EW's Music Critic talks about the Super Bowl -- David Browne gives his take on Paul McCartney and the rest of this years bland halftime show

By David Browne
Updated February 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

EW’s Music Critic talks about the Super Bowl

When it comes to Super Bowl halftime shows, words like gaudy and bombastic come to mind, as they should. America’s most garish sports spectacle needs a comparable music presentation; that’s why we remember 2001’s Aerosmith’N Sync-Britney Spears romp better than the polite salutes to jazz and Motown of past games. But this year, a new word applied: suspenseful. How would Super Bowl rock look and sound in the wake of the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake flasher moment?

The answer to that question came early on. To plug his half-time-hogging appearance — and, conveniently, his upcoming fall tour — Paul McCartney stopped by to yak with Terry Bradshaw and the other commentators. At one point during the innocuous chat, one of the sportscasters jokingly mentioned the word ”malfunction.” Nervous giggles ensued, culminating in McCartney flashing a frozen ”I’m not going anywhere near there” smile. With that, the conversation moved on, and McCartney was quickly gone.

The acts that preceded McCartney on various stages in and around the stadium reflected that apprehension. Don Mischer Productions, the company that took over from MTV as producer and is best known for handling Olympics opening ceremony events and the Kennedy Center Honors, didn’t altogether ignore what’s on the charts; they simply sought out the least offensive faces and voices possible. Modern R&B was represented by the multiethnic aerobics-class extravaganza of the Black Eyed Peas, whose ”Where Is the Love?” was guaranteed not to upset anyone except the Village People, who must be jealous that someone stole their costume-party shtick. Punk, so to speak, was heard in Kelly Clarkson’s mosh-lite ”Since U Been Gone” (she even wore black fingernail polish for the occasion). Rap was in the house, but barely: In a pretaped video that was over before you knew it, Ludacris offered up a few awkward rhymes about the teams and the Bowl itself.

Though Super Bowl execs shied away from all things racy and crude, they seemed to feel it was fine for viewers to hear songs about barhopping (Gretchen Wilson’s ”Here for the Party”), a fiddle duel with the Antichrist (Charlie Daniels joining Wilson to resurrect his old country-prog hit ”The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” albeit with ”son of a bitch” changed to ”son of a gun”), and, if you want to get nitpicky, transsexuality (McCartney’s ”Get Back,” with its lyric ”Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, but she was another man”). The producers were also comfortable using blind and deaf kids as props during Alicia Keys’ blaring of ”America the Beautiful” — so oversung, in her usual manner, that it seemed as if she were paying homage to herself, not Ray Charles, as announced.

McCartney’s performance summed up the Bowl’s new post-Jackson conservatism. Sir Fab not only exhumed three Beatles songs (”Drive My Car,” ”Get Back,” and ”Hey Jude”) but so eerily re-created every note and harmony that he and his youngish touring band may as well have been lip-synching. The only people who might have felt put off were fans of Wings and/or Linda McCartney, since McCartney performed just one song (”Live and Let Die”) from that era.

It took another boomer-rock icon to express, however subtly, that the world situation beyond Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., wasn’t one big good day sunshine. For his two-song set, John Fogerty dug into his Creedence Clearwater Revival back catalog: first with ”Fortunate Son,” a swipe at privilege during wartime that was even on a soundtrack of Fahrenheit 9/11, and ”Bad Moon Rising,” his spooked-out litany of bad omens. Given that both songs vividly hark back to the Vietnam War, when they were originally written and performed, it was as if the telecast had suddenly shifted to one of those Vote for Change concerts at which Fogerty appeared last fall. As much as the Super Bowl wanted to pretend pop and current events rarely intersect, Fogerty’s performance was a reminder that they are often, in fact, inseparable.