The NFL will be handing over the Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show to Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers, giving a Hawaiian and a bunch of Californians the league's biggest stage in New York. And it will probably work, because the NFL's appealing to everyone watching with two different acts united by one thing.
Mars — his real name is Peter Gene Hernandez, so you can understand the stage name — won't be nearly as dynamic as Beyoncé was during her electric Super Bowl XLVII performance, which was good enough that the jokes about her show causing the infamous power outage in the Superdome felt like they had an element of truth to them. But to understand why the NFL, and halftime presenter Pepsi, would pick him, it's helpful to know that his stage shows, and his career, have been part of the very New York tradition of competent showmanship.
He's been a throwback throughout his stardom, starting as the songwriter and hook singer for B.o.B's airy "Nothin' on You" and Travis McCoy's sing-songy "Billionaire" and using the boost of those two songs, and other productions done with his writing and producing partners, Phillip Lawrence, and Ari Levine — together, the threesome goes by The Smeezingtons — to launch his solo career.
Predictably, it was a traditionally appealing song, the thoughts-from-the-best-boyfriend-ever "Just The Way You Are," that launched Mars's career as his own man. The song was his debut single from Doo-Wops & Hooligans, and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in October 2010, giving Mars six total weeks in the catbird seat in 2010, after spending two weeks on top with "Nothin' on You" in May. "Grenade," thoughts from that same best boyfriend ever at the end of the relationship, followed "Just The Way You Are" to the top, spending four weeks at No. 1 in January and February 2011.
Third single "The Lazy Song" — literally a song about not wanting to do anything for a day, with the immortal lines "Turn the TV on, throw my hand in my pants / Nobody's gon' tell me I can't" — still went to No. 4 on the Hot 100, and produced the most-watched music video of Mars's career, which is him and a bunch of guys in monkey masks doing rudimentary choreography. Fourth single "Marry You" didn't have much chart success, but it lives on in virality, as the backing to many surprise proposals that end up on YouTube.
But those four songs are each the acme of songwriting competence in one way or another, and Mars had established himself as a safe, smart pop star with his debut; he was the guy the Twilight folks called for an overdramatic ballad called "It Will Rain" that fit perfectly on one of the films' soundtracks, and not even a 2010 arrest on cocaine possession could besmirch that rep. This has allowed him to expand his ouevre to slightly less sanitized stuff, which will probably be the backbone of his Super Bowl setlist.
Mars has sort of telegraphed his growth as an artist, naming his sophomore 2012 album Unorthodox Jukebox and releasing "Locked Out of Heaven," which sounds like a remix of "Message in a Bottle," as the album's first single. "Heaven" is rollicking in the best sense, and probably Mars's finest song, but he was just trading on a different flavor of nostalgia with it, and with "Treasure," Jukebox's third single, which sounds like splitting the difference between Michael Jackson and Prince. Those singles sandwiched "When I Was Your Man," which sounds like that same boyfriend, still hung up, but with a newly-bought piano, and preceded "Gorilla" — hook: "You and me, baby, makin' love like gorillas" — and they're locks to be performed at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night.
"Young Girls," the ode to dating women that is Mars's most recent single, is probably a contender, too. But the "raciness" of "Gorilla" and of other possible songs, like the Mars-featured Wiz Khalifa-Snoop Dogg collaboration "Young, Wild & Free" (its hook was partially bowdlerized from "So what, we get drunk / So what, we smoke weed" to "So what, we get drunk / So what, we don't sleep," and radio ate up the latter) limits what Mars can do by himself. "Heaven" features "Your sex takes me to paradise" in its pre-hook, and while Beyoncé could get away with bits of "Baby Boy" and "Bootylicious" in a montage of eight or nine hits, Bruno can't do the same. There just aren't as many hits, and his showcase song is going to force a lot of parents to explain why sex would take someone to paradise to their kids.
So enter the second half of the halftime show: Red Hot Chili Peppers, now in their 31st year of existence. You are old, yes, but this halftime show is supposed to appeal to literally every American who would theoretically be watching the Super Bowl, and the Chili Peppers provide reliability that is a balance to Mars, who will be the first performer without a third studio album to perform at halftime since Nicki Minaj appeared with Madonna at Super Bowl XLVI, and the first headliner that "unproven" since Nelly, a co-headliner for Super Bowl XXXV's halftime show, which also featured N'Sync, Aerosmith, and Britney Spears, added a verse to "Walk This Way."
Even if the NFL spun adding the Peppers to the bill in January with a press release about Mars "inviting" them to join the show, the addition was clearly meant to give Bruno a big brother and/or a babysitter. And though RHCP was definitely too wild to ever have been a candidate to host prior to recent years, they're now known for the same thing, consistency, that many love in Mars.
The Peppers have only recorded one album, 2011's I'm With You, since guitarist John Frusciante's 2008 departure from the band, but their back catalog has obvious potential setlist features: "Give It Away" and "Snow (Hey Oh)" are musically interesting guitar-heavy songs, and feel like safe bets; "By the Way" could work just fine; working "Otherside" into a medley might be easy. The problem with booking Red Hot Chili Peppers for a whole Super Bowl halftime show, though, is the same as booking Mars for one: Does the NFL really want to chance "Scar Tissue" airing during the Super Bowl given its concussion epidemic, and the league tolerating the subject matter of "Californication" and "Under the Bridge" on air just doesn't make sense.
Combine Mars and the Peppers, however, and you get a show that reintroduces a traditionalist throwback and an aging stalwart, shaves off the edges Roger Goodell can't countenance from both acts, and prizes competence — enjoyable, workmanlike performances are the goal here — above all else. It will be an almost ideal show for the NFL, because whether you like the Super Bowl halftime show is much less important than whether your parents do.
Projected Super Bowl XLVIII Halftime Show Setlist
- "Just The Way You Are" (reworked to praise the Super Bowl)
- "Locked Out of Heaven" (feat. Red Hot Chili Peppers)
- "Otherside" (partial)
- "Give It Away"
- "Snow (Hey Oh)" (feat. Bruno Mars)