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Reborn Saints and Newborn Babies: Complex and Contradictory Themes in the Advertising and Halftime Show of Super Bowl XLIV

Some years I have some winter disease and some years I’m tripping, but this year I actually saw it.

We were attending a party, nibbling nachos in passive-aggressive apathy and awaiting the birth of an infant four thousand miles away. While the Saints played the Colts in the Super Bowl, my personal epidemiologist’s sister labored with her firstborn in Dublin. He would either be named Marcos (after Subcomandante Marcos) or Emiliano (after Emiliano Zapata).

With two minutes left in the first half, Aldo looked up from his phone and announced, “He’s here!”

“Emiliano!” he said.

“Emiliano,” said Joni.

“Emiliano,” I repeated. My eyes filled with tears, as they always do when I hear a baby has just been born.

Perhaps because Emiliano had turned out to be my namesake, I felt as if I, too, had just been born. I viewed the halftime show with my eyes as wide as a newborn babe’s, and saw it for all that it was.

*

What it was was a forum for the denigration of rock gods. The Super Bowl Halftime Show reveals just how far these modern Icarii have fallen to earth. They no longer need to smash their guitars, as they themselves are now the living detritus of rock and roll’s excesses. At halftime we are invited to view the wreckage they’ve made of themselves.

Their strained, censored vocals on the overly pyrotechnic stages profane their once superhuman status. The relentless explosions of fireworks both hint at and mock the way the music itself was once incendiary. The complex mix of chaos, rebellion, virility and destruction that might loosely describe rock and roll gets neutralized before our eyes.

Leave it to America to present a geriatric sexuality on its biggest stage, in swift and sharp reaction to the one moment a naked boob was seen on live television. Since Janet Jackson’s boob, the halftime show has featured Paul McCartney in 2005, the Rolling Stones in 2006, Prince in 2007, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2008, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2009 and the Who in 2010–and not a mammary among them. Prince was the youngest of those performers when he took the stage, six months shy of 50. That single second of boob exposure catapulted us into a now six-year cycle of men in the target market for Viagra.

Janet Jackson’s boob somehow opened the Pandora’s box of penile anxiety that is the Super Bowl’s true subtext. The nation is now working out the issues of its aging members through its major sporting events. While the average American male takes his true pleasure in his recliner, watching a chosen few Titans bash each other in a vague approximation of what he once may have known as sex, he is the perfect target for pharmaceutical companies looking to sell him back his lost erections. In that vein the NFL had a three-year sponsorship contract with Levitra. But as genius as that tie-in was, perhaps those anxieties are better sublimated through the halftime show than advertised overtly. The partnership ended in 2006, and, “[T]he league said it has no plans to court any other players in the erectile dysfunction category.”

*

Anything that is about sex must also be about death, and anything about death must also be about capitalism. I always attribute the nagging feeling that everything has Gone Meta to my frequent states of mind-expansion coupled with the irritatingly aggressive residue of Marxist film theory classes I only half-understood in college, but this year it really seemed that the continuum between collective memory and commerce had been collapsed with unusual efficiency.

In one of the commercials, the Who song “My Generation” was remixed over a montage in an advertisement for a device that plays TV in your hand. The tagline was, “Don’t miss a moment.” Don’t miss a moment of your life, it said, by carrying a television with you everywhere you go.¬† “I hope I die before I get old,” sang the Who. But that is precisely what they didn’t do (except for Keith Moon, who got old and fat really quickly before he died still semi-young, as every great band must have its sacrificial lamb).

When the Who or the Stones or Paul McCartney play the halftime show, I am always grateful that the dead members of their bands didn’t live to see this. I think of their senseless and random deaths as noble in some way, like revolutionaries. It momentarily seems they died for a cause, even if that cause was only escaping indignities like the halftime show or Viagra. You can’t imagine Lennon at the halftime show, but is that because Lennon had too much artistic integrity to do it or because he was shot dead right after he turned 40? If he had lived, would he have been up there reuniting with Paul McCartney in 2005? Would John and Yoko have allowed Coca-Cola to digitally alter the footage of their bed-in to show them popping the top on a can of Coke? This, thankfully, we’ll never know.

