Abuse of Weakness
An examination of power, greed, emotional manipulation and simple need that is gripping and powerful to behold even if you don't know the story behind…
by Tom Shales
Okay, now we know: God DOES "care" about the Super Bowl, as people were wondering during the big build-up to the game -- the one that began around Thanksgiving, 2012. Yes, God cares; He HATES it. And that's why He (or, yes, She) turned off the lights on Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans Sunday night and left everybody standing there and waiting for the second half to continue. Maybe it was a kind of Old-Testament warning -- ya think?
Strange, really; the plug was pulled on the all the hyperactive pyrotechnics, computerized bells and digital whistles, and the big huge thing looked stunningly, even laughably insignificant. Just a bunch of guys standing around in the dark, wearing tight pants and looking lost without a ball to chase up and down a field. But the really "lost," and perhaps real losers, were the members of that crack CBS Sports announcing and commentating team. It was hilarious, really; without their semi-scripted statistics and hoary clichés to bandy about, faced with a eerie unknowns and the threat of having actual news to report, they turned into a bunch of tight-lipped shrinking violets, making small talk so small it was hard to believe The Whole World Was Listening.
Actually by that time, much of the world had probably gone to bed. It seems unlikely the game will top the record ratings of 103 million viewers set by last year's Super Bowl -- on NBC. As the minutes ticked by and the game hovered in dark limbo, the boys in the blazers became increasingly desperate. Big James Brown tried to cover the silence with a recap -- "for those of you just tuning in." Now wait; who "just tunes in" the Super Bowl 80 or 90 minutes into the show? You either watch it or ignore it.
"Honey, see if the Super Bowl's on. It's February, isn't it?"
Wouldn't it be nice if the record for viewers was set by the Animal Planet's super-wonderful "Super Puppy Bowl," a pretaped romp featuring a couple dozen of the cutest little dogs on the planet, or presumably; it's hard to get an accurate reading on something like that. Considering the big nothing that was happening on CBS, many viewers may have turned over to see what those puppies were up to.
Whatever else they must do, meanwhile, CBS announcers must avoid in any way impugning the integrity or sanctity of that grand humanitarian organization, the NFL. They must always spout the official NFL line or their multi-million dollar salaries might be in jeopardy. Everyone in the crowd remained wonderfully "calm" one announcer said, and a shouting match between one coach and a Superdome official was largely ignored.
More than one announcer in the near-dark said one and all were "waiting for a statement from the NFL" as to the cause of the power failure. They had to have a statement for that? Maybe they couldn't even say the lights were definitely out until the NFL declared them so. These are seasoned broadcasters, most of them; how could they let themselves look so helpless?
Bill Cowher, one of the CBS blowhards, was determined to put a smiley face on it. A disaster, a calamity, a mess? Oh no, he said of the power failure: "It's just like another, longer half-time...."
Oh sure, that's all it was. Just what the players and coaches (and fans) needed: a roughly 35-minute 'second halftime' to drain all the momentum out of the game and the telecast and discourage everyone in the stadium, as well as us folks out here in Television Land. And unfortunately, sassy and saucy Beyonce couldn't be dragged back out onto the stage (with Destiny's Child) to start bouncing and flouncing again and make it literally a second halftime. Somebody somewhere on the Internet had rushed to call her all-girl revue "the best halftime show ever," but every year somebody declares that year's show the best halftime ever.
It was hard to tell if gorgeous Beyonce sang a medley of songs or just one long song in what seemed like a kinky, black-leather-lingerie reboot, with real boots, of an old Busby Berkeley production number (replete with overhead camera) from the 1930's. Of course Busby couldn't be as overtly sexual as Beyonce and company were. It was hot stuff but strangely empty and unaffecting. That is, the instant it ended it was as if it had never happened. We can just be thankful the power didn't fail during the show, because those poor dancers and singers would have looked pathetic standing up there with no roaring soundtrack or seizure-inducing light show to decorate their act.
Beyonce did sing "Bootylicious," of course, and it was definitely Beyoncilious.
After all the (absurd) fuss made when it appeared Beyonce had lip-synched the National Anthem at President Obama's Second Inaugural, Beyonce swore she would sing "live" at the Super Bowl, and for all we or you know, she did, but the sound balance wasn't very good and it was hard to tell where one "hit" ended and another began. In fact some of the camera shots of Beyonce, especially the close-ups, looked like THEY might have been videotaped inserts; wouldn't that be a hoot? It's kinda too bad that CBS couldn't haul out the second half of last year's game and play that when the lights went out, just to see if anybody could tell the difference. Immediately, that is. How many people would have known? Well, of course; it would seem odd that the San Francisco 49ers were no longer pitted against the Baltimore Ravens. At least, though, there would have been movement on the screen, fully lit.
