Forget that Coldplay headlined the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. Forget that Bruno Mars also joined in the performance or that a clips reel showcased past musical legends or that the 12-minute concert was only an interlude in the biggest football game of the year. The moment viewers will remember most was Beyoncé’s, who performed — nay, slayed — “Formation,” a song barely a day old, on America’s largest stage. The 34-year-old pop star occupies rarefied artistic air and if the Super Bowl’s halftime show had solely consisted of the 60 seconds she spent gyrating to the track, which salutes Black Lives Matter and contains lyrics like “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” with flamethrowers erupting behind her on the field of Santa Clara, California’s Levi’s Stadium, that would’ve been good enough for many.
Of course, the gig was officially Coldplay’s — Bey and Bruno were mostly touted as “special guests” during the game’s first half — and, despite Yoncé’s show-stealing artistry (and an outfit that paid homage to Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl halftime show) the band played admirably at a presentation the NFL billed as a celebration of past, present, and future. Those who criticize the British pop-rock chart-toppers are quick to forget the cavalcade of worn-out rockers (remember The Who’s stiff appearance in 2010?) and the of-the-moment artists (how about the Black Eyed Peas the following year?) who have done the honors previously. Coldplay had all the elements a viewer would want in a Super Bowl halftime performer — hits, wide appeal, charisma. A safe bet? Perhaps. But Chris Martin and company brought vibrant savvy to a cultural institution that doesn’t always live up to the hype.
The show began with a brief interlude of Coldplay’s 2000 breakout hit “Yellow” as Martin knelt on the field before jogging to the stage at the 50-yard line. And while Beyoncé and Bruno Mars may have been the biggest names on the guest list, the band got some help right out of the gate. Youth Orchestra Los Angeles joined Coldplay as it launched into 2008’s ubiquitous “Viva La Vida” and, in a nifty homage to the quaint halftime shows of yesteryear, a marching band — clad in sherbet orange and pink uniforms — lent additional oomph to 2011’s euphoric single “Paradise.”
The opening salvo also impressed visually, setting a tone that would hold for the rest of the show. Tasked with a rare dusk halftime performance thanks to the game’s West Coast locale, the Super Bowl’s creative team rose to the challenge, applying Coldplay’s technicolor aesthetic to every aspect of the stage and stadium. Members of the audience on the field wore black to emphasize the vivid stylings everywhere else, and dayglo vibes reigned supreme as a massive color guard ensemble twirled multi-colored flower umbrellas in formations tailored for aerial cameras.
After Coldplay kicked things off, Mark Ronson appeared elevated above the crowd as he queued up “Uptown Funk” — a hit Mars hadn’t even released last time he played the Super Bowl in 2014 — but even as the accomplished star delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of the song, those watching held their collective breath in anticipation of Bey’s arrival. Like Mars, she’s released some of her most acclaimed material since last appearing at the Super Bowl, but Beyoncé fast-forwarded past modern classics like “Flawless” and “Drunk In Love” to go straight into “Formation,” the powerful single she shared on Saturday. “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she sang, before flashing the faintest of smiles and converging on the center stage with Mars as she integrated the fresh cut with “Uptown Funk.”
Although well-executed, the remainder of the set was boilerplate pomp: “Clocks” soundtracked archival footage of previous Super Bowl performers; “Fix You” scored clips of the ones like late Jackson and E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons, and Martin played gracious third wheel to Bey and Bruno’s charismatic tag team. But the nostalgic trip only allowed onlookers to focus on Beyoncé, who turned one of America’s most mainstream, middle-of-the-road rituals into a transgressive event by playing a song steeped in blackness and female empowerment.
As the sunset tinted pink and purple behind Levi’s Stadium, some members of the crowd who had been holding rainbow-themed panels flipped them to spell out a message: “Believe in love.” Presented at the first Super Bowl since marriage equality became a fundamental right in the United States, the words took on added poignance. The halftime show is a tradition that’s woven into the fabric of American life, and on Sunday it took a step forward, just like the country that collectively tunes in every year.