In 2012, the National Football League (NFL) hired pop superstar Madonna to headline its Super Bowl Halftime Show. Her spectacle of hits and guest artists attracted the most viewers ever recorded by Nielsen data. But because the annual event catered to disparate audiences—football fans and those more interested in its musical performances and commercials—, viewers disagreed about the quality and purpose of Madonna’s show: some criticized it as bland and confusing while others called it bold and revolutionary. As this presentation discusses, the ensuing debate suggested implications beyond Madonna’s own reception: it signaled the extent to which the event’s pop programming confronted and challenged the hegemonic norms venerated by the game itself.

In this talk I historicize why Super Bowl programmers have, since the mid-1990s, worked to attract new audiences with pop performances, and use the reception of Madonna’s show to theorize how the game and its musical interludes operate within what I have termed their own “circuits of spectacle” to communicate specific and often polarized values. By combining studies of media and cultural theory (Hall 1996, 1997 and Kellner 2003) and music in sports (cf. McLeod, 2011), with musical and visual analysis, I show that the overlapping of these circuits causes their opposing ideological frameworks to become incendiary: the program thus becomes most provocative when the game’s displays of violent, masculine athleticism, and nationalism are juxtaposed with the politics of musical performances that feature marginalized bodies who are otherwise unwelcome into the sport. I therefore argue that much of the criticism received by Madonna and other Super Bowl acts—artists who are of color, LGBTQIA, women, disabled, black, and aging—boils down debates about whose bodies are permitted on the field and what politics they (should) endorse, mirroring larger problems that “play out” in US society.


Joanna K. Love is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Richmond. Her research and teaching examine American and popular musics in multimedia and she has written extensively on popular music in US national brand and political advertising. Her book, Soda Goes Pop: Pepsi-Cola Advertising and Popular Music (2019), was supported by an American Association of University Women (AAUW) fellowship. Love’s work has appeared in various venues, including the Journal of the Society for American Music and Music and Politics. She has forthcoming chapters in multiple edited volumes and is co-editing an interdisciplinary book, Sonic Identity at the Margins.

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