It happened five years ago this coming Sunday. A blithe, football-sotted nation was minding its business between halves of a contest between the Patriots of New England and the Panthers of Carolina. We were chatting amiably about the game. We were stretching our legs. We were eating guacamole.
And then, with one over-choreographed tug at an under-constructed top, everything changed. In the five-eighths of a second that a small parcel of Janet Jackson's right breast was exposed to the viewing public, we lost our innocence. The nipple pierced our collective sense of decency, sending us careening into a morals-free morass in which we remain mired.
Unless we were on line to use the bathroom, in which case we remained pretty much as we were before.
|Despite rain woes and some odd football imagery, Prince rocked the XLI halftime. (Getty Images)|
For all this, we have Charles Coplin and live-event gurus Don Mischer Productions and White Cherry Entertainment to thank. Coplin, the NFL's vice president of programming and co-executive producer of the Super Bowl pregame and halftime shows, was handed oversight of Super Bowl entertainment after Nipplegate, which was produced by MTV. His mission? To restore sanity and family-friendliness to one of the highest-profile gigs in entertainment.
To do this, Coplin decided to stress the magnitude of the event. The Super Bowl, as we will be reminded several hundred times in the next few days, is traditionally the year's most-watched broadcast; according to Nielsen Media Research, 97.5 million viewers in the U.S. tuned into last year's Giants/Patriots game, making it the second most-watched program in U.S. history behind the M*A*S*H finale. Given the difficulty even well-established artists have in selling records, concert tickets and related tchotchkes nowadays, Coplin and his team set about playing up the coveted opportunity to perform in front of millions of viewers.
"We felt we had a fantastic platform for artists," Coplin says. "It's a world where it's more difficult to sell records, so we thought that if we treated [the halftime show] as something special and got groups to be involved that resonated with lots of people, we'd be able to create some incredible moments." Paul McCartney was the first act of the NFL-production era, with the Rolling Stones, Prince and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers following in short order.
Never mind the artistry -- though Prince's set, during which snippets of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower and Foo Fighters' Best of You preceded a sublime, bombastic Purple Rain finale, kicked the dickens out of any recent Grammy- or Oscar-night performance. For artists, the Super Bowl show is all about the exposure.
Take Petty, whose four-song set in Arizona last February served as the prelude to a monster year commercially. According to Billboard, one of the songs played at halftime, Free Fallin', sold 63,000 digital copies in the week following the game, up 305 percent from the week before. A few days after the game, Petty put tickets for his 2008 tour on sale; despite the absence of a new record to promote, the tour grossed $41.8 million for 38 concerts, according to Pollstar.
"[The Super Bowl halftime show] is a highly, highly coveted slot," says Jon Cohen, co-CEO of music promotion and marketing firm Cornerstone. "You get lots of press for the announcement, then even more during the weeks before the game. Then you have the game itself and the aftermath. In terms of creating buzz, nothing's close."
|Tom Petty and friends cashed in from their XLII performance. (Getty Images)|
"You're always a little down after a big show. It changed everything to hear that finally we'd be able to take a chance on this little-known act from New Jersey," he jokes.
The NFL only has so much input into the halftime show's creative direction, though Coplin and his team do have their preferences -- during the run-up to Prince's appearance, for example, they lobbied for the aforementioned Purple Rain finale. As of Monday, however, Coplin wasn't yet sure what Springsteen is planning to play.
"In rehearsals, if he comes up with some new idea, nobody's going to say, "No, that won't work,'" he adds dryly. For the record, Coplin, like everybody else I spoke with for this story, laughed nervously when I asked if he was the person to whom I should submit my request for The Price You Pay.
Coplin can really only do so much because the league doesn't handle the game-day logistics of the halftime show. That task falls on the shoulders of Don Mischer, head of Don Mischer Productions and executive producer/director of the pregame and halftime shows, and Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, co-owners of White Cherry Entertainment and executive producers of the shows. All three individuals have worked extensively with the league during the past decade, either on Super Bowl Sunday or during the season-kickoff festivities.
