining event for America — a pageant-like performance to show the world the country’s best — the backlash over halftime shows can even be seen as a positive, highlighting our right to free speech, Hopsicker said.

“American culture allows for publicly challenging opinions. That’s one of the things that makes us American, and the Super Bowl being an iconic American event, it’s another way for us to demonstrate to the rest of the world, ‘Hey, we can do this’ (whereas) in other places, you really can’t.”

As for what to expect on Sunday when The Weeknd takes the stage around 6:30 p.m. Mountain time on CBS, the performer isn’t giving away any details. He has said, however, that he’s putting millions of dollars of his own money into the performance, in addition to the estimated tens of millions provided by the NFL for the production, and that some of the performance will take place in the stands, instead of the stage on the field.

In addition to saying the performance will be “PG,” he said at the news conference that the show will incorporate a storyline from his previous music videos, some of which were bloody and violent, all while striving to be “respectful” to families at home. If there is controversy related to the show, it might be political.

In response to a question about whether the performance will make reference to “recent uprisings in Black communities,” he replied, “You’re gonna have to see on Sunday. But I don’t like to spoon-feed the audience. Hopefully, they can come up with some of their own theories and conclusions for what the show is saying and the story I’m telling with the performance.”

And in case you need it after the show, the place to go to file a complaint is the Customer Complaint Center on Fcc.gov.