The Super Bowl Lang Syne

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Ever since the first edition of Signs of Life in the USA, the Super Bowl has been a lively topic for my semiotic attention. Indeed, in the seventh edition of the book, I analyze the office-theme trend that I found in the advertising for Super Bowls XLIII and XLIV for the introduction to “Brought to You B(u)y: The Signs of Advertising.” (By the way, is there anyone else here who wishes that they would give up that Roman numeral stuff: it's getting very old.) Which takes me to the topic for this blog. [No, not the advertising for Super Bowl XLVI. I found that to be rather undistinguished and semiotically bland. There’s always the Eastwood-for-Chrysler flap, of course, but all I’ll say about that is that its failure to even mention Barack Obama could just as easily been interpreted as a snub to the president in the way that it pretended that all of America came together to save the American auto industry when, in fact, Obama stuck his neck out to save Detroit and was clobbered (by proxy) in the 2010 election for doing so. It’s also true that the vaporizing vampires were cute, but everything I have to say about vampires is in the general Introduction to SOL 7/e.] What struck me this time around appeared in both the advertising and at half-time, which could be summed up by saying that it isn’t only the Roman numerals that are getting old. Between a balding Jerry Seinfeld, a grey Jay Leno, a youthful but clearly middle-aged Matthew Broderick, and fifty-three year-old Madonna still hoofing it as if it was Super Bowl XVIII, I was struck by the way that these Baby Boom entertainers (yes, I checked) still have star power. Oh, I know that the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Sir Paul (all of whom hail from an even earlier generation) have been half-time performers, but that only enhances my point: As the generation who created America’s youth culture ages, not only is it successfully carrying its once-young entertainment heroes along with it as if no time had gone by, but the Boomers are finding that their stars still have drawing power even for today’s youth. I simply cannot imagine anything like that happening during, say, Super Bowl I. That game was played in 1967, the year of Sergeant Pepper and the Summer of Love. The chances that the NFL would have invited the Beatles (or any other popular rock band of the sixties) to perform during the half-time show are nil. When pop music stars were invited back then, they were the likes of Carol Channing and Al Hirt, and they performed with the marching bands that dominated the show. The idea that the half-time show could be used to attract young viewers to watch the game simply didn’t exist. The Super Bowl was for middle America, not for its rebellious children. What is so striking about the parade of oldsters today (no insult here: I’m a Boomer myself) is not the fact that pop stars are being invited to the game in order to attract a youth audience, but that the obviously skittish Super Bowl committee (or whoever makes these decisions) is getting away with inviting superannuated talent, as are the ad agencies who are making the ads.  Clearly it’s working, because Super Bowl 46 (there, I said it) enjoyed a record 111.3 million viewers (try to put that in Roman numerals). It’s as if inviting Frank Sinatra and Perry Como would have attracted my generation in 1969. That’s the difference that marks out a topic worthy of semiotic analysis. What is it that enables pop music performers who are approaching their seventies to attract the youth market? (The Stones are in their seventies, and every time they hit the road they break their previous box-office records). I’m won’t attempt to answer that question at any length here because it’s complicated and would take more space than I have. I'll simply propose this: the entertainers who helped create our youth-centered entertainment culture, and in whose wake all current young performers perform, have become such icons of the youth-and-entertainment society that audiences of all generations can see past the balding heads, lined faces, and slowing dance steps to apprehend what those entertainers signify. They are the god-like symbols of entertainment itself, and the Super Bowl, which once signified the prime ritual of football-centric middle America, is now their cathedral.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.