Semiotic Snack: the 2016 Super Bowl half-time show
Continuing an annual tradition, the semiotics team met up to discuss the Super Bowl half-time show.
DAVID: So, obviously there are problems here. The kind of epileptic rainbow aesthetic that goes through the beginning of it, Chris Martin seemingly being a gay rights activist!
ED: I think Chris Martin being involved, to be honest, is a core issue.
DAVID: I’m actually gonna ask a question about Beyoncé, though, because everyone’s saying how great her performance was, but I think the black imagery is deployed in a complex way; I thought the Black Panthers reference with the backup dancers was weirdly blasé, especially juxtaposed with her use of ‘creole’ – I mean historically where I’m from [Louisiana], creole is a rejection of black identity, it means you identify with your Spanish and French roots versus your African roots. And creoles were light skinned, blonder, less kinky-haired people who often owned slaves themselves. To see that deployed in the context of a black identity formation (and taking into account that in the music video she’s the only one who has blonde hair) – I don’t know, is there something problematic there?
JAMES: I don’t think so, or at least not necessarily. In other parts of the video she has braids, right? I think there’s an interesting thing going on with those markers of otherness, some of which contradict each other. It’s a nice contrast to what was going on before which is this celebration of homogeneity – everyone’s enjoying doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time and being exactly the same. It’s lowest common denominator, and singular. When you introduce Beyoncé and Bruno Mars they bring in an othering which is just quite welcome at that point.
KATHARINE: I read it differently actually. I read Chris Martin’s bit as this really sloppy excess of references that aren’t his own. It’s completely incoherent. All the weird trippy Glastonbury references, kind of at odds with this India glamscope that he’s created, and then as soon as you get Bruno Mars and Beyoncé you get unification. It comes through in the choreography, in this immense styling which is so at odds with the car crash that’s been paraded around before. That’s the power in those performances, the singularity of thought.
SIMI: Yeah, the homogeneity is interesting because obviously ‘Formation’ is about homogeneity in some sense, about everyone pointing in the same direction; and indeed the dancers are choreographed to represent an arrow and an X; it struck me that the homogeneity you get with Coldplay – you can see it in the aerial shots where you get this flocking of people around this cross-like thing (which, yeah has its own problems); but it’s kind of experience collapsed into this wash of colour, versus homogeneity as this very directed thing. Which goes along with what you were saying.
JAMES: Well I suppose they’re not trying to speak to everyone, they’re speaking to a unique cultural history; whereas the homogeneity of Coldplay is about appealing to everyone. Getting everyone to sing nothing; this almost empty chanting. It’s quite thin, and quite vague.
CECILY: Yeah, so maybe, in treading a line between those two points, it’s about dynamics of content versus dynamics of participation. So for Coldplay the content is extremely thin, extremely incoherent – but yes, everyone is invited to participate. He’s constantly going to the audience and asking them to join in. And maybe that’s an acknowledgement of the fact that, I mean, he isn’t a consummate performer, he’s not, I mean, compelling to watch – but also perhaps of an acknowledgement of the inevitable backlash. Why is he headlining over Beyoncé? Is it because he’s a white man? That was very much the reaction. So he’s constantly handing over his power as a performer. Whereas if you look at the Beyoncé performance, she commands the gaze. The choreography, she’s being put in a position where she’s the only person allowed to occupy that position. The centre of a cross, the head of an arrow.
KATHARINE: I agree, yeah, because she – and Bruno Mars to some extent – they’re always in control of their identity making, whereas Chris Martin is never in control of his own signifiers, they are just things that Coldplay could at one stage have been involved in, or have pointed towards. Always pointing outwards and never pointing back to himself.
JAMES: Beyoncé and Bruno Mars reference each other, while Chris Martin sings lines from other people’s Superbowl hits while a montage of the Superbowl plays. He’s standing for kind of everything.
ED: Well, yeah. It plays interestingly with racial dynamics. He’s white, so he’s just kind of this void; he can contain everything but means nothing.
CECILY: He’s standing for universality, the default, and also – in the context of that montage – for the past. I found it interesting that he came on and did his biggest hits and Beyoncé came on and did her new material. Like, the past is Chris Martin and the future is Beyoncé. Or, you know, one can hope, anyway.
ED: That’s interesting in itself, as an inversion of racist discourses where whiteness is modernity.
CECILY: But also even maybe as playing into afro-futurism.
DAVID: Yeah. How do you all feel about the fact that she released a new song off the back of it, after this year of black violence? She uses it to announce her new video, new tour, uses it as a springboard, basically.
ED: That’s one of the things I’m always uneasy with. Well, it’s an uneasiness rather than necessarily a critical stance, but people who are seen to be doing good work, but their position is situated within the capitalist system.
JAMES: Yeah, that’s always going to be a valid critique, I think. Although I think it is part of Beyoncé’s wider identity. And in taking over the Super Bowl from Chris Martin, is that in itself a kind of black appropriation of white culture (much like the ‘black Bill Gates in the making’ line).
CECILY: Like a kind of racial queering.
JAMES: That’s an inversion of cultural patterns.
CECILY: Yeah. I definitely felt like the Superbowl was using Chris Martin and Beyoncé was using the Superbowl.
DAVID: I’m pretty sure Chris Martin asked her and Bruno Mars to come on. Because of the initial backlash to Coldplay, that it was a terrible venue for him and so on.
CECILY: So that ‘giving away of power’ dynamic we noticed within his performance, it wasn’t just something he did to the audience, it was something he did to the other performers as well.
ALFIE: Well, I guess, good on the guy, for knowing that that power needed to be given away.
KATHARINE: That anxiety around the performance, it’s so embarrassing. He’s bounding around the stage in this ridiculous tie-dye concoction and he’s exhausted himself so much he can’t even do the one thing he’s meant to be able to do, which is sing. No wonder he keeps having to give the mike away to the teenagers in the audience, and sit back down at the piano like he’s doing his scales.
JAMES: And that kind of performance, that distribution of power, doesn’t work within the Super Bowl because the Super Bowl is performance.
ALFIE: So that brings us back, because the Super Bowl every year is this kind of bellwether of US consumer culture. So what can we learn about the shifts here?
CECILY: They both reminded me of religious modes. Where Chris Martin, as Simi said, represents this kind of mass flocking around a central cross, almost like a mass trance or ecstasy, a speaking in tongues, where the content becomes nonsensical but the mass nature of it is what matters. Maybe we’re moving on from that to a kind of sharper, more focused, more regal pop culture articulation of power and dominance, which is the thing Beyoncé’s always been good at. I mean, look how she manipulates the visual language of gender. Maybe we’re seeing the birth of a new form of worship of our capitalist idols.
- Article by Cecily Long, Alfie Spencer, David Foote, James Archer, Katharine Hill and Simi Freund