By Horace Campbell
On Sunday 5 February 2012 one of the biggest spectacles in the US entertainment and sports world took place: Super Bowl XLVI, the annual championship game of American football. It was during the half-time show while over 111 million spectators watched when the world famous songstress Madonna unveiled her statement of World Peace. These two words were released as a puff of smoke after she sang one of her more well-known songs, ‘Like a Prayer.’
The Super Bowl halftime show is one of the most coveted slots in the United States’ entertainment calendar. Remarkably, this artiste was able to sing a medley of eight songs in ten minutes. In those ten minutes Madonna brought out a performance that must have taken months of rehearsing, using the most advanced technology and working with the circus entertainment company, Cirque du Soleil. Drawing on the talents of other younger radical and anti-imperialist artists such as Nicki Minaj and M.I.A, along with others such as LMFAO and Cee Lo Green, Madonna brought out collaboration. With her ‘World Peace’ statement, she intended the halftime show to make a statement to the US society to get off its militaristic path. There are sections of the militaristic wing of the United States which are currently in a fever pitch of discussion about, ‘Will Israel Attack Iran’?
There is not a day where there is no speculation in the media about whether the Israelis will blackmail Obama into joining Israel in an attack on Iran. Ira Chernus in his submission, ‘New York Times Hypes Israeli Attack On Iran’ has drawn attention to how mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are hyping the question of war against Iran. The Madonna message was presented in the midst of this media pressure for war.
Will the society listen? I don’t know. But I was listening and I want to share what I took away from her performance.
SUPER BOWL 46
American Football is a game similar to rugby football in which two teams attempt to get an ovoid ball into each other’s territory. Called football in the United States and Canada and American football elsewhere, it is an aggressive contact sport.
At the end of the season (which is usually played in the winter), there is the main championship game between the winners of the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Professional football is distinguishable from the games played at college level. Whether at college level (which is supposed to be non-professional) or at the professional level, this sport is a multi-billion-dollar business.
In this 2012 championship match, the game, played in Indiana, was between the New York Giants (NFC) and the New England Patriots (AFC). Much like the annual cup final which is played at Wembley Stadium every year in England, this championship show is moved around different locales in the United States, but it is consistently viewed by more than 100 million individuals, the biggest TV event of the year. This game played on a Sunday is one where the society basically shuts down.
American football, like the society, is a violent contact (some would say militarised) sport. It forms an important link in the chain of the armaments culture where patriotism is called forth by the rendition of the national anthem before the game. All major sports events in the United States are preceded by the singing of the anthem but somehow at Super Bowl games there is an added emphasis on patriotism and support for the militaristic traditions of the USA. Roger Cohen in his commentary in the New York Times on Super bowl 46 entitled, ‘The Puzzle of Two Footballs’, had this description of the US game in comparing US football to soccer in the rest of the world:
‘A rugby-style game was formalised and militarised with the introduction of painted lines on the field, the scrimmage confrontation rather than the free-for-all scrum, the forward pass, and drives (‘March, march on down the field,’ was how Yale serenaded it) orchestrated by a quarterback playing general and masterminded by a hands-on coach cast as generalissimo. A New York Times analysis of six months of coverage of the National Football League on two ESPN shows revealed that ‘coverage is often cast in battleground terms.’ ESPN sportscasters used the word ‘weapon’ at least 123 times.’
Every year for the past 30 years, the halftime show of the Super Bowl has featured popular recording artists and other well-known celebrities. This halftime show represents a fundamental link to United States popular culture and the performer at this show is supposed to be at the top of the list of entertainers. This year the performer was Madonna, the well -known singer, actress, artist and activist. Madonna is 53 years old and the performance drew from the depth of her skills to make a major statement. There is enough written about her illustrious career so that it is not necessary to go over the highlights. Suffice to say, she is what is called a mega-super star in the North American entertainment business.
First, it was the entrance. Madonna enters the field on an angular golden throne, which is pulled across the 50-yard line by a group of dancers whose costume is that of a legion of Roman Centurions. The entire spectacle was one that brought out the best in 21st century technology where according to one commentator, ‘The ground beneath their feet begins to change; not just onstage, but on the field too. Suddenly the floor appears to be made of hundreds of squares which flip over and morph into covers of Vogue magazine, an image of Madonna looking out from each of them. These images aren’t stationary, though. They are continually overturning, rearranging, pulsating, and alive.’
The image of the ground moving beneath their feet was the backdrop to the voice of Madonna chanting, ‘Don’t just stand there,’ as she sang, ‘Vogue.’ This was the only song that she performed solo. The projection mapping, that is, transposing 3-D visual effects over physical spaces, was used to bring on hundreds in a music and dance performance that was supposed to entertain, inspire and inform the possibilities of cooperation and collaboration across many different artists and professionals in far flung places.
From this song ‘Vogue’ she went into a medley of songs. With a cast of more than 200 dancers, Madonna brought forth a wonderfully choreographed performance with LMFAO. There was the kind of dancing with high wire balancing and acrobatics, which was itself symbolic of the high wire cultural statement that Madonna was making. This was in the hip-hop mode replete with break-dancers – and an impressive tightrope walker. This is when she performed ‘Music’, accompanied by the duo LMFAO who with Madonna offered the hit ‘Sexy and I Know It.’
