There’s no bigger concert stage than the Super Bowl halftime show. Year after year, more Americans watch the game than any other TV event, and even with cord-cutting and controversy eating into NFL ratings recently, the Super Bowl still draws more than 100 million viewers from red and blue America alike. No musician would ever otherwise have that kind of audience for a single performance.
Which is why the halftime show has historically been often dazzling, often disappointing, and perpetually contested. Big-tent icons—Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna—have put on defining performances. But popular culture’s fault lines have a way of surfacing, too. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” kicked off debates about decency and double standards. In M.I.A.’s middle finger, America experienced the revenge of the punkish types whom the mainstream routinely steals from and defangs. And Beyoncé helped usher in a new discussion about race by punctuating Coldplay’s set in Black Panther Party couture.
The issue of race has indeed put the 2019 halftime show—and the game around it—in a strange spot. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 decision to begin kneeling during the national anthem at the beginning of games, a gesture against institutional racism, set off a domino line that’s still falling today. Kaepernick spurred a protest movement among players, which drew an intense backlash that Donald Trump gleefully stoked. The situation has built to the point where even the most milquetoast entertainer will have a tough time navigating halftime.