It’s rare that I’m willing to use Hidden Under Headphones as a venue for editorials, but this is a situation that warrants it. While the title may lead you to believe this article would be about crafting a case to see one of pop’s reigning icons have the opportunity to play one of, easily, the most important shows in modern day music, it’s more than that. Sure, Rihanna has earned the opportunity and she’s a logical choice. She’s got more hits under her belt than almost anyone out there, has grown to become a renowned performer, and with the release of her highly anticipated Anti, the timing is right. More importantly for this situation, though, Rihanna is a black woman, and the “Powers That Be” within the NFL and the Half Time production need to make amends with black women right now. This isn’t about politics or any kind of movement or anti-movement, it’s about doing what’s right.
The argument here also isn’t about a lack of black women in the event. While the likes of Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé have all graced the halftime stage in some capacity or another over the years, the numbers are as disproportionate as they always are. As important of an argument as that is, it’s a different one altogether. Of all the controversies in halftime history, none come close to approaching Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004 and Beyoncé’s “Anti-police exhibition” during her featured performance at this year’s show… and please take note of all of the quotation marks. M.I.A. flicked off the camera… was forgotten about in a few days, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t have their instruments plugged in… was forgotten about in a few days, but the backlash Janet and Beyoncé has each received has been monumental.
Let’s start with Ms. Jackson. Looking back on her halftime performance, the only controversy should have been how they crammed snooze-worthy performances from P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock in the middle. Instead, the world criminalized her because Justin Timberlake reached over, ripped off a piece of her clothing, and her breast was accidentally exposed for less than a second. Justin walked away scot-free, but Janet was brutalized by the media and almost had her entire career ripped out from under her over something she didn’t even do. Forget (or don’t) the fact that an election was rapidly approaching making her the perfect political pawn, but Janet Jackson did nothing wrong and was severely victimized by the media. Despite her apologies and explanations, none of which she should have needed to make, she couldn’t seem to pull herself out of the quicksand. It’s particularly worth noting her absence from this year’s halftime show highlight reel, despite being one of the most famous performances.
Now let’s fast forward to 2013 for a brief pitstop at Beyoncé’s iconic halftime performance… one of the greatest ever. She gave the public nothing to bring her down with. They attempted to call her out for being overly sexual, but those claims never took off. Just a few short years later, Bey gets the opportunity to join Coldplay to commemorate the 50th Super Bowl with a featured slot in their set. She (obviously) goes with her new single, “Formation,” backed with all-female dancers decked out in Black Panther gear. The performance pays homage to the organization, Malcolm X, and the current Black Lives Matter movement. In case anyone didn’t notice, Beyoncé is a black woman. That might have sounded sarcastic, but it’s quite an important reminder as society doesn’t seem to often acknowledge it. As soon as she does something to remind us of her culture and her background, she’s getting smacked with backlash.
The short performance has snowballed into accusations that Beyoncé was being anti-police, anti-military, anti-white, anti-peace, even down right racist, and so on; it was very clearly none of those things. She made no physical or verbal attacks on anyone; she simply visualized a statement she had every right to make as a black woman in America. It seems like, once again, society forgot she was black. To reiterate, this post is not politically charged in any way, but if anyone can truly look around and truly say race relations have hit their stride in America, they’d clearly just be kidding themselves. So why is Beyoncé not allowed to speak out in any way? She’s one of the most influential artists in the world, and has demonstrated time and time again her talents, modesty, and class. Is there a fear that if she speaks out, it could actually have an impact?
“Formation,” its music video, and its subsequent performance all have a prideful, empowering message that have seemingly been lost in translation between those who these movements have affected and those they haven’t. If you take a look at the underlying theme of Coldplay’s performance (just a friendly reminder that this was their halftime show,) was “Believe in Love;” It was spelled out for all to see. The show ended with all of the performers, all of various ages, genders, and ethnicities, and you could only assume religions, sexualities, and backgrounds, belting out, “We’re going to get it together somehow.” It’s a beautiful message that Beyoncé’s segment only enhanced; it was entirely necessary. Yet, somehow, people have interpreted it in their own way, largely out of ignorance, and dare I even say, straight up stupidity, and are hard set on dethroning Queen Bey. I feel like it’s important to say that, not shockingly, an election is rapidly approaching (sound familiar?)
To tie it all together, Rihanna is the perfect way for those behind these elaborate, pop culture-defining performances to take a stance for what is right. They dropped the ball with Janet Jackson, almost unforgivably, and they have been noticeably quiet about Beyoncé, but their decision to book another young, talented, powerful, and fearless black woman to play the Super Bowl Halftime show would speak volumes. It’s important to remember, too, that these performances are not aimed at the football-watching crowd, they’re designed to reel people in whom otherwise wouldn’t be watching the game. It’s worked ever since Michael Jackson’s catalytic performance back in 1993, and it’s only getting bigger. It would be easy to retreat to more vanilla acts like the NFL did post-Janet (McCartney, The Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Springsteen, and The Who followed in the following years,) but it would be a massive statement, almost an apology, to book Rihanna. And why her? Well there’s quite literally no one who would make a bigger impact.
I am not speaking out on behalf of any one individual, community, or movement. I am simply making an observation. Music is way too powerful of a force to underestimate its impact. Two legendary artists, both of whom just so happen to be black women, have seen inappropriate backlash for otherwise incredible performances. Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast, and society gave Beyoncé reason to speak out (and subsequently misinterpret it,) yet these two women were the ones getting pinned with all the blame. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel pretty confident that these issues are fairly obvious to see. Does Rihanna deserve to play the halftime show? Absolutely. She’s earned it in every way imaginable, and should she be booked, it would inevitably be one of the most talked about in years. However, the timing of her booking would be undeniably powerful, and would far from go unnoticed.