Super Bowl LI featured a historic comeback and the first overtime in the history of the game, but the biggest attraction for television viewers did not involve any of the athletes on the field.
Viewership peaked at 117.5 million during Lady Gaga’s 13 minute halftime performance. According to Variety, this was the fourth consecutive year that halftime viewership outpaced average viewership for the game.
The popularity of the entertainers who have performed during Super Bowl halftimes certainly accounts for the high numbers, but it is not the only factor. In an era when iTunes, satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify and other streaming services have made it possible for people to choose the type of music they listen to based on their own individual preferences, Super Bowl halftimes have become a ritual that large diverse audiences watch regardless of their musical tastes.
In a passage from his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen, who performed at the 2009 Super Bowl, explained the significance of playing to an audience that included people other than E Street Band’s loyal and enthusiastic fans.
“Since the inception of our band it’s been our ambition to play for everyone,” he wrote in his Born to Run book. “We’ve achieved a lot but we haven’t achieved that. Our audience remains tribal… that is, predominantly white… Today we play for everyone.”
Springsteen makes an excellent point. I’m a Springsteen fan so of course I watched him and the band tear through "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run,” “Working on a Dream" and "Glory Days" in 2009, but I also watched Bruno Mars, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga perform during Super Bowl halftimes even though my own musical tastes lean more toward classic rock.
Watching the Super Bowl halftime is much like the ritual of watching the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights during the 1950s and '60s. We all tuned in every Sunday evening regardless of who was on the program.
Of course, there were far fewer choices at the time. Cable television, VCRs, DVRs and online video were not available. I am glad we have so many options today. Thanks to the Internet, I can listen to my favorite artists at any time, and YouTube makes it possible to find rare and obscure recordings with just a few clicks of a mouse.
But I also make a concerted effort to listen to new music – and not just on Super Bowl Sunday. Since I once made my living as a music journalist, I want to be able to speak about today’s entertainers in an informed and educated manner.
And since I also made a living covering politics for several years, I see a broader lesson we can learn from the music world. If making an effort to learn more about entertainers whose work may not match one’s own musical tastes makes us more informed and educated about the industry, why not do the same when it comes to political ideology?