We take it for granted, the relentless absorption of images and artists who were once revolutionary and shocking into the mythology of mainstream culture. It completes the reincarnation cycle that leads from rebellious-resistant birth to capitalism-capitulated death. As the Who lumbered through their medley I found myself as inevitably inspired by the music as I was saddened by the state of the men playing it. The melodies and the lyrics had not lost their power to move me, even as the songs themselves had atrophied from anthems of unstoppable change into high-concept advertising jingles. This is the great genius and cruelty of capitalism–its ruthless deployment of the fact that our desire is fickle and malleable. With the same songs, we can be incited to consume just as easily as to revolt.

*

A chair opened up in front of the flatscreen. I sat down in front and watched the fourth quarter without hardly moving or talking to anyone. It was a beautiful fourth quarter. When it began the Saints were behind by one point and when it was over they were champions. The best thing was the interception, after they had already taken the lead, when the guy who made it broke free and was running down the field all alone, pumping first one fist and then the other in the air.

“Yes, yes, yes!” I cheered. The interception is the coup d’etat of football. I love to see power snatched away from and immediately turned against its original owners.

When the game was over, the Saints’ quarterback held his infant son in his arms as confetti and cheers rained down upon them. I had seen this before, the newly crowned champion holding his kids, and it is always adorable. But sometimes the triumphant athletes aren’t paying too much attention to their kids, they are waving and grinning at the crowd, holding the kid like a sack of potatoes that will one day need intensive therapy. Sometimes you can even see how overwhelmed and terrified the kids are by the noise and the lights and the people. But the Saints’ quarterback was totally focused on his kid, who had been thoughtfully provided with giant headphone-like sound protection for his developing ears. Drew Brees kept looking down at his son and kissing him on the cheek and telling him he loved him. He was really sharing this moment with the kid, even more than with the tens of thousands of screaming fans, and for the second time that night I felt like I might cry.

*

But there’s no crying in football. I’ve always thought the Super Bowl, except for when it was briefly about Janet Jackson’s boob, was alienatingly about men. There is a limit to how much I can relate to something that is at its core about reinforcing a brotherhood between men as both performers and spectators. The commercials were all about men, from a homogenized and demented but distinctly male point of view. The players, of course, were men, and the roar of the crowd was overwhelmingly male. Female fans sometimes mugged in their oversized jerseys with their faces painted but I always took that as a kind a strange way of relating to men that I did not understand. I always thought women’s extreme interest in a game that was so overtly homoerotic was itself a kind of transsexual homosexuality. The world of football is so ultimately impervious to the female gaze that a female football fan is a kind of cross-dressing homosexual. She is a woman dressing up as a man to ogle men as a man in one of the few ways supposedly heterosexual men are allowed to ogle the bodies of other men without being gay. As primal and fascinating as the energy of athletes is, it’s oddly non-sexual, or non-heterosexual. It is, in the end, a warrior energy, a killer energy, a destructive energy. It is definitely related to sex on some vast continuum, but it is not sex. The energy of rock music is sexual. The energy of sports is more destructive than creative, but I take great comfort in the fact that it is contained–in the stadium, on the field, under the supervision of the referees.

The thing I like most about sports is that they are a comparatively nonviolent way to channel the primal violent urges of human beings. While nationalism is to me nonsensical and arbitrary, I greatly prefer to see it expressed through sports rather than war. And while athletes are grossly overpaid, their salaries pale in comparison to the amount of money wasted on actual war. The very real injuries to the players notwithstanding, football is like war in a playpen. And what is the foam finger, the weapon-replacement of fandom, if not a giant adult baby toy? What is the towel, even the Terrible Towel, if not a burp cloth for beer drinkers?

