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The Super Bowl Half-Time Show and the Poignant Vulnerability of Madonna

By Michael Murray | Miscellaneous | February 10, 2012 |

By Michael Murray | Miscellaneous | February 10, 2012 |

Madonna isn’t really a musician.

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine her standing alone on a stage with an acoustic guitar slung over her shoulder and seducing a crowd with her sincere interpretation of “Hallelujah.” Most of us would never dream of sitting down and listening, I mean actually listening, to one of her CDs. That’s not going to happen, she’s just not that kind of artist. Her voice has always been thin and kind of irritating and her music girlish and immediate, the sort of thing you respond to rather than reflect within. At her best, a kind of synesthesia takes place when we experience her. We don’t just hear her in a singular musical context, but in a broad, synthesized one. Her fashion, music, dancing, video and persona are all indivisible, each simultaneously collapsing upon and amplifying one another. With Madonna the whole has always been greater than the sum of her parts, and the potency of this brand is such that through sheer force of cultural resonance, her music casts us out onto the dance floor. It’s a moment of propulsion, this, and it often feels like a direct consequence of Madonna’s iron will.

Over the last three decades, Madonna’s success has had little to do with actual music and everything to do with the theatrical construction of a persona choreographed around music. Her performances have always been spectacles, rigidly controlled exhibitions of camp grandeur. In this regard, she was made for the halftime show at the Super Bowl, the place where camp grandeur, nostalgia, commerce and Americana is mixed into a syrupy cocktail and then be blasted off into the world like a rocket.

Personally, I thought that Madonna did pretty well in her performance. Obviously, she was going to be subject to heavy criticism. She’s 53 now, the majority of the athletes on the field had no idea who she was and given the nature of how she’s framed her career, she was obliged to once again play the role of omnisexual femme fatale. It’s a pretty difficult situation in which to truly excel, I think.

No matter, Madonna was pulled out, as if Cleopatra on a barge, by an army of hulking centurions. Amidst the dry ice swirl of gay iconography, Madonna emerged as a gold-clad Valkyrie, only instead of casting judgment on who should rise and fall in battle— as in the Norse tradition— she was a glitter bomb shilling for Bridgestone tires, Vogue Magazine and most importantly, herself.

As irony consumed itself, the question wasn’t how Madonna could maintain any semblance of artistic/professional credibility, but how she could credibly maintain her image as a vivacious sexual dynamo living on the cutting edge.

Well, in the entertainment industry, the first thing you do is refuse to age. Madonna, necessarily Vampiric, fed off the blood of Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. and LMFAO, who all appeared on stage with her at various times. She looked mostly as she has for the last 30 years, although conspicuously more covered up now, and she gave a solid, professional performance that was vividly commercial, appealing familiar to aging Gen X’ers and well, not too embarrassing.

Still, I found it kind of poignant. Madonna remains a relatively athletic and competent dancer, but her movements are little slower, a little softer and more practiced than when she was younger. The motion looked largely the same as it always did, but there was just less pop, less sex to it. She moved almost gingerly about the stage, careful not to fall or do anything that her body would no longer permit, and when one of her supporting dancers was holding her up as she did some sort of cartwheel thing (designed more to show she could do it than to add anything of substance to the show) you could see in his face a kind of apprehension. He wasn’t interacting with a peer but with somebody’s mother, and he was careful to be gentle and sturdy, in short, to not drop her. The look on his face said that Madonna was no longer a viable sexual creature—she had passed through into a different realm, a realm from which there was no return.

Watching, I found that my eye no longer fell naturally upon her. It used to be that when I saw her move I was sparked by an almost exhilarating sexual charisma. Everything she did was an aggressive seduction, the manifestation of her ever questing sexual vitality, but she seemed remote from that now and I couldn’t help but notice the physical charisma, the life and sex appeal radiating out of all those who were supposed to be background players. Seeing that natural fact of aging, however cleverly disguised and professionally executed, rendered Madonna vulnerable, and watching her try so hard to be who she was when younger— to reach back for those moments—instead of realizing the performer she might have grown into, made me feel a sympathy I don’t normally experience during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.