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Twenty-six years ago, almost to the day, I set about rewriting the general introduction to what would become the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. Seeking something of sufficient magnitude and familiarity to effectively introduce an audience of composition students to the then-unfamiliar (and ostensibly forbidding) field of cultural semiotics, I chose the Superbowl, which, I noted, is "more than just a football game. It's an Event, a ritual, a national celebration, and show-time" for those corporate high rollers who can afford the ever-increasing cost of advertising.
As I contemplate the semiotic significance of Superbowl LIII, it's as if I am being visited by the Ghost of Superbowls Past, comparing the present game to those that have gone before and wondering about the future. And at first glance, much remains the same. The Superbowl is still an Event, is still a national ritual, and its advertising has come even closer to overshadowing the game itself, with specially made commercials released in advance, game-time polling to "elect" the most popular ads, and plenty of post-game punditry devoted solely to the advertising.
But there is also a detectable difference this time around, a pivot away from the past into an unsettling present in which the words "national celebration" may appear to no longer apply. For Superbowl LIII was as riven by pre-game controversy as it was afflicted by a generally lackluster performance on the field, a disturbing dissonance that makes the Ghost of Superbowl Present a rather ominous apparition indeed.
The causes of this dissonance are well known. They include the infamous un-called pass interference that helped put the Rams into the NFL final and galvanized the city of New Orleans into creating its own game-day counter event—not to mention the filing of a couple of lawsuits. And they also include the on-going controversy swirling around the Kaepernick-inspired taking-a-knee protests that, having been suppressed by the NFL, resulted in an artist boycott of the half-time show. Which led, in turn, to yet another controversy involving the rather-less-than-household-word band that, so to speak, crossed the picket line to perform.
But beyond these more particular conflicts there looms the vast conflict that is America itself today, which no amount of "unity" advertising (one of the notable commercial themes to be found in Superbowl LIII's ad lineup) is likely to disperse. The situation is such that it's ironic now to think how, once upon a time, the Dallas Cowboys could award themselves the distinction of being "America's team," and make it stick. Today such an epithet might be regarded as an oxymoron.
Interestingly, one sign of unity that I did detect on Superbowl Sunday appeared in New Orleans itself, where a highly diverse population of all ages turned out for an anti-Superbowl party that really looked to be more fun than the usual script for the conquering-heroes victory parades staged in the cities of the actual winners of the game. Could it be that we have here an example of a way of coming together in a common cause wherein both winning and losing are irrelevant?
Alas, no. For the unity displayed on the streets of New Orleans on Superbowl Sunday was motivated by anger and resentment, an us-against-the-world vibe quite in keeping with the overall tenor of American politics these days. The partying crowd in New Orleans had wanted to win, and, being denied their victory, chose defiance.
When you add into the mix the elaborate conspiracy theories that enveloped the game—accusations that the Rams/Saints game was rigged by the NFL high command to get L.A. into the Superbowl to help pay for the new five billion dollar stadium being built there—a dark new significance begins to emerge. Indeed, with bizarre accusations that the entire NFL season had been rigged circulating through the Internet, the specter of an America so torn by distrust and disillusionment that even its favorite one-day sports event can't escape conspiratorial contamination rudely enters the picture. If this is the Ghost of Superbowl Present, what will the Ghost of Superbowls Future bring?
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