As Drew Brees tenderly cradled his son, it was suddenly very clear to me that the point of the Super Bowl–and manhood itself–was just as much about fatherhood as this mythical warrior spirit. The hero at the center of our modern version of the Coliseum was brandishing not a sword but an infant.

A lot of people misunderstand Freud’s concept of the libido to mean that everything is driven by sex, but that is an oversimplification. The libido, or Eros, is not only the drive for sex, it is the drive for all creation, all life. After World War I Freud added on another drive–the death drive. Later called the Thanatos, it is the drive toward death and destruction. If human beings are caught between our desire to live and have sex and make babies and our desire to die, kill and wreak havoc then Super Bowl XLIV was an Eros Super Bowl. This year, it was about birth and rebirth. Babies being born all over the world, babes in the arms of their Sainted daddies, risen from the floods of their destroyed city.

*

The creation/destruction/reincarnation cycle in Super Bowl XLIV was further illustrated from yet another perspective by a commercial depicting a disheartening male fantasy of faking your own death in order to eat your weight in Doritos.

It was a particularly American fantasy. The ad opens with a funeral, where the deceased has requested that he be buried in a “casket full of Doritos.” But we quickly see that the man is alive inside his coffin, happily eating Doritos and watching football on a television mounted above his head, as if he is a patient in a hospital, or a baby in a crib with a mobile. Excited by the game, the man pumps his fist and shouts “Go, go, go, go, go!” in a way that is more than a little pre-orgasmic. His movements cause the casket to roll over and open, spilling him out in front of the grieving congregation, mouth full of Doritos.

And here we have American manhood in a nutshell. Sex has been collapsed with death and replaced with food and the passive spectatorship of sports, a nirvana so enticing that it’s worth dying for. (Though the man isn’t really dead, we can read the commercial as an iteration of man’s fantasy of Heaven.) The ultimate male fantasy is no longer to even ogle some maternal mammaries with the confused and stunted sexuality of decades past, but in our time of increasing obesity, to lie inside a box, watching another box, submerged in chips. To be buried alive is often presented as the realization of many people’s worst fear, but in this case it’s the best thing this man can hope for–“He’ll get out of work for at least a week,” grins one of his buddies, who’s in on the scam. The great liberation of the American male is to imprison himself in a box where he can die of overeating. In the orgasmic moment of spectatorial excitement the man accidentally re-births himself and looks as confused as a newborn baby. He has no use for the world, having elaborately and happily regressed himself to what Freud would describe as the oral stage.

It’s no wonder the boob, when it appeared, was such a big deal. The male sexuality of the Super Bowl is at once impotent (hence the Levitra), and infantile (hence the preferred fantasies of swaddled face-stuffing). One might think that The Boob might have proved satisfying or pleasantly titillating to these urges, but it appeared at a moment when impotent, infantile sexuality could not even handle a boob. Not even boobies, plural, a boob. Since then, as we have observed, Super Bowl advertising has moved into a phase of completely desexualized celebration of obesity, a state disturbingly congruent with America (no pun intended) at large.

*

Reclining in the lounge chair, awash in the pleasant endorphins of vicarious victory and the adrenaline rush of my vague rage, it all seemed to hang together. As repugnant as some of it was, at least it was coherent. I sat back and enjoyed the slo-mo of one of those commercials that advertises what you are already watching, a promo spot for the NFL itself.

This year’s self-promotional NFL commercials were set to the opening strains of what I eventually recognized as an Arcade Fire song. They depicted great moments of athletcism and fandom, a spectacular leap followed by a montage of ecstatic fan howling. The faces of the screaming fans, I noted, were those rictal wails that range from primal scream to orgasmic outcry. Some fans looked like squalling babies, others like people in the act of making them.

Turns out the Arcade Fire licensed their song to the NFL and then donated the money to the very international health organization my personal epidemiologists used to work for. It was while working for this organization, fighting a deadly disease in a place where football means soccer, that they met and fell in love and got the idea that one day, they should have babies of their own.

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