Barely worth watching


February 2, 2004


The pre-game and half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl has come to be synonymous with excess --this is America's most excessive sporting event we're talking about, after all -- but the musical performances that worked best in Texas Sunday were the simplest.

Houston native Beyonce Knowles outclassed everyone else in the all-star lineup -- and built up a great head of steam leading up to next Sunday, when she's vying for six awards at the Grammys -- by delivering an emotional and soulful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that, while dazzling, was nevertheless as understated and as beautiful as her elegant, cream-colored suit.

The show of good taste pretty much ended right there, though there were a few other highlights.

Janet Jackson kicked off and concluded the halftime show, which seems to grow more outlandishly silly and elaborate in its staging every year. (Her set resembled an intergalactic cabaret straight out of "Star Wars," and it was adorned with dancers decked out like post-apocalyptic rejects from "Blade Runner.")

It was a nice moment when Jackson gave the drummers from the two college marching bands a percussion solo in "Rhythm Nation." But she seemed to be lip-synching through her vocals.

Jackson only really came alive when she was adding backing vocals to Justin Timberlake's rendition of his undeniable hit, "Rock Your Body." The former boy-band heartthrob turned surprisingly credible solo artist had me hooked until the rather crass finale, when he ripped off Jackson's bustier to reveal a pasty-covered breast.

Hey, Janet, Lil' Kim did that act a few years ago. And Justin, such behavior doesn't quite mesh with that line in "Rock Your Body" about "no disrespect" (especially if we believe those rumors of a brief, post-Britney fling with Ms. Jackson).

The AP reported that CBS apologized for the incident, and Timberlake said he did not intend to expose Jackson's breast. However, halftime show producers MTV had been promising a huge surprise during Jackson's performance. (And why would the star have worn a pasty if she wasn't intending to bare her breast?) The NFL said it was disappointed by the halftime show. ''It's unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime," said Joe Browne, the NFL's executive vice president.

Hip-hop mogul P. Diddy was, as usual, thoroughly embarrassing as a rapper during his stint at the mike, pretty much tripping over his own tongue. The lovable, quick-rhyming, crotch-crazed Nelly deftly put him in his place when the spotlight shifted to him for a bit of "Hot In Here," but the tune was over all too abruptly.

This has become a problem with all of the Super Bowl performances in recent years: The network tries to cram so many big names (and so much ridiculous and unnecessary staging) into the allotted few minutes that each star winds up lucky to squeeze out one verse and a chorus before it's time to go.

Dressed up like astronauts and wearing four times more makeup than Beyonce, the grizzled old road hogs of Aerosmith mixed some sorry blues with a hackneyed rendition of "Dream On" that found Steven Tyler gasping to come within first-down distance of the notes.

The NASA theme continued with the warm-up performance by Josh Groban. The middle-of-the-road crooner gave us a schmaltzy but still moving version of "You Raise Me Up" in tribute to the astronauts who died in the space shuttle accident last year. But the sentiment was thoroughly trashed by overstaging that found some schmuck in a space suit re-enacting the first moonwalk on a chunk of Styrofoam at the 50-yard line.

That may well have been the nadir of Super Bowl XXXVIII's entertainment, but those of us who love music can be thankful for one thing: While Dallas native Jessica Simpson was invited to introduce the halftime spectacle while dressed like Drum-Majorette Barbie, at least the producers didn't let her sing.