The well-known rap artists Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. then joined the Madonna set to a cheerleader theme. Using artistic license, Madonna was challenging the more obscene individualism of the celebrity driven entertainment industry in her own way by the kind of cooperation she exhibited with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A in singing of the song, ‘Give Me All Your Luvin.’ These three performers danced as cheerleaders, complete with golden pom-poms and a marching band. Again the choreography was outstanding and was as spectacular as the main artists. Younger readers of Pambazuka will know of the strong anti-imperialist positions of artists such as M.I. A (Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam) who supports the cause of self- determination of the Palestinian people. With a heritage from the war-torn society of Sri Lanka where the Tamil people have been fighting for dignity, M.I.A has given voice to that section of Asian society. Nicki Minaj is another young artist from the Caribbean whose heritage is of both African and Indian. That Madonna chose to sing the song ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’ with these two artists of youthful energy and power were in and of themselves another statement of collaboration and support.
‘LIKE A PRAYER’ FOR WORLD PEACE
The scene of cheerleading and singing was quickly changed to another set depicting a serious religious scene. Fusing together gospel music with hip hop culture, Madonna sang ‘Like A Prayer’ as a duet with the rapper Cee-Lo Green, who was dressed in the ministerial garb of a pastor, representing a leader in the Christian faith. The 3-D technology was now being utilised to the maximum as the stadium flickered with white lights while Cee-lo Green brought out the best of the gospel traditions of African American life and sang, ‘Like A Prayer,’ black and white singing together challenging the old taboos. It was not by accident that the music videos for this song had the background of a burning cross.
Green brought forth the vigor of black talent as Madonna sang on and off on her knees, until she disappeared in a blast of smoke, crooning , ‘I hear you call my name and it feels like home.’ The stadium was illuminated with thousands of tiny lights, concluding with the words ‘World Peace’ set against the darkness of the field – and Madonna disappearing in a puff of smoke.
There was no mistake about the message that Madonna wanted everyone to take away from this Super Bowl in the midst of a society that is gung-ho on war.
The corporate media choose to ignore this clear call for peace and instead worked hard to focus on a gesture of M.I.A. who during the performance of ‘Give Me All You Luvin,’’ displayed her middle finger at a point when most people did not see it. This media furore over M.I. A was to serve two purposes: To discredit the strong positions of M.I.A as well as to divert attention from the fact that Madonna was calling for world peace.
AS WE MOURN WHITNEY HOUSTON
One could not end this commentary on the performance of Madonna at the Super Bowl without joining with millions around the world in mourning the passing of Whitney Houston. As one who enjoyed the music of Whitney Houston over the years, I received the news of her transition at the age of 48 with genuine sadness. Houston was a tremendous singer, whose best performances contained energy, vibrancy and inspiration. In joining the ancestors at the young age of 48, the last years of the life of Whitney Houston were of profound challenges and struggles. And, now that Houston has passed, the corporate media machine is going into overdrive to discredit her contributions without grasping the kind of pressure-cooker world that artists such as Whitney Houston had to inhabit. Whitney Houston was an artiste who inspired Nelson Mandela, a leader who stood for peace and Ubuntu. When Houston performed at the White House for Mandela, Mandela paid her the highest tribute. Whitney said at the Rose Garden in 1994, ‘This performance is very special to me because in 1988 I sang in honour of Nelson Mandela the inmate and tonight I sing for elected president, Nelson Mandela.’ Whitney Houston paid attention to the injustice of apartheid and wanted peace.
CREATIVE ENERGIES CANNOT BE CRUSHED
Super Bowl 46 was played on February 5, 2012 in an environment where the mainstream media are cheerleaders for war against the people of Iran. Into this armaments culture, Madonna entered onto the stage and in ten minutes incorporated songs, dance, music, technology, artistry to redirect the attention of the more than 112 million viewers to the idea of peace. There were many statements that Madonna made in this performance and those who want to get the message can study the video on You Tube. This was an intentional statement where the creativity and voice was being beamed as an intervention against the militarists in Israel and the United States. Madonna was born into a Roman Catholic family. She has since converted to Judaism and has been forthright in her desire for a peaceful resolution to the question of self-determination for the Palestinian peoples. Her fan base in Israel is not inconsequential and many of the youths there instinctively grasped the importance of her message of peace.
Madonna has been seeking to develop links in Africa, especially Malawi. She has been a forthright advocate for Ubuntu. This sentiment was clearly articulated in her film, ‘I Am Because We Are,’ a film about the impact of HIV AIDS in Malawi.
Madonna is now standing along with another super athlete who has positively identified with world peace. Last year the NBA player, Ronald William Artest, Jr, of the Los Angeles Lakers officially changed his name to Metta World Peace. The first name is a Buddhist term meaning “loving kindness”. With the words World Peace printed as his name on the back of his Lakers jersey, every time this athlete jumps to make a shot he wants the world to think and reflect on world peace at all levels
Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University.