Thumbs Up (And Finger Up) For the Halftime Show

What would have been a Super Bowl halftime show memorable for a truly American celebration of excess is being overshadowed today by yet another brush with bad taste – ironically, it was the first time since we all got a look at Janet Jackson's breast that the NFL had dared to have a woman headlining the halftime show.

Madonna had invited Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. to perform with her on “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the first single from her upcoming CD. Minaj had a nipple slip on Good Morning America this past summer, but she kept herself under wraps this time. Likewise, there were no issues with two other guests: Cee Lo Green, whose best known song has the F-word in its title; and LMFAO, whose very name is obscene if you don’t use the acronym.

But with the camera on M.I.A., who is best known for the omnipresent “Paper Planes” and for once performing at the Grammys on the verge of giving birth, the British-born singer chose to raise her middle finger to the billion or so viewers at home. The action was in plain sight, though some viewers might have missed it given the overall spectacle and quick camera cuts.

NBC apologized for airing what it called a “spontaneous gesture,” though the network also took pains to remind folks that the NFL ultimately signed off on approving the production of and participants in the halftime show. The league also apologized, but added that no one would have seen a thing had NBC been a little faster with the delete button. M.I.A. has yet to say a thing, most notably on the subject of whether the finger was really all that spontaneous. Given her stance as a self-consciously political artist – she has been accused of justifying terrorism in Sri Lanka – that’s going to be hard for many people to swallow. Bottom line is that once you’ve agreed to perform on the Super Bowl halftime show dressed as a cheerleader in ancient Egypt, you’ve given up the right to call yourself edgy.

As for the 99.9 percent of the halftime show that didn’t feature M.I.A., you can’t accuse Madonna of skimping on the spectacle.  She kicked off with “Vogue,” accompanied by dancers dressed as Roman soldiers (a salute to the NFL’s habit of denoting Super Bowls with Roman numerals, perhaps). Male viewers at home who aren’t accustomed to this much homoeroticism in their entertainment were no doubt wondering what was going on. She then segued into “Music,” which was highlighted by some extraordinarily athletic backup dancers cavorting on bleachers, and a dorky-looking acrobat bouncing on a tightrope.

These first few songs appeared to be lip-synced (the instrumental parts were obviously pre-recorded), but there might have some live singing on the finale, “Like a Prayer,” which feature Cee Lo first in a drum major’s uniform and later in a black robe that made him look like a funky Dumbledore. The whole thing was basically insane, and in a good way, not in a “why are the Black Eyed Peas acting like space aliens?” way.

Verdict: This halftime show was definitely a step below the standards set by Prince five years ago and U2 ten years ago, but it belongs in that next tier. Not bad for someone who had her first hit when Eli Manning was still in diapers.