Super Yoncé

By Sarah Mesle, Phillip MaciakFebruary 8, 2016

Super Yoncé
DearTVlogoDear Television,


SARAH: Phil! It was a great pleasure to discover that we both, in different ways, are football fans! I have been a committed football fan for exactly nine seasons: I got really into it when my older son was a newborn. Football’s often described as being a spectacle of male violence, but let me tell you: there’s nothing like childbirth and breastfeeding to convince you that brute physicality matters. My basic attitude is that football is way fucked up but it’s also one of the most beautiful rituals we have to process our primal human drives. (That said: I keep thinking this might be my last season watching? The CTE news is too much, dude.)  

Anyway, all this to say that I was interested in the Super Bowl already but then BEYONCÉ showed up to womanwomanwoman all over this primal man drama and I was like: my queen, I see what you are doing here. Basically my anticipation going in was that the Super Bowl would be some dudes indulging a ritualized drama of embodiment and then Beyoncé would swoop in and show us that bodies can be ritualized all you want but they are still bodies: with real costs and stakes. I cannot think of anything better.

PHIL: We are indeed fans of football, Sarah. And, although this information is at the level of The Dream I Had Last Night in terms of a thing nobody on earth cares about, I would like to take this opportunity to declare that I won my fantasy football league this year [applause].

Looking ahead, I shudder to think what it will be like watching Coldplay share a stage with Beyoncé. To use a football analogy, it will be like if the Panthers decide to start Johnny Manziel but then put Cam Newton in for three minutes in the second quarter. It would be disappointing and nonsensical and offensive and the opposite of what the people want. Everybody would hate it. Except in this case, the halftime show thing isn’t hypothetical, it is the WORLD WE LIVE IN. I can only hope Chris Martin simply evaporates after Beyoncé performs “Formation.” I wouldn’t be surprised if we all evaporate.

But, regardless of precisely when/how Beyoncé sunders the fabric of space and time tonight, I’m glad to be recapping here with you, giving the internet what the internet so desperately wants: informal cultural studies analysis of a football game.


SARAH: To my mind, the narrative overlay here was the sort of archetypal encounter between the aging king and the rising hero. Peyton Manning, unquestionably one of the great quarterbacks of his (which is to say, Phil: OUR) generation, leading a team against the youthful excellence of Cam Newton. The whole thing, going in, had a sort of terrible pathos about it because Manning has been so bad this year and, after a career spent playing on teams that were built around his arm and his intelligence, Manning is really playing back up to the Bronco’s defense. So this might be his last game, but my sense going in was that even if he won it would be this tragic encounter with mortality, the inevitability of human decline!

So, obviously, I was rooting for that story? But I had a lot of ambivalence. I will confess to, historically, having had a lot of ambivalence around Cam Newton, my least favorite of his era of quarterbacks. But perhaps I was just frustrated because someone that hot and that talented was playing for an expansion team. I categorically refuse to believe that any expansion team really exists. Like: the Carolina Panthers? Are you kidding me? That shit is not real. The only real football teams play in rust belt cities and express, through their struggles, the plight of the American working class body.

PHIL: I share your sense of the uncanniness of the expansion team. Imagine the cognitive dissonance we’re going to have to deal with when the Raiders inevitably move from Oakland to Las Vegas. Maybe the Bears should move from Chicago to Branson, MO. Or the Detroit Lions could pack up and start over in Park Slope. That said, I’d transcended that, plus the abject hideousness of the Panthers uniforms — the only acceptable use for that shade of blue is on a pullover Starter jacket in 1993 — to be fully with Cam on this one. I like Peyton Manning, and I respect the accomplishments of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in propping up his formerly glorious body like Weekend at Bernie’s, but I really like Cam Newton, and, flashing ahead, I’m a little sad to see that last night was about sending off Peyton rather than welcoming Cam.

For the past several weeks, we’ve gotten a lot of great think-pieces about Newton, about race, about the apparently unholy matrimony of style and talent. For a league with so few established rules designed to protect the health and safety of its players, it is a league absolutely structured by rules that police the way you play the game. And, as a lot of these essays have pointed out, many of the unwritten rules governing the quarterback position have racial undertones. The outrage spilled over Cam Newton’s style of play — when there are so many other better things to be mad at the NFL for — smells so much like racism it’s gotta be racism, right? Newton dabbing on bested foes might reasonably enrage you if you are one of the foes he’s bested, but, for the rest of us, it shouldn’t be a thing.

So I like Cam Newton because he represents a challenge to a league that isn’t often challenged. But I also like him because, normally, he’s so very very good and so fun to watch. A number of people have pointed out how one of the joys of watching Newton is the way he makes football seem like a game again. It seems self-evident until you think about joyless Eli Manning looking like he’s filling out TPS reports on the sidelines or Vontaze Burfict trying to decapitate Antonio Brown on the field. Cam Newton plays a game for a living, he’s very good at it, and he’s having a blast. Or, at least, he was until very recently.

