The NFL didn’t deserve Beyoncé, or Michael Jackson, or Whitney Houston. It didn’t deserve Prince. This league profits off men destroying themselves, sees a marketing opportunity in breast cancer awareness, and readily threw Janet Jackson under the bus. Prince represented something bigger than the National Football League. A black dude who’d rock thigh-high boots on an album cover doesn’t thrive and become a star in the States. But Prince was a genius who willed himself into ubiquity. Super Bowl XLI, played in 2007, ended with Peyton Manning, the company man, on top. That and Devin Hester’s return feel small now. Prince was here. And he brought rain.
The halftime show unsurprisingly became the best of the decade. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s ill-fated 2004 performance almost doomed us to decades of flaccid “rock.” Bruce Springsteen was fine (he’s never not-fine in concert) and XLVI’s 2012 extravaganza, with Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A.’s middle finger was great. Very few will remember much about the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers other than the fact that they simply performed. Consider what Prince took for 12 minutes to do: There’s billions of dollars and hundreds of millions eyes fixated on one stage, and you justify it with something easy to conceive but hard to truly master. Prince didn’t put on a show. Prince was being Prince.
Prince’s performance was model of both his charisma and his transformative existence. The hits were ’80s, the chic — the Symbol-shaped stage, the clothes — was ’90s, and the cultural references were 21st century (Foo Fighters!). Prince ran through “We Will Rock You,” the ascendant “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Proud Mary,” and “Purple Rain” in thrilling succession. Even the Foos’ “Best of You” was covered with a signature funk that made it seem like he, not a post-grunge arena-rock band, made it. It was free-flowing but it felt grand. Prince didn’t create drama, he exuded it.
How many Super Bowl moments are more instantly indelible than that curtain coming up, and a silhouetted Prince playing through “Purple Rain” — in the rain, no less? One of the greatest recorded marvels of pure pop ingenuity, “Purple Rain” closed an all-time great LP with nine minutes of impassioned gospel and guitar transcendence. More than two decades after its 1984 debut, the song bent Mother Nature by whim and again made us witnesses. That larger-than-life silhouette still hovers over us.