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Swirling Down the Super Bowl

Journalistic tradition dictates that the day after the Super Bowl be spent analyzing the game, the half-time show, the commercials, all the attendant hoopla, and what it all says about the state of the culture. This is a grim business, given what it all says about the state of the culture, but we are steadfastly traditional and couldn’t find anything cheerier in the few non-Super Bowl stories that somehow squeezed into the news over the weekend.
We claim no expertise regarding the sport of football, but to our untrained eyes the Seattle Seahawks squad seemed to get the better of Sunday’s contest. The score was 450 to 0 or something like that when we dozed off late in the first quarter, and when we were awakened by one of the noisier commercials just before half-time the advantage had somehow increased. We had been hopefully rooting for the Denver Broncos squad, partly because of a brother who lives in the Rockies, partly because they play in the same American Football Conference western division as the Kansas City Chiefs squad we owe our regional loyalty and we were looking forward to rationalizing next year’s failure to make the playoffs by saying “Hey, it’s a tough division,” so the lopsidedness of the result was somewhat disappointing. Something to do with the Seahawks’ blitzing offensive formation forcing the Bronco’s aging quarterback to throw before he had time to check the color of the intended receiver’s jersey, we were told by the thick-necked men in bulging business suits who provided the half-time commentary, but intimations of other problems were apparent to us as early as when the Broncos’ center tossed the opening snap over the quarterback’s head and into the end zone for a safety.
At any rate, by half-time we were almost eager for the half-time show. The Super Bowl’s mid-game extravaganzas are our annual venture into contemporary popular music, and they hold a certain sociological fascination for us because they have come to represent the officially-designated pinnacle of mainstream mass-media show business much as the old Ed Sullivan Show did back in our boyhood, and it’s occasionally interesting to hear what the young folks are doing the funky chicken to these days. This year’s featured performer was Bruno Mars, who is so famous that we are familiar with the name but not so famous that we are familiar with any of his music, and we were mostly struck by the familiarity of his act. There were lots of the lights and fireworks and high-tech stage-craft that characterize the most up-to-date corporate stadium-sized show biz, but the haircuts and the sparkling matching coats and the James Brown-ish choreography were all borrowed from the “show bands” that had all the teenaged girls squealing at National Guard armories across the fruited plains back in the early to mid-‘60s. The music wasn’t bad by comparison to what we hear when scanning the car radio across the dial, but we’d still prefer the less-synthetic sound that The Fabulous Flippers used to put on the Lawrence-to-Wichita-to-Hays circuit back in the day.
At one point in the performance Mars was joined by funk-rock stalwarts The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have been around so long that we can recall catching them in performance at the late and long-lamented Coyote Club roadhouse up on North Broadway. They were pretty good, by our recollection, too cool for stadium gigs, but we were there mainly to hear the great cowboy yodeler Randy Erwin, who was the opening act because of a double-booking accident, and the set he performed in his long johns to spoof the band’s habit of performing in jock straps or less was by far the highlight of the evening. There are a couple of Red Hot Chili Pepper tracks we still like, both of which made it into the Super Bowl, of all places, but it still seems embarrassing that a supposedly cutting-edge performer such as Mars should need them around to make his shtick seem more contemporary.
Few of the much-ballyhooed commercials commanded our attention, but we were struck by the same theme of baby-boomer nostalgia in several of them. One ad for some product or another had Bob Dylan subtly warbling his class nasal country-rock in the background, and a lengthy commercial for the Chrysler Corporation had a grizzled old guitar-strummer who turned out to be Ramblin’ Bob himself. The erstwhile voice of his generation, now the voice of the voice of Chrysler Corporation, extolled the virtues of the America of smoky factories and river barges and James Dean and pool rooms, and course such traditional American carmakers as the Chrysler Corporation, and the mavens of Madison Avenue seem not to have noticed how very strange it was. Dylan’s politics were always stated in impenetrable lyrics and were notoriously hard to pin down, but there’s no doubting he became a commercial-worthy counter-cultural icon to a subset of his generation that angrily decried smoky factories and such old-folks transportation as Chryslers. Throw in the facts that the ruggedly individualistic and quintessentially American Chrysler Corporation was bailed out of bankruptcy with Obama bucks and sold to Italy’s most notoriously unreliable carmaker, that James Dean died recklessly driving a German car like the ones in the new ads touting German engineering, and that Bob Dylan now looks as ravaged as Detroit itself and clearly is not a pool player, and the ad seemed an unsettling commentary on the state of the culture.
The confluence of the mainstream culture and the counter-culture was accomplished long ago, but that just made the Super Bowl weekend all the more dispiriting. There was a funny bit with the Jerry and George characters from the old “Seinfeld” sit-com, but judging from the pair’s appearance that overly re-run show was a long, long time ago. The celebrities in the audience shown by the network cameras were mostly gray-haired, and included a shot of Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles munching on a pizza while he tried to figure out the labyrinthine rules of his confounded America, a past half-time performer and a relic from the era when the Ed Sullivan Show represented the officially designated pinnacle of mass-media show biz. Much like the Chrysler Corporation, the Obama bucks administration, Bob Dylan and Bruno Mars and the modern music scene, and the Denver Broncos’ offensive and defensive coordinators, American culture seems to have run out of new ideas.

