Sunday night’s Super Bowl Halftime Show with Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers was reasonably entertaining, if unremarkable. Still, that didn’t stop it from being the most watched halftime show in history, beating out the numbers for more memorable performances by Madonna and Beyoncé.
Inevitably, close watchers of the broadcast noticed that neither Flea’s bass nor Josh Klinghoffer’s guitar appeared to be plugged in to anything. It was first pointed out by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who tweeted “That guitar is plugged into NOTHING” during the show. Photo evidence seemed to back him up, and though there was a stirring online debate about whether or not the Peppers could have been using wireless transmitters, Reid set the world straight. “There were NO wireless packs,” he tweeted. “Which would be a nightmare given the huge amount of wireless channels. They leave NOTHING to chance.”
His last point is the most pertinent: For a show in an outdoor stadium that size, and with so little time to turn everything around, prerecording in those settings has been the norm for decades. Vocals are a little easier to deal with, but it’s near-impossible to wrangle multiple instruments thanks to delay and echo-related complications. (People were also pointing out that Mars’ horn section wasn’t actually making noise either.) And it’s not like a completely different group of musicians recorded “Give It Away” for the Chili Peppers—in these situations, they usually record a version live to perform to.
Not that there’s been much outrage over the revelation that Flea was playing air bass. Remember when Beyoncé lip-synced “The Star-Spangled Banner” and everybody lost their minds? Or the hang-wringing over Britney Spears’ lack of a live microphone at her Vegas show? Or even the debates that sprung up surrounding whether or not Pink was live while she was suspended by ropes over an audience at the Grammys? None of these things are crimes—the bigger the venue, the more complicated it is to present music. But why do the Red Hot Chili Peppers get a pass?
It’s troublesome to think that good old fashioned rockism is the culprit. Rock music has long been considered more “legitimate” that most other pop forms, and according to certain magazines, there’s always a tacit suggestion that anybody playing a guitar is a superior musician than somebody who doesn’t. (By that logic, these dudes are more legit than this.) It’s a reductionist approach to music — you might as well be blindfolding yourself and listening to nothing but Pink Floyd albums on repeat.
Does it matter that Red Hot Chili Peppers weren’t plugged in? And if it doesn’t, do you hold pop singers to the same standard? Let us know in the comments.