At the same time, maybe the best, or most responsible emblem, for the contemporary NFL isn’t the undeterrable hero, shaking off tacklers, bouncing up after a hit with a smile and a dab. Maybe Peyton Manning, the battered sack of bones crawling his way toward one final bittersweet victory like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, best represents our compromised, blood and mud spatted NFL. And just as Leo will inevitably pull down the Oscar for which everyone will tell you he is due, we’re here talking about Peyton going out on top. Chicken parm, you taste so good!

TV MOMENTS (Sports Related)

PHIL: Sarah, this was kind of a boring football game, right? There’s a certain dignity and minimalist beauty that we associate with defensive showdowns, but, while this game clearly falls under that designation, it was devoid of a lot of the small pleasures that can make those kinds of games bearable. No pick-sixes, no really athletic interceptions, no real battle, even from the Panthers. I guess that’s what I’ll say was my Worst for the game: the spectacle of the Panthers’ collapse. It’s one thing to see two defensive powerhouses play each other to a stalemate, but this was something else. I know this is unfair to the spectacular play of the Broncos, but it feels less like the Broncos won than that they virtuosically stopped the Panthers from winning.

If I’m being serious, the Best was Von Miller shutting down Cam Newton the way he did. That guy is not messing around, and it’s pretty thrilling to watch, even if his dominance came at the cost of an even remotely fun football game. (Also, take a moment for Jonathan Stewart’s hand jive touchdown dance — Grease Live is streaming onDemand right now!) But if I’m NOT being serious, the Best was Eli Manning being a real little shit of a baby brother up in the Manning Family box.

Marcia Marcia MARCIA! Is it possible he’s mad that Peyton now has the same number of Super Bowls that he has? Is he upset that his dad made him sit in the back seat on the way there? Does he have a tummy ache?

SARAH: PHIL! We are so much aligned! Eli Manning commands a special fascination in our household — I tend to find his sulky stompiness endearing  — and that very moment caused a lot of heated speculation about the content of Eli’s gasping. Did it express relief? Irritation? (We did not consider gastric distress, but I suppose that’s as good a response to this football game as any.) It was a really peak moment of man drama — all those Jeb! Bush fans together up there, having feelings.

Other than that, I agree, not a lot to attach my memories to, game-wise. My main experience was of watching the Panthers’ offensive line collapse, again and again and again. Poor Cam Newton: just snowed over with dudes.

Maybe the best moment of physical mastery was actually Lady Gaga’s emphatic pointing and chest pounding. That was a display with some real strategic ambivalence: it’s like Gaga went so deep into disco that she came out the other side a country star, revealing the inherent camp therein.

Another way of saying this is that she goes so far into irony that it’s indistinguishable from sincerity. And with only this glitter-bombed chest-slap standing in for sincerity, what is football? What is the national anthem? The moment was gorgeously uncomfortable, Phil!

TV MOMENTS (Beyoncé Related)

PHIL: I feel like Beyoncé and Bruno Mars intercepted the halftime show from Coldplay, ran it back for a touchdown, dabbed, went for two, dabbed, then had to give it back to Coldplay. My best here is obviously Beyoncé-related (though Bruno Mars is a superstar and a glorious stage performer, and “Uptown Funk” is amazing). I’ll let you speak to the broader awesomeness of Beyoncé’s performance and of the song itself, but I think the Best for my money was the way that her performance achieved huge power in that huge setting through small detail. Super Bowls — and their sound systems — are better set up for Coldplay’s various “whoa-oh-oh”’s than they are for lyrical content, but it’s absolutely stunning that Beyoncé released a song with such lyrical power, with such specificity about its vision of race and empowerment, and then took it to the 50-yard-line.

SARAH: Phil, I have so much ambivalence about this Beyoncé performance! I mean, obviously it was spectacular. And obviously it is not fair (or even helpful) to expect Beyoncé to enact a global revolution in the space of one half-time show. But so radical, so transformative, do I find the “Formation” video that I actually was holding out some hope. I was full of such rabid speculation about how Beyoncé would stage the video for a live audience — what lyrics would she choose? What costume would she wear? I personally was hoping for the conjure woman black hat and braids: for Beyoncé to simultaneously be at the Super Bowl and to refuse to make eye contact with it. Double Middle Fingers, Super Bowl!

Now, obviously the way she did show up — with a troop of women dressed like Black Panthers — was an emphatic tribute to the history of black radicalism as well as a significant reminder of women’s necessary role within it. And there was a moment when my heart stopped, thinking that the world take over had begun! But then: smiles? A dance off? “Formation” as a song channels a tremendous urgency, and it was shocking to see that Beyoncé could decide, after all, that there was time to just goof around with some inadequate dudes.