— Bud Norman

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Madison Avenue and the Hipsters

The Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ improbable success in the early rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual championship basketball tournament recently prompted us to tune into prime-time network television for the first time in many years, and the experience has left us struck by the ubiquity of hipster culture. It’s not so much the tattoos and over-sized shorts and tonsorial strangeness of so many of the players, although that is a jarring contrast to the clean-cut and defiantly old-fashioned cagers we recall from the days of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, but rather all those unshaven young fellows with their shirts hanging out who populate the advertisements.
Our limited television viewing is usually devoted to the late-night fare on the low-budget ultra-high-frequency stations, where the programming is dominated by ancient sit-coms and the advertising is mostly on behalf of bail bondsmen, thrift stores, pawn shops, workers’ compensation lawyers, and other businesses catering to a lower-class audience that can’t or won’t shell out for cable’s over-priced fare, so this development took us by surprise. Madison Avenue’s enthusiastic embrace of what used to be called the “slacker” type also seemed somewhat counter-intuitive, as we would not expect the proudly unambitious sorts portrayed in the spots to be the likely consumers of the pricey goods being pitched. Having fashionably disheveled youngsters in the fast food and beer commercials make some sense, as those products are easily affordable by the low-paid denizens of parents’ basements, but it is a most baffling development that these days even most slovenly youngsters are apparently well-equipped with the latest electronic gizmos, sporty cars, and retirement investment plans.
Perhaps the target audience for these high-end advertisements is not the latte-sipping bohemian but instead the hard-working and dutifully conformist company man who quietly yearns for the supposed freedom of the skate-boarding and panhandling youngsters he passes by on his way home from a grueling day at the office. Simply buy our product, the ads seem to promise, and you too can be a youthful rebel and strike a blow against mindless consumerism.
This theory would explain the presence of Iggy Pop, of all people, in an advertisement for Chrysler automobiles, of all things. Pop was once the epitome of punk rock menace, prowling the stage of seedy venues with his emaciated and scarred torso proudly bared as he sang his anthemic “Lust For Life,” snarling its memorable refrain of “Of course I’ve had it in the ear before,” but that was before the punk rockers starring in today’s commercials were born. Only someone edging in the Chrysler demographic is likely to have the slightest idea who Pop is, much less recognize his weathered visage in an advertisement too cool to mention his name, and his tacit endorsement can only be meant to suggest that his equally well-heeled contemporaries can reclaim some of their lost rebelliousness by purchasing a car once stereotypically associated with middle class suburbia. Although we retain a certain fondness for Pop’s music, and cherish memories of Wichita’s original punk rock band, The Lemurs, performing a heartfelt rendition of his “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the ploy leaves us even less interested in owning a Chrysler.
We are disinclined to judge people by their apparel, and indeed are in no position to do so, as the dress code here at The Central Standard Times is notoriously lax, but this celebration of hipster culture has disquieting political implications. Several American cities have banked their futures on an economic theory of the “creative class” which holds that a town can do without an industrial base or noisome children so long as it has enough espresso bars to attract the cool kids, a notion so convoluted  that even its most famous proponent is now expressing doubts about it, and even such a stalwart base of rock-ribbed conservatism as Wichita has devoted a couple of city-subsidized neighborhoods to the hipsters. Worse yet, if the hipster is held up as a social ideal it cannot benefit a Republican party that is routinely and properly associated with its office-working, lawn-mowing, child-bearing antithesis Liberal politics is as essential an accessory to the modern hipster as rectangular spectacles, three days of stubble, and an ironic sense of humor. Perhaps it should also be pointed out that Chrysler was bailed out by Obama, with the bond-holding retirees and politically-unconnected dealers getting the worse of it, so Chrysler might enjoy some hipness after all.
Still, we find some hope out there for the squares. The Wheatshockers’ board-banging forward Carl Hall has shorn his dreadlocks and gone with a slightly Urkel-esque buzz-cut ‘do for the tournament, and now his team finds itself in the “Sweet 16” with a good chance at making the “Elite Eight.” It might be mere coincidence, but we doubt it.

