Given the agonizing over air pressure that has racked the NFL in recent weeks, it was appropriate that the halftime entertainment at Super Bowl XLIX was Katy Perry, a queen of our deflated pop times.
Perry is a Technicolor cipher, a singer who takes on the shapes and tones she is given with aplomb and cheer but maybe not wit. That hasn’t hampered her success – her “Teenage Dream” of 2010 (Capitol) was the first album by a female artist to land five songs atop the Billboard Hot 100, and her 2013 album “Prism” had two thunderous hits. Perry is a pop perennial, one of the few left.
And the Super Bowl halftime show is a massive stage, one that requires the sort of pop stars that aren’t being minted regularly anymore, ones with wide cross-demographic appeal. In this environment, Perry will do.
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During her 12 or so minutes on the University of Phoenix Stadium field Sunday, she held her own, navigating a handful of her smashes and three wardrobe changes in a performance that resisted bad mood, spanning all of Perry’s modes: the triumphant “Roar,” the spooky “Dark Horse” (sadly without the rapper Juicy J), the chipper “California Gurls,” the beacon of pure uplift “Firework.”
Perry generally doesn’t move much onstage, so she was presented in a series of setups that masked that fact – atop a pseudo-tessellated mechanical lion, among a sea of dancing chess pieces and attached to a shooting star hoisted high above the field.
And she was gifted with guest artists who provided her with strategic cover. Take “I Kissed a Girl,” a dim song about experimenting with bisexuality that was Perry’s first Billboard Hot 100 chart topper, in 2008. She sang it in duet with Lenny Kravitz, who opened the song, presumably to help the subject matter go down more easily for unprepared, unforgiving viewers.
After about a minute of shouty singing and guitar angst, Kravitz was gone, leaving barely a mark, having been on stage largely to soften that song and to reassure those who still require the sight of a guitar, even one not plugged into anything.
Perry benefited far more from her second guest, the rapper Missy Elliott, long out of the spotlight but still easily the most modern-sounding artist on the stage. She ran a speed course through three hits – “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It” and “Lose Control” - and easily doubled the energy onstage.
At one point, Perry tried to dance next to Elliott, to get some refracted shine, but she was lost amid the jumpsuit-clad backup dancers marching in military lock step. Elliott herself was casually tough, and even slipped into a grin on a couple of occasions.
All in all, this was a halftime show that was notably unafraid of the feminine; in that regard, it was on par with the Beyoncé spectacular of two years ago (although vocally and performance-wise, Perry is no Beyoncé).
With that Beyoncé show, this performance helped bring a definitive end to the several-year drought filled with “dad rock” that followed the 2004 Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake wardrobe debacle: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Who. In that stretch, only Prince approached something like youth, or raunch, or joy.
Since then, the halftime show has skewed younger and more colorful. But it is now running up against the limits of the marketplace. Last year, the slightly underfed Bruno Mars was the main attraction, a reflection of the utter dearth of viable contemporary male pop stars. Assuming that Timberlake would not be asked back, and that someone like Justin Bieber would be too much of a wild card, there may be no male singers in pop ready to step on this stage.
So let the female reign continue. Sign up Taylor Swift – nemesis of Perry, and the most competitive person in pop – for 2016, and don’t even worry about whichever teams are warring it out on the field before and after her. She'll be the victor.