Did U2 sell out at the Super Bowl? While thankful for Bono and Co.'s revivifying patriotism, Chris Willman wonders if true artists should become football cheeerleaders
Credit: Bono: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage.com

Did U2 sell out at the Super Bowl?

When the news broke that U2 would constitute the half-time show at this year’s Super Bowl, reactions on music industry bulletin boards and fan sites essentially broke down into two camps. There were those who rose to wonder if there’s anything the band wouldn’t do in the service of selling out these days, finding the Super Bowl appearance a particularly onerous example of their lowering themselves. Then there was the camp that was incredulous that anyone could even have a problem with it. What a great opportunity! At last, some real music at a major sports event, instead of that boy band crap. A TD for all concerned… right?

The split is probably indicative of a generation gap as much as any deep philosophical rift. Though I tend to count to three before I use the words ”sell out” in connection with anything in pop music, I identify a little more with the first, more wary camp, which may be a function of integrity or just age — take your pick, sonny.

When I was a teenager in the mid-’70s, kids generally divided into either ”jocks” or ”freaks,” and if you loved T. Rex, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, or the Allman Brothers Band, it was a given — at least at my school — that you would eschew sports, the military, and anything else that required wearing serious headgear preventing one’s freak flag from flying. Me, I was a major-league pipsqueak sports hound until the age of 12, when I discovered the (already broken-up, alas) Beatles; at that point, like some kind of religious convert, I completely stopped reading the sports page, subscribed to Crawdaddy, Circus, and Rock Scene, and never looked back. I confess to being a little bit nostalgic for a time when those stereotypical divisions were so easily arrived at, but obviously a world in our nation’s youth are allowed to simultaneously dig the Strokes and excel at track and field is a much better one.

Yet, as much as I’ve become accustomed to the seemingly happy betrothal of rock and sports, I’m still capable of feeling a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear that one of the great bands is showing up to pass the time between quarters at the NBA Finals — to cite one recent stop on U2’s ongoing promotional tour. It’s okay for Britney or even Aerosmith to show up and shill at the Super Bowl; these people don’t see themselves as anything other than entertainers, and seem well within the tradition of Up with People halftime shows I remember from my youth.

But I get nervous seeing a band that wants to change the world — and has the power to reach hearts — relegating themselves to a subsidiary position to the spectacle of brawn. No matter what the viewing audience and impact, a group that plays a halftime show is essentially an opening act to the Patriots and Rams. Intermission music. Should a song as divinely inspired as ”Where the Streets Have No Name” be relegated to the same category and function as ”Let’s Go Out to the Lobby”? Do we want to hear Bono singing about matters of life and death with a scroll underneath reading ”five minutes till showtime, folks”?

My reservations weren’t exactly qualmed by seeing one of my old heroes, Paul McCartney, out on the field before the game, trying to breathe some last bit of commercial life into ”Freedom,” the awful post-9/11 anthem that literally no one — and I do mean literally, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain in my non-scientific polling — doesn’t dread with a passion. McCartney was accompanied by a league of flag-twirling cheerleaders; the telecast’s editors seemed to be trying to find edits and angles that would cut away from the spectacle of all these grinning young faces, as if they were making the number embarrassingly hokey. Perhaps the show’s director didn’t realize that some Busby Berkeley-style choreography is about the only thing that could save that tune.

Now, another confession: Once U2 took the makeshift stage, all my compunctions vanished. The three-song mini-set was nothing us fans hadn’t seen before, but somehow, sharing it with the rest of America — at least the part of the country that wasn’t switching over to the Playmate action on another network — made the moment more galvanizing, familiar or not. It was as if we were in need of one more interfamilial grace note after the mass appeal mourning-to-celebration of ”A Tribute to Heroes” last September, and the Super Bowl was the only platform that could have provided that communal an experience.

For a minute, I almost thought U2 would rightfully stand as the true climax of the evening, with the game as figurative opening act, regardless of the order of appearance. Of course, that was before the suspense of the last quarter rendered this a game for the ages, as well. In any case, my resistance to rock as a sporting event lull-filler was definitely lowered… even if I expect that queasy feeling to come back as soon as Dylan signs up to serenade the fans heading for the concession stands at the next NASCAR championship.

Now it’s your turn. How do you feel about the great rockers offering themselves up as halftime cheerleaders?