Super Bowl halftime shows usually break down into three groups: classic rock legends (Paul McCartney, the Who, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen), pop icons (Madonna, Prince, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake) and more recent stars riding high on big success (Black Eyed Peas, No Doubt). Bruno Mars is a little bit of all of these things. He’s an electric showman and old-school vocal powerhouse. His music mixes vintage soul, Eighties rock and contemporary R&B. His hits are beloved by kids who should probably be in bed by the time he hits the stage. Yet his penchant for hats can trigger happy nostalgia in people old enough to remember Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi. He even brings a vague air of racy post-Nipplegate danger because so many of his songs are about sex.
But he’s also got something to prove. He’s just big enough to play the Super Bowl but not so big that he doesn’t need to kiss America’s ass to prove he earned what’s become a weirdly important gig over the last decade or so. He had a lot prove. The game itself set the table nicely for an artist whose music can evoke the Police, Michael Jackson and Def Leppard by recalling the sucky, boring blowout Super Bowls of the Eighties.
The opening was a little creepy with a row of children arrayed before a stage emblazoned with the word PREPARE. And things went from weird-weird to good-weird as Bruno opened up with the first ever Mega Super Bowl Drum Explosion — a solo that involved a funk groove, military rolls and gorilla-heavy snare-cymbal hammering.
Dressed in a shiny Motown-style suit, his hair coifed like early James Brown, Mars moved to the mic and knocked out a lightning-quick greatest hits micro-set: “Locked Out of Heaven” with nice live group vocals and classic, quaint, synchronized dance moves; a butter-smooth “Treasure”; and “Runaway Baby,” the set’s explosive dance workout. Mars tried (and for all we know succeeded) in getting the crowd dancing with some James Brown crowd-teasing and riffing on the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
That transitioned surprisingly fluidly into the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ featured slot and a version of “Give It Away” with Flea and Anthony Kiedis giving no-shirt full service because at 45 degrees it was 40 degrees hotter than when they usually put their shirts on. Bruno’s crew contributed an excellently flailing guitar solo.
The show seemed abbreviated compared to recent halftime shows. After a brief montage of soldiers sending their love home, Mars did the tender piano ballad “Just the Way You Are” punctuated by fireworks. Then it was Pepsi logo time. A little Heart or Six Mix A Lot would’ve made sense considering the scoreboard. But it was a Russell Wilson-style coming out party all the same.