The Super Bowl is supposed to be about triumph: Over the limitations of the human body, over that vague “they” athletes are always referencing (“they said I’d never make it,” “they said I couldn’t do it,”), over the mundanity of everyday.
But football finds itself in a tricky spot, caught between celebrating the might of its participants and wincing with every tackle, knowing the way these seemingly unbreakable men can do nothing to prevent their brains from boggling around inside their skulls, like yolk against the shell, knowing the invisible damage done to those who play this brutal game the best. The violence doesn’t end there, of course: This is a sport that initially slaps Ray Rice on the wrist for clocking his then-fiancee in the jaw, then aired a “No More” domestic violence awareness PSA during its biggest event of the year — a feel-good move that reportedly does little to aid victims — and can’t even settle on what relatively minor punishment Greg Hardy and his peers ought to endure.
There is so much internal conflict there, so much yearning to, for the sake of short-term joy, ignore long-term suffering. Hard to say what we won’t sacrifice in the name of football, which does feel fantastic, in the moment, in the now, only if you ignore literally everything else about it.
So where does one get that feeling of triumph, the elation you want the Super Bowl to provide? Not ecstasy with a disclaimer or a caveat or a “the studies are inconclusive”? America got it at the halftime show. America’s triumph is Beyoncé.
What feat of strength on the field was as impressive as Beyoncé’s ability to release a new song and video 30 hours before performing in front of an audience of over 100 million people? The anthem — I don’t think “song” suffices for what Beyoncé is doing here — is “Formation,” the most the-personal-is-political song in the artist’s arsenal to date.
The visuals of the “Formation” video are too sprawling and elaborate to transfer to the field: Beyoncé, eyes closed as if in prayer, submerged in water as she lies back atop of a sinking police car; a young black boy dancing in front of a fleet of cops in riot gear; documentary footage of New Orleans; a shot of graffiti that reads “Stop Shooting Us.” She is playful about her sexuality, righteous about Black Lives Matter, at ease in her throne. Her lyrics assert that everything about her — her heritage, her wealth and the hustle with which she earned it, her unapologetic love of blackness and its beauty, her unparalleled ability to “cause all this conversation” — is source of tremendous power that she can flex at will.
But even without the complex sets and scenery, Beyoncé brought the essence of “Formation” to Levi’s Stadium. There is probably no other pop star working today who capitalizes on aesthetic might like Beyoncé does. On Sunday, she marched out on the field, obliterating all memories of the Coldplay By Lisa Frank set that preceded her in an outfit that simultaneously referenced Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl halftime show and connected her to her brigade of female dancers, dressed in Black Panther berets.
She had her detractors, the usual suspects: Rudy Guliani joined Fox & Friends in panning her for using the halftime show “as a platform to attack police officers.” An interesting choice of words, all things considered.
Such criticism did little to take the shine off Beyoncé’s performance. It was a brief, glimmering array, a thoughtful, joyous display female strength at an event that is, for the most part, a shrine to brute force and masculinity. The show may, on paper, have belonged to the men — the Broncos at gametime, Chris Martin at halftime — but those designations are a mere technicality. When Beyoncé shows up, she is never not the headliner.