The NFL Plays Cultural Catch-Up with the Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show

The NFL Super Bowl Halftime Show always tries to play it safe, but the NFL does not always succeed, as we saw in 2016 when Beyoncé delivered a politically charged performance of “Formation.”

Super Bowl LVI was no exception.

For the first time, the show featured an all hip-hop line-up. The performers seemed dangerous only to anyone who is out of touch with music and culture. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and unannounced guest 50 Cent are all mainstream now.

Kendrick Lamar was the most interesting and potentially controversial of all the performers. But his moment was awash with (brilliant) choreography and production, and he stayed away from stirring the pot.

At one point, Eminem knelt down on one knee and bowed his head as Dr. Dre played the famous intro to Tupac Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha.” Eminem generated social media heat and news coverage.

Was Eminem taking a knee in solidarity with the kneeling protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick in 2016? Was he paying tribute to Tupac Shakur? Or both? That’s as controversial as the show got. Afterward, the NFL said the league was aware of Eminem’s planned gesture before the game — and, contrary to news reports, did not try to stop him. (Frankly, the pre-game news reports whiffed of manufactured controversy.)

There was a lot of discussion about how the halftime show was a nostalgia act since four of the five performers were older than 40. I thought that response was interesting considering that 95 percent of the halftime shows appeal to nostalgia year after year When they don’t, they get blowback as happened with The Weeknd (“Who is this guy exactly?”), which says more about NFL viewers than anything else. Maybe nostalgia became the story because the age of the performers contrasted sharply with a popular perception that hip-hop is largely Gen Z and Millennial music. Maybe nostalgia was the storyline because Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg defined a certain era of hip-hop. I suspect, though, that the NFL was more interested in the older, more established performers because they were safer, Eminem’s kneeling gesture notwithstanding.

If the NFL really wanted to take artistic chances with hip-hop, we would have seen Kanye West or Megan Thee Stallion onstage, but that’s absolutely not going to happen on Roger Goodell’s watch. We won’t ever see the NFL be on the cultural vanguard with the Super Bowl Halftime Show. But the NFL did take steps to become more culturally relevant by featuring hip-hop. They were small steps.

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