PHIL: For a show that began with Chris Martin shouting, “We’re all in this together” while wearing a “Global Citizen” armband, Beyoncé’s anthem about black womanhood added some necessary complication. It's Coldplay’s whimsically Banksified post-apocalyptic freedom brigade and GOOPy post-racial universalism that “Formation” emphatically denies. Rembert Browne wrote yesterday that the song, “is a clear exercise in setting boundaries, in reminding everyone that we aren't all the same.” And this was manifest aesthetically as well as lyrically when Bruno Mars and Beyoncé formed a hermetically sealed, color-coordinated capsule of excellence in the middle of a middle-of-the-road show. They wore black leather and gold chains in contrast to Coldplay’s bedazzled army surplus, they uttered commands — ”Stop! Wait a minute,” “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” — they performed each other’s songs. They might as well have been on a different plane of existence. And then Beyoncé slaps the camera away. She slaps the camera away! I guess what I’m saying is that Coldplay was maybe useful here. A large part of “Formation”’s power is its video — which, for what it’s worth, is considerably more provocative and political than the actual song itself — and the halftime show set up a very different, but no less useful, set of visuals for the song to play against. “Formation” is made marginally more powerful in the presence of the thing it critiques. Coldplay’s Willy Wonka activism gave Beyoncé something solid to slap away, in other words.

SARAH: Okay: I totally like that reading, and am eager for some recuperation here of Beyoncé’s apparent discinclination to squash Chris Martin like a fly. I mean, obviously her performance was awesome. My prevailing sense, however, is one of disappointment. I have seen a certain amount of discussion in the last two days about the final lines of “Formation”: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation / Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” I feel a little — and this makes me sad to say so please, world, disabuse me of this idea — that with her Super Bowl performance Beyoncé shifted the conversation from her righteous bitchiness to her graciousness, and did so in order to simply make paper, to advertise (as she did immediately after the performance) her "Formation" world tour. Now, certainly there is nothing I would rather the Super Bowl be than an advertisement for Beyoncé — I’m not saying that’s a failure. But had a slightly crabbier, more demanding Beyoncé shown up, that would have been better still.

That said: these pictures are amazing. Maybe I’m underestimating what happened?


PHIL: This was an uninspiring year of commercials, I thought. Forced to choose, I’d say the Best were the sheep singing Queen for whatever that was for. My Worst was probably Colonial Williamsburg slipping 9/11 footage into a commercial at the Super Bowl. Was this conceptual art? Is this the “Cinema of the Unsettling”?

Then there’s Janelle Monae in the Pepsi commercial. Janelle Monae is a force of nature, so my problem isn’t the commercial so much as the fact that it made me think how much better halftime would have been if we’d been able to see a three-way dance-off between Beyoncé, Mars, and Monae. If you want to memorialize Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and James Brown, that’s how you do it.

SARAH: What a truly disappointing series of commercials! I was fascinated and horrified by the series of Hyundai ads featuring cyborgs, bad dads, and ambivalent bears. The commercial I found hardest to parse was definitely Jeff Goldblum crooning, Love & Theft style, over a black gospel choir in an ad, mysteriously, for apartments. I think the only real winner of a random celebrity placement, however, was Scott Baio, in suspended animation, shilling for Mexican Avocados.

Also I thought the domestic abuse PSA was really truly good.


PHIL: I’m not worried about Cam Newton. Though maybe I’m worried about Cam Newton. A win this weekend would have justified the showmanship to a certain extent, broken-in the fan base for years of Cam dominance to come. But I worry the loss will congeal as exactly what your Midwestern heart wants: Cam was shown what for. He dabbed too close to the sun. Pride goeth before a sack.

But I’m hopeful. If he needs help, Beyoncé can tell him what she does to haters.

SARAH: I was watching with a group of football agnostics and it was interesting to see that we all seemed to be attaching our hopes to Cam Newton — even me, who, as I said, went into this without a lot of affection for Cam in place. So maybe he has won some fans in abjection?

I guess that’s just another way to say, Phil, that I think the only real story of this Super Bowl is a sad one: not even a tragedy, just sort of a whimpering encounter with reality. It’s like a real late 19th-century novel of a Super Bowl, Phil — all disappointed hopes and failed potential. I am happy for Von Miller and for both defenses, but the game never reached the sort of joyful peak that comes when you watch humans doing the thing they are best at. Instead, we watched a field full of physical genius — Manning, Newton, Beyoncé — and none of that genius shone forth in a way that would make all the danger and expense and spectacle worth it. Maybe, Phil, we’re done here?

No call on that late hit,

Sarah and Phil


LARB Contributors

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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