By Ben Wener
SANTA ANA, Calif. – Good thing the game was interesting, because the ballyhooed halftime show featuring the Black Eyed Peas, much like the big-money commercials that debuted during the first two quarters, was positively underwhelming.
OK, sure, it sounded better than The Who did last year, and it was certainly more lively than the always static Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were in 2008 (Bruce Springsteen in 2009 is another matter). Plus, unencumbered by instruments or even the need for a backing band, the Peas would automatically have more spectacle on their side. How else can they entertain? By letting apl.de.ap sing?
And still their entire hits medley – enhanced by futuristic costumes, Tron-esque dancers and lackluster cameos from Slash and Usher – seemed routine and predictable.
Going into it I was inclined to cut them plenty of slack: As the centerpiece of the first pop/soul/hip-hop extravaganza since the Janet Jackson-led Nipplegate debacle that overshadowed Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 – and the first non-legend in this particular spotlight in as many years – the quartet faced grumbling from the get-go and mounting expectations as kickoff neared.
Even as their performance began with (what else?) “I Gotta Feeling,” I was hopeful; the descent from the top of Cowboys Stadium’s dome, enticingly conveyed by overhead camera work, had me hoping that we’d see something truly spectacular, even unexpected.
But then they assumed their usual positions, glittering in black and white outfits, and set about going through the same motions you’d find at any BEP show in any arena while on tour. Worse, their get-ups were distracting: I spent more time trying to figure out what will.i.am’s clear skullcap was supposed to be – a space-age bicycle helmet? a new-era Devo wig? headgear for Data to wear on a Star Trek: Next Generation reunion episode? – than I did listening to what tumbled out of his Auto-Tuned mouth.
Tabu, perpetually the most useless Black Eyed Pea (note his halting nonsense during “Boom Boom Pow”), looked even sillier, with an electronic chest plate that changed images depending on the song (for instance, a bright red heart during “Where Is the Love?”).
As ever, Fergie remains the group’s saving grace, and her sparkling shoulder pads were a fitting touch. But she’s wailed with more ferocity in the past. And though it may have been a surprise to metalheads in Topeka, her brief segment with Slash (his trademark top hat here sequined) was old-hat; they’ve been cranking out that Guns N’ Roses chestnut “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in concert for years now, and she’s sung it much better before, with less Axl Rose affectation.
For his part, Slash might as well have been a robot – he served up his famous riff without moving or showing the slightest expression, then indulged a bit of standard-issue soloing before disappearing as fast as he surfaced.
No better was Usher, who I thought was a singer, no? Here he barely opened his mouth during “OMG” (his hit, not the Peas’), and though he can be a mesmerizing dancer almost worthy of comparison to Michael Jackson, the only move that impressed was when he leapt over will.i.am and landed in a James Brown split.
Five seconds of wow out of a dozen minutes? Give me Prince blazing on guitar in the rain any day.
Which brings me to the bit that political pundits with nothing better to discuss may natter on about come Monday morning: will.i.am’s lyrical change-up for the first verse of “Where Is the Love?”: “In America we need to get things straight / Obama, let’s get these kids educated / Create jobs so the country stays stimulated.”
Why can I already hear Rush Limbaugh twisting those lyrics to mean the president’s support base has eroded?
But again, at least we saw some solid football.
And Keith Urban’s pregame tailgate tunes and tattoo-flashing were appealing; Maroon 5 a little less so.
That definitely made up for “Glee” star Lea Michele’s histrionic “America the Beautiful,” undoubtedly pre-recorded … Christina Aguilera’s almost-soulful but ultimately over-the-top and flubbed rendering of The National Anthem (it’s “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming,” Xtina, not a rehash of the second line) … and not one but two lame commercials featuring Eminem, who I thought was better than that.