1. Late in the afternoon, on January 30, 2014 and at the corner of 38th Street and Super Bowl Boulevard, I heard Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny From The Block" pounding out of a stack of speakers taller than I was. It had been years since I or probably anyone else had heard this song, which I suspect was honestly pretty much fine by all involved. But one of the things about Super Bowl Boulevard is that there always needs to be music playing, and maybe the people in charge had cycled through almost every other song made. Maybe all that was left after "Jenny From The Block" was the Puddle of Mudd covers album and Karmin. That would explain it.
This long break between listenings meant that I heard "Jenny From The Block" with fresh ears. This is not necessarily the best way to hear "Jenny From The Block" -- ideally your ears wouldn't be involved at all -- but for better and mostly worse it did let me hear the song as I hadn't previously. And what I heard was a song so explicitly about itself -- Jennifer Lopez's idea of Jennifer Lopez with whatever quotation marks you want to place around any of the aforementioned -- that it was no longer a song.
I mean, it was. It was a successful song, at least insofar as everyone, everywhere, heard it many more times than they probably wanted. But try to imagine a constituency for this song, which is about one person and not even convincingly about that one person. That constituency is Jennifer Lopez, right? Jennifer Lopez in a fake mustache, insisting she's not Jennifer Lopez?
Imagine listening to it for pleasure -- you are hearing a rich and famous woman, then dating a movie star and also a movie star herself, laying out rather defiantly how she is also an authentic person, who in fact grew up in a neighborhood. How, even with the great Beatnuts beat her producers swiped -- here is the song with a bunch of wild Queens dudes over it -- did people dance as Jennifer Lopez self-consciously and tunelessly and pretty peevishly explained that despite her $1100 haircut and climate-controlled Shoe Hangar, she was still just a girl on the 4 train? And yet this was one of the five most popular songs in the country for much of the last two months of 2002, by whatever metrics Billboard uses; it's certified platinum in Norway.
Anyway, I thought about that on the corner. Super Bowl Boulevard will soon be known by its usual name, which is Broadway. The cops standing in surly knots near police barriers will be reassigned; the people in yellow security jackets or blue security jackets carrying clipboards will find some other job. The people brandishing smartphones and stopping in strange places at strange times will go home, with pictures of their freezing selves smiling at various Super Bowl Boulevard photo stations. But Super Bowl Boulevard will be rolled up and gone, Broadway will be Broadway, and "Jenny From The Block" will echo out, unmourned. This is, all of it -- the branded tents and trailers, the toboggan ride and the block-long line for it, everything else -- is just blowing through town.
The security guards stood a studied distance from everything. It was not ever clear what they were guarding, who they were keeping out of what, or why. They were everywhere. The last bit of the song I heard, before I walked further south, was Lopez trilling "I've got to stay real/for me it's like breathing."
2. Super Bowl week in New York City was not unlike any other week in New York City. In parts of the city not immediately adjacent to Super Bowl Boulevard, there was in fact little evidence that it was Super Bowl week. The bars and restaurants that people go to were as crowded as usual and little more; the bars and restaurants that Super Bowl tourists were expected to visit didn't report much additional business, either. This was doubtless a big week for gaudy midtown event spaces and businesses that rent out velvet ropes and red carpets and DJ equipment, and short-term jobs were created in the swag-bag construction and using-a-walkie-talkie-outside-the-GMC-fan-experience-trailer industries. But the Super Bowl is not resonating outside of the portion of the city that's been given over to it.
There are people taking photos on Super Bowl Boulevard, yes, and a lot of kids and families, but that is always true of Times Square. There are many people waiting patiently on lines to get a picture taken with or inside a thing, or to see the Lombardi Trophy, from a distance and behind Plexiglas, where it lays Lenin-ishly in state on 44th Street. But also if you put anything on 44th Street, people will wait in line for it. I once saw a long line of tourists waiting for an opportunity to walk into a 15-foot tall rendering of Eddie Murphy's head, as part of a promotion for the movie Meet Dave.
3. The Super Bowl -- the football game on which all of this is leveraged, the actual real thing that has been giddily financialized into all these new entertainment products -- is played in a different city's new stadium every year. In a fundamental sense, though, the branded tumult that surrounds and dwarfs the regulation-size football game at the center of the Super Bowl Thing creates its own environment, which does not and also cannot change from one city to the next. This year's game is in New Jersey, Super Bowl Boulevard is in midtown Manhattan, but the Super Bowl itself is no place in particular, as always.
At this point in its and the NFL's existence, the Super Bowl is a huge but hugely self-contained thing, a series of VIP Events and marketing stuntlets and concurrent synergies that create their own microclimate. The host city exists to provide hotel rooms and extend public services, and then those hundreds of cops then mostly just stand around and watch people -- people who most likely are not going to the game, since very few people can afford to do that -- as those people take photos of their kid standing next to a man in an M&M costume or something.
There is no distinctive thing about any of this, and that is by design. There is no reason to have the Super Bowl in the same place every year, because the NFL makes sure that, at some essential level, that is already happening.
