Joanna Love (University of Richmond, USA)


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. 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 paper 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; Kellner 2003; and James 2010) 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, andnationalism 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.