The Super Bowl Halftime Show is a tough gig. It's fundamentally a fifteen-minute sideshow, as performers try to draw the attention of people who've spilled dip on their shirts and are waiting for the game to get going again. Screw up (e.g., Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" in 2004) and you become a punchline. Do okay, (The Rolling Stones in 2006; Tom Petty last year) and you're forgotten by second-half kickoff.
But every so often a musician is able to transform the bloated advertising feeding frenzy into something greater In New Orleans in 2002, at the first post-9/11 Super Bowl, U2 delivered an amazing tribute to the victims of the terrorist attack. Watch here. During the band's performance of "Where the Streets Have No Name," a giant banner displayed the names of people who died that day. Even now, seven years later, watching the grainy footage, it's hard not to get emotional, especially towards the end of the song, when Bono opened his jacket to reveal an American flag stitched inside. Rather than mere grandstanding, the gesture came off as heartfelt. Warm, inspiring, emotional, and playing the right material, U2 was the perfect band for that moment.
Five years later, Prince crafted his own iconic moment. If U2's performance was all about us, Prince's was all about him -- and thank goodness for that. There are too many halftime shows that feel like the result of ill-thought boardroom meetings (e.g., Britney Spears, N'Sync, and Aerosmith teaming up in 2001) or bloated spectacle (Michael Jackson and thousands of, gulp, children in 1993).
But through sheer force of personality and talent, Prince made his 15 minutes feel like the main event. Watch the set here. Prancing around a stage designed in the shape of his famously unpronounceable symbol, injecting jaw-dropping solos into "Let's Go Crazy," and busting out unexpected covers of CCR's "Proud Mary," Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," and the Foo Fighters' "Best of You," the performance felt spontaneous and vital in a way that these precisely co-ordinated mega-events rarely do. When the steady rain continued into the set-closing "Purple Rain," it was as if nature herself wanted to join in.
I think Bruce Springsteen has a chance to do something equally special this year. Like U2, Springsteen will be performing at a particularly momentous time. The economy has imploded, but we're optimistic about our new President. Springsteen's whole career has been about searching for the silver lining among dark clouds. No musician is better suited to gauge the national mood and deliver a performance of perfect emotional pitch. What I'm saying is that Springsteen is more likely to explode a killer "Born to Run" than brood over"Brilliant Disguise."
If Springsteen is capable of matching U2's deep sense of empathy, he's also capable of Prince-like transcendence. Long known as one of rock's greatest live performers and pathologically incapable of going through the motions, Springsteen won't be daunted or overwhelmed by the size of the event. And you can lay money down that he's not going to allow himself to be upstaged by schlocky gimmicks like dancers or pyro. Those fifteen minutes won't feel like a curiosity or a simple intermission. For better or worse, they will be Springsteen's. He'll make them count.
MORE: Watch the 5 most memorable Super Bowl shows of all time here.