4. There's something kind of funny and kind of sad about the economic impact studies that come out before events like this, with their Rovell-ian specific numbers and opaque math. Some data goes in, presumably, and then gets bumped around in the data-mixer by professionals. Various solvents and bright-eyed multiplier effects -- every $11 beer vibrating through all the strata of the local economy, green ripples all the way out -- are added to the mixture, and some shiny number comes out at the end. The host committee estimated that the Super Bowl would be worth $594 million for New York City, then refused to release the study to the public. Everyone knows that this study is most likely bunk, because these studies are always bunk.
A lot of the ambient discussion around the Super Bowl works like this, and with the same implicit understanding that this is all mostly bullshit. For weeks, the sky is dark with press releases, crashing cackling into inboxes or leering out of Darren Rovell's brand-tidbit extrusion hole, asking: DID YOU KNOW that 102.4 million avocados™ will be eaten on the day of the Big Game? 11.71 billion chicken wings? 111.4 gallons of Lime-A-Rita per citizen? Four Dodge Rams worth of Taco Bell Doritos Locos Tacos? Perhaps this could make an interesting story for you, all those avocados.
It goes on like this. Did you know that the unrated version of this ad, the one with like Carmen Electra in it that was too hot for TV, is available online? Did you know this Exclusive Super Bowl Party will have models at it? Have you heard about this controversy? This is not information and so there is no reason to know it; these goofy studies and their fakey-fake too-precise numbers are, in fact, actually kind of insulting. No one really likes this sort of thing, it is fundamentally for no one, and no one could ever conceivably learn something from it. But somehow this is also tradition, now.
5. All Super Bowl stories converge on Bigness, the idea that that this year is the biggest year ever. At baseline, this is merely very stupid; at the extremes, it is ghoulish. This is how we hear about things like the Most Expensive Super Bowl Party Ever, which is a bit of blundering hotel advertising that nevertheless involves such depressing imagery as a television covered in gold and diamonds (the most expensive television in the world!) and caviar nachos (the most expensive nachos in the world!). The chilling annual stories about human trafficking and prostitution that arrive with the Super Bowl are, as Susan Elizabeth Shepard argued at Sports On Earth, mostly a mix of bad data and bad faith that is blown up to appropriate Super Bowl size every year. Every year, everything is bigger and bigger.
Just 'bout that action
Just 'bout that action
The simple fact is that this part of it is awful and everyone kind of hates it. There was an unusual amount of unusually bilious carping among NFL writers -- the carping is not the unusual part, to be clear -- among NFL writers this week. They were, most notably, "appalled" that Marshawn Lynch did not answer more questions at their media day event, an event that was also attended by a woman wearing a wedding dress and a man dressed like Waldo and Famous Internet Dancing Fat Kid Lil' Terrio.
Nothing valuable was coming out of that media day, again more or less by design. And so the writers went at each other online and bitched about their accommodations. It was uneasy and un-fun; there was the sense that, almost as one, these well-fed American Grumblebears realized that they didn't want to be in this zoo anymore, that actually ugh this zoo totally sucks.
6. There is something hugely uncanny and increasingly familiar about watching brands try to walk upright and talk as humans do. Because the component parts of these brands are various human labors (and also high-fructose corn syrup) they can generally do lower-order human things like tweet or sponsor VIP Events. But because these brands are not human -- because they're brands, they're things you develop a suite of feelings about through television or the internet and then buy at the store -- they always wind up making it weird. They try to do something like be The Sex Hamburger or The Irreverent Antifungal Ointment, and the mask slips and a grinning naked robot face comes into view. This is the same feeling you get when J-Lo lectures you on the importance of staying real.
And this is what Super Bowl Boulevard is mostly like. There are people there, and they are maybe even having a good time, waiting to get into the Bridgestone Tires Your Journey Our Passion promotional tent or to get a picture taken that will make it look like they were in the Pepsi Halftime Show. But these interactions are fundamentally strained -- as strained as a fan fest that involves nothing but photo ops with league sponsors and an endless snaking line for a jumped-up carnival ride -- because brands can't really interact. Brands can't respond, or give back the things that people give each other in conversation. This is not to make some sort of point about the inhumanity of capital or whatever -- although, sure, take it if you want it -- so much as it is an attempt to figure out what's so jarring about the NFL's metastatic bigness.
There is, oddly or not, something almost poignant about all this shameless, endless, outsized falsity. The idea is to create a thing that can sell every person everything, and the result is swollen and lumbering and distended -- it's so for everyone that it's really for no one.
7. In the end, what Super Bowl Boulevard reflects more than anything is over-leveraging. Football as a sport has problems, but is also thrilling and strange and utterly unlike any other sport. It's a unique and very good product, and that is why we buy so much of it. But all this other stuff -- the things spun off and grafted onto the Super Bowl, the fortnight of craven, blundering bombardment and meta-bombardment by the NFL and its aligned brands -- is just so much, so much more than anyone could want. It works, but only in the way the NFL wants it to work. It does not necessarily give us what we want, but it could only be said to fail if we stopped wanting altogether, which is not happening.
Still, there is something out of balance when the dominant emotion as the Super Bowl approaches is less anticipation and excitement -- and this will be a great football game, we should be anticipating it and excited about it -- than weary relief. The best thing about Super Bowl Boulevard is that there's a football game at the end of it.