Peace, Love And Very Tight Outfits Super Bowl entertainment muddles its message

Neva Chonin, Chronicle Staff Writer

A grizzled Phil Collins unwittingly summed up this year’s Super Bowl in a pregame interview. “I don’t understand it all, but I’m always impressed by the event and the spectacle,” he confessed when asked for an Englishman’s-eye view of this quintessentially American cult.

So are we all. But if Super Bowl XXXIV was a spectacle, it was also an exercise in contrasts. It offered populism incarnate and a celebration of the little guy (in a big guy’s body) by matching two unlikely contenders — the less-than-legendary Tennessee Titans and the bipolar St. Louis Rams — in a showcase of underdogs who made good.

It also offered its usual peripheral dis play of consumerism run amok, including $130 million in advertising revenue, a four- hour pregame show and a halftime spectacle that included something old (Collins), something new (Christina Aguilera), something borrowed (Latin crooner Enrique Iglesias) and something blue (R&B soulstress Toni Braxton).


On one hand, we had athletes putting their necks and reputations on the line live in front of half the U.S. population. Their experience, as one pregame commentator noted, “is something you and I will never know or understand.”

Soul singer Seal touched on it in an ad for — hey, the ads were part of the show, too — when he rhapsodized over the joy of pure physicality and the euphoria that comes of combining brains (Yes! Strategy, my man) and brawn. Francis Ford Coppola nailed it again in another Britannica ad as he spoke of the increasingly rare thrill of watching “something that’s alive, that hasn’t been prepared.”

On the other hand, there was the packaged halftime extravaganza at the Georgia Dome in which little, including the music, was live. A play-by-play account:

Host Edward James Olmos grimly extolled global joy, compassion, kindness and love. Behind him the Walt Disney World Millennium Chamber Orchestra struck up the James Bond theme while acrobats shimmied up ropes, tribal dancers leaped and twirled spears, and robed singers wearing silver helmets covered in spiny quills — picture intergalactic sea anemones — serenaded the ascension of a giant Buddha-like puppet.


Torrential fireworks introduced Iglesias and Aguilera as they lip-synched a duet about joy, compassion, kindness and love. A dozen 6-foot, handheld puppets resembling giant wind chimes clattered happily.

“Behold the great millennium walk,” Olmos intoned, and more giant puppets lurched into the swirling spotlights to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” (recognizable as the “Free Willy” theme). Collins arrived to deliver the program’s only live song, the Grammy-nominated “Two Worlds” from Disney’s “Tarzan.” Another army of huge handheld puppets flapped and flailed in time.

Into the melee stepped Braxton, a vision in white singing in front of a monstrous, flapping dove puppet. Aguilera and Iglesias joined her, and the three combined their voices in a Disney World vision of joy and compassion. Fireworks began firing dangerously close to the quasi-Buddha as overhead cameras captured the whole shiny mess.

The pregame show was lo-fi by comparison. An impressively feisty Tina Turner ripped through “Proud Mary.” Dancers shimmied. Fireworks exploded. An army of depraved cheerleaders in slit miniskirts spelled “Tina” across the field a la Busby Berkeley.

Turner looked fine in a black leather pantsuit, even in the middle of a football field, even being hit in the face with confetti, even substituting for Madonna. She certainly had more spunk than Faith Hill, who blondly — sorry, blandly — sang the national anthem, topped with a girlish “Whoo!” She, too, wore black leather.

Additional pregame attractions included quotes from Franz Kafka and Dadaist Tristan Tzara as part of a tribute to late football great Walter Payton, and a deluxe rendition of Hank Williams Jr.’s Monday Night Football theme with Cyndi Lauper, Jon Bon Jovi and other well-worn pop stars. Now on to the real show: The thrill of watching buff men tackling, straddling and hugging each other and exchanging those infamous pats on the bottom. Whether one is a boy-loving girl or a man-hungry man, these are loaded images.

Of course, Barbara Walters didn’t get it on her pregame edition of “The View” (though the show did include a Web poll on the tightness of players’ pants), but one of her guests nailed it: “The butt. It is all about the butt.”

So let’s just break down and confess. Whether reveling in spontaneity or team spirit, pure physicality or overblown spectacle, for those at home the Super Bowl is really all about the sport of watching. And patting padded bottoms, of course.