On 2008's Hard Candy Madonna sang about having "four minutes to save the world." At Super Bowl XLVI she had 12 to do the near impossible: entertain an audience of skeptical football fans, media critics, and bathroom-breakers during the country's most-watched television event while also promoting herself and her upcoming album, M.D.N.A. The possible pitfalls, to name a few — go too sexy and be accused of mimicking Nipplegate; play it too safe and risk being told she's too old for the game; sing only classic songs and be called a heritage act; sing too many new songs and risk alienating the fans who fell in love with her music two decades ago.
So the Queen of Pop executed the performance as though it was one of her highly choreographed tours. She hired the tech whizzes at Moment Factory to construct a huge stage covered in screens (no blinking letters like last year's Black Eyed Peas debacle, and no fans awkwardly waving their arms in front of her face). She brought along her core crew of gifted dancers and collaborated with Cirque du Soleil. She found clever ways to connect five of her biggest hits into a medley that also included her new single "Give Me All Your Luvin'." She probably didn't please everyone, but she put on an impeccably produced show up to her own strict standards. It was an extremely entertaining pop spectacle on a massive scale.
The performance kicked off with a "Vogue" remix that visually recalled Madonna's two most recent tours, with the star on a throne (a nod to her Sticky & Sweet Tour opening) flanked by a battalion of marching gladiators (a reference to the advancing dancers at the top of her Confessions Tour). Echos of "move to the music" melded into the beginnings of her Music single "Music" as the stage transformed into a vibrant boombox and her dancers twisted themselves down a set of bleachers, assisting the 53-year-old singer with a series of cartwheels. A tightrope walker bounced on a wire as LMFAO arrived and "Music" began to mingle with their own "Party Rock Anthem." Madonna strutted at the top of the stage to one of last year's biggest hits, and contorted her chiseled body to the "Sexy and I Know It" lyric "I work out!" (Yes, we all know!)
Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. hit the stage next in full cheerleader regalia to assist on "Give Me All Your Luvin'," and while Minaj got the bigger cheers for her (almost certainly lip-synched) motormouth verse, M.I.A. took the bigger chance, flipping the bird on her final line. Compared to Madonna's history of boundary-pushing, however, the gesture seemed tame.
Madonna then began singing the chorus of "Open Your Heart" a cappella over the rat-a-tat of an arriving drumline, and Cee Lo Green joined her for a bit of "Express Yourself." The soul god's real purpose, however, was to provide the gospel heart beneath "Like a Prayer," which of course featured a massive robed choir. As the song reached its final peak, Madonna vanished into a poof of smoke and the words "World Peace" were digitally scrawled across the floor. Was it audacious to try to connect the prior 12 minutes' entertainment to international politics? Of course. But as marketing gimmick or genuine sentiment, "Music" does make the people come together.
• Super Bowl Cheat Sheet: 7 Musical Moments You Won't Want to Miss
• The 5 Best Super Bowl Halftime Shows
• Good Sport: Madonna, M.I.A., and Minaj Play Ball in 'Give Me All Your Luvin' ' Video