A main requirement for a halftime performer at the Super Bowl is indestructibility. The halftime show is time-constrained, highly choreographed and responsible for keeping hundreds of millions of people around the world entertained between aggressive bursts of football and extremely expensive bursts of commercials. It is a show, but more important, it is the glue that holds the night together, the short money that keeps the long money flowing.
But there was no way to anticipate that the reliably malfunction-free Beyonce arriving in New Orleans for her turn at immortality would be a vulnerable one. At the presidential inauguration ceremony last month, she sang the national anthem over a pre-recorded vocal track, leading to a minor scandal, putting her on the defensive.
She is, though, up to the challenge — in this case, the conundrum of how to make her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show, which she had been planning for months, not only a spectacle in its own right, but also a conclusion to the messy affair.
And so for 12 or so minutes at the centre of the Superdome field on Sunday night, she balanced explosions and humanity, imperiousness with warmth, an arena-ready sense of scale with a microscopic approach to the details of her vocals. Amid all the loudness were small things to indicate Beyonce was answering her sceptics, quietly but effectively.
First, there was the voice, or rather, the myriad voices. After emerging on stage accompanied by a Vince Lombardi speech — “The spirit, the will to win and the will to excel, these are the things that endure,” and so on — she played with Love on Top like Play-Doh, stretching out some parts, tearing off little bits here and there, switching from fast to slow, all more or less a cappella.
At the end of Crazy in Love, she was virtually growling, giving that song a ferocity it has never before had. During Baby Boy, she maniacally screamed “dutty wine!” over and over again, and on Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), her voice turned grimy, burrowing into primal Bessie Smith territory.
At the beginning of Crazy in Love, she dropped to one knee, then sprawled on her back, continuing her choreography for the cameras in the sky.
She opened End of Time with ferocious stomping, flailed madly during Single Ladies and, during Baby Boy, was accompanied by a screen full of Beyonces, arranged in careful placement like a Vanessa Beecroft installation.
The most uncertainty she allowed was the will-they-or-won’t-they chatter about a Destiny’s Child reunion during her set, although by showtime, it was clear it was happening. Later in her set, Beyonce was joined by Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, her former sidekicks, for snippets of Bootylicious and Independent Women Part I.
Rowland and Williams then helped Beyonce out on Single Ladies.
After Rowland and Williams left the stage, Beyonce brought the arena to a hush with Halo, the ethereal ballad that closed her set. Her voice sounded just a tad deflated here, but by design. After 10 minutes of extravaganza, she wanted to leave with something tactile.
Beyonce the machine had made her point. This was proof of life.