The Super Bowl Halftime Show is a sinkhole of schadenfreude and morbid curiosity. As a receptacle for our attention between the game we more or less care about and the advertisements we wouldn’t dare miss, it’s a pseudo event built to humble music’s greatest acts (and one time Jim Belushi for some reason). Mega stars of the highest order like Paul McCartney and Madonna are forced into one of two unsavory performance templates: Either ramble through a checklist-satisfying medley of your greatest hits or cram a further truncated sampling of your hits around cameos from future pop flameouts like LMFAO, M.I.A. and Cee Lo.
In what is often a thankless role for a headliner, they are fated to either bore the life out of us or forever memorialize a regrettable moment. Bruce Springsteen crotch-sliding into the camera. Chris Martin gentrifying the shit out of Uptown Funk. Janet Jackson leaving a breast within arm’s reach of Justin Timberlake. When it comes to the Super Bowl, you are either a mediocre snooze or you are pilloried on Twitter for being the Black-Eyed Peas.
Unless, of course, you are Prince. In which case, Game, Blouses.
Prince’s halftime performance at Super Bowl XLI in Miami exists in a different universe. It is one of the few halftime shows that transcends the limitations of the gig. Through a seasoned deployment of unrivaled showmanship, world-class guitar shredding, shrewd misdirection and subtly subversive lewdness, Prince crafted a singular moment that will long outlive any memories of the game itself. (Chicago’s Devin Hester scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff and Peyton Manning won his first ring for the Colts. As Super Bowls go, it was very mediocre.)
The daring genius here is that Prince largely abandoned his hits, performing just three of his own songs during the 12-minute set. That’s a risky move and one that largely ruined Michael Jackson’s creepy, self-indulgent performance at Super Bowl XXVII. While most artists feel obligated to showcase their hits (the upside of this experience is free self-promotion to a TV audience of 100 million), Prince is probably the only solo halftime performer who ever made entertainment his primary directive.
Of the three actual Prince songs that he chose to perform, only two of them — “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” — are hits, and all three hail from his signature album, Purple Rain. The other Prince original, which he plays after opening with “Let’s Go Crazy,” is “Baby, I’m A Star,” the second-to-last track on Purple Rain and one that he never even released as a single. Given his absurd catalog of Billboard hits — including 30 tracks in the Top 40 — Prince, in front of the largest audience he will ever face, spins a deep cut.
The next three songs are impossibly plucked from the ether. Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” and Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” make some semblance of sense. Both of these songs have been covered by dozens of acts. Prince is using these standards as something we can measure his performance against to certify his place in the pantheon of rock music. The most noteworthy recording of “Watchtower” belongs to Jimi Hendrix, and Prince is making the not-so-subtle argument that he belongs in the same conversation as Hendrix when we discuss the greatest rock guitarists of all time. (It’s also worth noting that Prince was well into the Jehovah’s Witness phase of his career and may very well have been giving a cagey Prince nod to another Watchtower.)
And then Prince blows my fucking mind.
I distinctly remember losing my shit when Prince started playing Foo Fighters’ 2005 hit “Best Of You.” Because of the billion songs he could have played, dear God, why this one? This is not a classic rock standard. It’s not even one of Foo Fighters’ most memorable songs. He may as well be playing “America The Beautiful” with a lute. We may never know exactly why Prince chose to play this song, but it seems to have something to do with Foo Fighters daring to cover Prince’s “Darling Nikki” and then asking him for permission to release it commercially. It’s entirely plausible that Prince is using the biggest stage he will ever play on simply to one-up Dave Grohl for trying to compare himself to Prince. And of, course, Prince shreds this song to bits, elevating “Best Of You” into a song worthy of the Super Bowl stage. This is the best performance of “Best Of You” that anyone ever has or ever will produce. Even Foo Fighters acknowledge that Prince did it better.
The biggest hindrance to any Super Bowl performance is the list we all have in our heads. When Paul McCartney is rolling through his solo hits and Beatles hits, we can surmise maybe three songs out that he’s going to close with “Hey Jude.” This is less of a problem in a full show, where the performer has about 90 minutes to spread out a vast catalog, stir in some covers and obscure tracks in a manner that keeps you guessing. You’ll know that something big is coming in the encores, but even then there’s room for surprise. The 12-minute Super Bowl set narrows the playable catalog and eviscerates surprise.
By the time Prince concludes “Best Of You,” however, he has seized control of our minds. The running list we typically reference during these performances is shredded wood pulp soaking in a puddle at midfield. More than half of his set has been other artists’ work, and he’s played only one bona fide hit. We are now primed for Prince to play anything. At this point, even “Batdance“ is on the table.
The only thing we are not prepared for is “Purple Rain.”
For Prince to surprise us by closing with “Purple Rain” is a filthy magic trick. Furthering the mystique is the timely compliance of nature, which brought a rare downpour to the Super Bowl. Informed prior to the game that he would likely be performing on a slick stage in three-inch heels amidst a driving rain, Prince reportedly asked, “Can you make it rain harder?” Under natural rain drops with his Prince-symbol stage outlined in purple neon lights, we actually saw Prince bathing in the purple rain.
As if we needed a highlight within a highlight, Prince then sexifies his set with the most subtle execution of simulated masturbation ever performed in front of 100 million people. Armed with his Prince-symbol guitar, His Royal Badness performs an epic solo in front a white sheet that materializes out of the stage. His silhouette framed against the sheet creates the image of what can only be described as a giant guitar penis. The imagery is so sly that Prince is able to work his giant guitar penis for about 32 seconds (an eternity compared to the microsecond of stage time we got from Janet’s nipple), without drawing an FCC fine or some kind of condemnation from the corporate overlords at CBS or the NFL.
Remember that this was three years after the Janet Jackson incident, during a time when the NFL was trying to be family friendly and controversy-free. Prince’s performance came during a run of six consecutive years in which the halftime show featured male performers over the age of 50. The game plan was to keep everyone’s respective pants on and avoid upsetting delicate viewers. Prince drew up an end run and thwarted that plan with his mystical guitar penis.
Granted, the FCC did receive about 150 complaints, but the Janet Jackson performance drew 540,000. To punish Prince for this, you would have to say you saw a penis. And none of the suits at the FCC or the NFL want to admit that they see controversial body parts throbbing in the shadows. So, even when one viewer complained that the guitar solo made his would-be quarterback son turn gay, and another mistook the rain-soaked sheet for something far dirtier than even Prince intended, the powers that be simply wrote these people off as crackpots and moved on.
When the sheet dropped, Prince brought his performance to a thrilling conclusion with the help of a marching band and a sing-a-long crowd of about 75,000. It was a spectacularly rare moment in Super Bowl history where the halftime show upstaged the game and brought 100 million people around the world together in agreement on one conclusion: Prince was fucking awesome.
Dave Brown is a writer and business lawyer in Boston. He would have been in Miami for Prince’s show at Super Bowl XLI if Reche Caldwell could catch a goddamn football. Instead, he only got to see Tom Petty the next year in Arizona, and it was OK.