— Bud Norman

Super Silliness

Such is the quarrelsome nature of modern America that you can’t even play a football game without provoking a day’s worth of controversies.

We don’t mean the arguments about which quarterback is better, or what defensive scheme might have worked best, or why your team is a bunch of limp-wristed sissies. Those sorts of arguments are a longstanding football tradition, and are arguably the reason they play the game. We mean the incessant cultural and political clashes that people hope to escape from when watching football, but which show up at every Super Bowl.

It is by now an annual tradition, for instance, that one of the many advertisements that interrupt the game will cause a brouhaha. This year it was a spot with movie star Clint Eastwood making a pitch for Chrysler, although you might not have known from that copy, which was a hard-boiled paean to the great American spirit of something or another. If not for a Chrysler logo that briefly and inconspicuously appeared toward the end one would have never known the ad was talking about a bailed-out, Italian-owned headquartered in a decaying, crime-ridden city with a third world literacy rate.

We’re reluctant to criticize Eastwood, partly because of his long and distinguished career in cinema, partly because he’s the rare octogenarian who could whip us in a bar brawl, but the spot seemed an effort to repay President Obama’s bail-out largesse with some tax-payer funded campaign advertising. Eastwood denies this interpretation, saying that “I am certainly not affiliated with Mr. Obama,” but he surely noticed that the ad never got around to mentioning the sponsor’s product.

There’s also an annual controversy over the half-time show, which this year featured the veteran performer Madonna and some big name, red-hot young acts we’d never heard of. Having come of age in a blue jean-clad era of rock ‘n’ roll when anything smacking of show biz was disdained as inauthentic, we were struck by the spectacle of the performance, which featured a cast of thousands and enough high-tech stagecraft to supply a George Lucas sci-fi epic. The general effect of it all harkened way back to the era of Busby Berkeley, but with just enough post-modern poutiness to make it seem contemporary.

Those hoping for another “wardrobe malfunction” to reveal some tantalizing part of Madonna’s still-toned physique were disappointed, as the only shock-the-squares moment came when a leggy young woman in a Cleopatra-goes-to-Vegas costume made an obscene gesture on camera. Once again, the cutting edge seems to be getting dull. Also among the guest-starring performers were a hirsute duo calling itself LMFAO, which we’re told is a text-messaging acronym that contains profanities — we’re guessing the “F” and the “A” — but that went largely unremarked.

The only other non-football controversy we’re aware of concerns the gorgeous wife of the gorgeous quarterback on the losing team making some profanity-laced comments in the aftermath of the game. We’re inclined to let it slide, as they say, in part because it was a spontaneous slip rather than a deliberate provocation, and in part because she’s gorgeous.

As for the many arguments about the game itself, those are mostly beyond our football knowledge, except to say that we’re happy Eli Manning won’t be remembered as the Dom DiMaggio of football.

— Bud Norman