At this point, the words "sell out" hold little real meaning in our society. Essentially, musicians who are trying to "make it" are constantly forced to choose whether or not to let advertisers or prime-time TV use their music. Those who have already made it, even those are really admirable, do things that just make us cringe.
One of those annual cringing moments is the Super Bowl halftime show. While the very first one featured the University of Arizona and Grambling State University marching bands, now we cannot have such an event without a multi-platinum recording artist, it seems. So when people complained to me that it was blasphemous for The Who to play the halftime show, I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and laughed.
Sure, halftime has come a long way since the U of A marching band. Starting in the '70s, they brought out jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Mercer Ellington. The '90s brought New Kids on the Block, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross, among others. But for me, the shocker came not when U2 played, and not even when the Rolling Stones stumbled out there. It was when Tom Petty made his way onto that stage. Petty, to me, is authentic and rebellious. For the love of everything -- you can stand him up at the gates of Hell, but he'll play the Super Bowl halftime show.
So when I sat down to see what The Who would do, I didn't exactly have expectations. And yet, they managed to not live up to them.
The out-of-tune voices of Roger Daltrey and, especially, Pete Townshend made it oh-so-obvious that the boys can't quite squeeze out the same notes that they could in their heyday. This was glaring in the midst of all those lights and amplification. Hell, ESPN even reported that Daltrey wasn't pleased with his performance.
The 12-minute set featured short clips and soundbites from some of their more popular songs, including three from the musical Tommy. Opening with "Pinball Wizard" was a surprising choice. It was followed by "Baba O'Riley," "Who Are You?" (omitting the controversial question, "Who the fuck are you?") and concluded with one line of "See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You" and a chunk of "Won't Get Fooled Again."
It was all hidden among a plethora of bright lights, green lasers, and an elaborate stage setup. The long, thin, shiny-looking lighted bars that shot straight out from the stage made the band isolated, and prevented even a faux crowd from forming around them. In typical Super Bowl fashion, it was all over-the-top effects, which included fireworks, smoke, and flash bulbs that were a lot to take in, even from 2,000 miles away.
With all the hype, even if a band doesn't deliver (which quite frankly, they didn't), no one would have known. At an event like this, it's not even noticeable to the crowd if you suck. What matters is the hype and the glitz. Granted, it's a football game, not a concert, but it begs the question of why insanely wealthy people who clearly don't need the money decide to do it anyway. Sell-outs? If there is such a thing any more...