Six days before the game, they appear considerably more relaxed than you'd expect individuals engineering a live broadcast for 100 million viewers to be. They're quick to correct misperceptions about the halftime show -- like the one about the featured artist being paid millions. In fact, Mischer notes, "They aren't paid anything. They do this because they want to be here."
Even as they prepare to preside over what amounts to a small-scale military operation, they speak mostly about making sure that the halftime show doesn't feel like "a concert breaking out in the middle of a football game," Kirshner says. "There are lots of things we do, but what's really important is that when the artist steps up on that stage, he feels really good about what he's performing."
At the same time, Mischer, Kirshner and Weiss are acutely aware of potential problems. The logistics seem almost impossible, really: In six or so minutes, they'll lead a crew of several hundred volunteers that will assemble a 45-piece stage, packed tight with wires and guitars and lights and cameras and pyro. The stage will be rolled out on low-pressure, big-balloon tires that won't damage the field. There will be 400-plus stage hands, 60 or so video technicians, 100 fill-in-the-blanks staffers and somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 audience volunteers ["We think there's a small chance that maybe Bruce had something to do with this," Weiss cracks]. Things will go wrong, they promise.
Like they almost did during the Colts/Bears clash a few years ago, when the rain started pouring down just before the half. Thirty seconds before Prince's set, a huge chunk of the glyph-shaped stage lacked power. A [quite possibly insane] staffer saved the day by holding three copper wires to an exposed plug for the duration of the set. In the rain.
"We had no idea," Mischer recalls. "Glenn [Weiss] and I were in the production truck together thinking, 'If one of the two twins dancing with [Prince] goes down in the rain, do we get a stretcher out there and let him keep playing?' But the rain wound up being a gift from a visual perspective."
And if there are problems on Sunday? "Josh Grobin will be waiting in the wings," Weiss jokes.
|Nils Lofgren doesn't mind missing the first half to again play alongside Springsteen. (Getty Images)|
One of the guys who'll be up that on stage Sunday night, longtime E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, is thrilled to be a part of the Super Bowl pomp and pageantry -- and that his appearance happens to coincide with the big-game debut of his hometown Arizona Cardinals. "How great is that?" he asks.
Lofgren has attended one Super Bowl in person; he and wife Amy journeyed down to Super Bowl XXXVI with pal John Madden in the famed Madden Cruiser. "What U2 did, that was amazing," he says. "McCartney was amazing. Petty was amazing last year." Still, he paints the gig as a challenging one, despite the fact that the band is slated to play a mere 12 minutes -- or roughly 168 fewer than the E Street Band's usual nightly output.
"For TV, you have to chop your music up, which is never your favorite thing to do. It's frenetic and chaotic," Lofgren notes. So how will he prepare? "Maybe I'll drink a little less coffee. The adrenaline factor gets so out of control, so the best thing I can do is stay as mellow and as calm as I can. Somebody else will worry about the spectacle. Once Bruce counts it off, my job's the same: to get lost in the music, to play it in a deep pocket."
Lofgren has more NFL ties than most. For years, he has been doing the music for the All-Madden Team rollout, recently released as "Tuff Stuff: The Best of the All-Madden Team Band" He has played hoops with Celtics legend Kevin McHale and regularly flashes his gymnastic chops on stage. Don't expect too many of what Lofgren calls his "forward-dive guitar rolls" on Sunday, however: he's only three months removed from a bilateral hip replacement. "It would be catastrophic and grossly irresponsible for my health to do something like that now. Surgeons don't like hearing, 'When can I get back on the trampoline?'" he says with a laugh.
For what it's worth, Lofgren is predicting Cardinals 27, Steelers 24. "They probably won't let us watch the first half -- we'll be locked away on a float somewhere," he adds. "We're here to work. I'll gladly miss the half to play with Bruce."