For a couple of decades, commercials at the Super Bowl have received as much attention as the game itself, a truism if there ever was one. Now, of course, there are even commercials advising people to tune in the Super Bowl to see other commercials. During the game, the announcers more than once told viewers that if they wanted, they could rush to their computers, go to a CBS Sports web site, and get, among other things, "immediate access to the commercials" shown at the game. Goody!
Have we become a society so desperate for sensory stimulation and so gullible to the ploys of Madison Avenue that we now beat a path to see or re-see 30- and 60-second advertisements for crap we probably don't want or need? The hype over the hype has become -- what else? -- hyperhype. We are moving through the universe at hyperhype hyperspeed. It is not a condition conducive to rational, reasonable thought or intelligent discourse. As if you didn't know.
For my money, not that I have any, the best ad ran very very late in the game and contained no overt computer animation and moved at a stately pace and was narrated by, of all people, Paul Harvey, the great and legendary radio broadcaster who died in 2009 at the age of 90. Harvey left behind many voice recordings, and though he was sometimes dismissed as just another political conservative, he was capable of an Everyman sort of eloquence.
This piece was "God Made a Farmer," Harvey's prose ode to the American agrarians who raise the nation's food, and it was accompanied by simple but stunning still photos of farm life. There was no pitching of a product except for a credit at the very end: the ad was sponsored by Ram Trucks, presumably common fixtures on farms of then and now. Anyway, it was beautiful.
Other advertisers went a considerably different route, testing the waters to see how audacious or just dirty they could be, with Doritos winning approval in some quarters for its cheeky mini-sitcom on a theme of bestiality -- a man who apparently is love-slave to a goat, and the goat raises hell when it goes to the cupboard and there aren't any Doritos in it. Yes, it was stupid.
Another Doritos ad featured a group of men who dressed as ballerinas and in other forms of drag to please a kid and were discovered by a real woman as they pranced around a room. Yes, even stupider than the goat.
It was immediately followed by a different kind of sexual tease, a collection of men shimmying and slithering in their Calvin Klein underpants. It was weird going from the male ballerinas to the jocks in jocks, or nearly.
A Volkswagen commercial that provoked considerable criticism before it aired on the Super Bowl -- and most of the ads are now available in advance, as part of the ads-for-ads campaign -- featured a man from Minnesota who obviously thought he'd seem much cooler if he talked with a Jamaican accent. Later he is seen in a car with an Asian passenger. It didn't seem racist or particularly offensive, though you never know what will tick people off.
In this Internutty age, the web's influence was evident in several ads. Jimmy Fallon, the former comedy star who now is a one-man advertising conglomerate -- and he should be ashamed of himself -- was asked to mastermind a commercial in which ordinary people (imagine) send in tweets about Lincoln cars and then Fallon's staff illustrates them. It was a big yawn.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola asked viewers to vote for their favorite character in a commercial that showed various stereotypical folk -- cowboys, an old-fashioned Arab sheikh, a bunch of post-apocalyptic road warriors -- racing through the desert to get to a Coke. The result of the voting would be shown at the end of the game, but I had no interest in sticking around for that. What guarantee would a viewer have that the results weren't just cooked in advance by Coke -- you know, Coke-cooked -- and who could care anyway?
Several movies were advertised, one not opening until Memorial Day, with the usual splashy displays of computer animation, explosions and crashes and booms, but the neatest technical trick of the night was probably the one seen during the halftime show, when Beyonce was electronically cloned into several Beyonci -- dozens of Beyonci! -- and here we thought there would never be another.
During the 70-hour pregame show (or so it seemed), President Obama was interviewed live from the White House by CBS anchor Scott Pelley. The president made a bit of news when he said he fully supported admitting gays and Lesbians to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. He was also asked about the intense violence of pro football -- violence that has resulted in players suffering multiple concussions that led to permanent brain damage -- and he referred to himself as being among "those of us who like to see a big hit" now and then.
He meant one player colliding with another. Later a sideline reporter said one object of the game is to "find a way to legally 'hit'" the quarterback. Just good clean fun!
CBS and the NFL poured on patriotic sentiment "to honor America" before the kick-off, as could be expected. "America, the Beautiful" was sung by twenty-six students from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., site of the still-recent tragic mass murder. This oddly was not as moving as it sounds, mainly because the slow-witted CBS director failed to show us the beautiful faces of the singing children. Instead we got more and more close-ups of the sweating players and the celebrity coaches and other such oft-photographed persons.
Perhaps this is the way the NFL wanted it. Year after year, the way the NFL wants things seems increasingly to rule, but then pro football is a big business -- a very very big business. Maybe all the inflated egos at the NFL and in the plush executive suites of CBS will get a jolt from the fact that a power outage will prove to be the big highlight of this year's Super Bowl and the only reason for which it is remembered.
White privilege, lived.
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