What Retailers Can Learn from Super Bowl LVI’s Groundbreaking Halftime Show

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I couldn’t care less about the Bengals or the Rams – in fact, if anything, they both kind of left a sour taste in my mouth because each team had managed to snatch victories from my hometown Minnesota Vikings, beating them by just 3 and 7 points, respectively, during the regular season. But I was really – and I mean really – looking forward to Super Bowl LVI, played last Sunday in Los Angeles because, for the first time ever, the Super Bowl Halftime Show would be featuring five (actually six, as it turned out) living legends of Hip Hop – a first in the history of the Big Game.

Game Time

And even with all the pre-game hype, the show didn’t disappoint. In fact, in my book, it goes down not only as the best halftime show in Super Bowl history, but as a seminal event for the entire genre – one that has dominated global popular culture throughout the better half of the last three decades but up until Sunday was still seen, at least by some slivers of the American population, as something out. If Herbie Hancock’s stunning performance of Rockit at the 1984 Grammys – which featured synthesized beats, record-scratching, and breakdancing and is generally considered to be mainstream America’s first glimpse of this budding and vibrant culture – Sunday’s performance was its complementary bookend, marking the canonization of a true American art form.

To see the eyes of the entire world focused on performers who were, for so many years, ostracized by radio stations, always on the outside looking in at a mainstream culture that never fully accepted them, was a sight to behold. The setting was pitch perfect – a hip-hop ensemble produced by Dre straight from the same Southern California that made him into the musical force majeure that has had untold influence on the music industry over the past four decades.

Super Fans

For the NFL, which has been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending string of controversies when it comes to issues of race and racism, Sunday’s extravaganza featuring rap and hip hop icons Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, and Eminem was an astounding success. As expected, it garnered massive ratings, bringing in 103.4 million viewers from 8:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET. According to Samba TV which monitors omniscreen analytics, this year’s halftime show smashed 2021’s viewership numbers with 29 million U.S. households tuning in, an increase of nearly 20 percent over last year’s Super Bowl halftime show featuring the Weeknd.

More impressive still was the draw of the show itself: The number of households that tuned in only to watch the halftime show (and then tuned out before the start of the 3rd quarter) was up 60 percent over 2021. Importantly for NBC who carried the game, Pepsi – the halftime sponsor, and the advertisers who bought slots in the 3rd and 4th quarters, the halftime show also attracted an additional 1.2 million households that began watching the Super Bowl during the halftime show and stayed to watch the second half. (A close game also helped keep people tuned in as well.)

For me, who grew up an avid fan of rap music, Sunday’s show was cathartic. To see the eyes of the entire world focused on performers who were, for so many years, ostracized by radio stations and even MTV, always on the outside looking in at a mainstream culture that never fully accepted them, was a sight to behold. The setting was pitch perfect – a hip-hop ensemble produced by Dre straight from the same Southern California that made him into the musical force majeure that has had untold influence on the music industry over the past four decades.

Hip Hop Mainstreamed

The irony wasn’t lost on me of seeing Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg performing songs that got almost zero radio play across the country when they first came out in the early 90s now embraced by the ultra-conservative NFL and by proxy the whole of corporate America. Indeed, Sunday’s show marked – at least symbolically – the beginning of a new era in which America, and the world, can now fully embrace hip hop culture for what it is: mainstream American culture.

Rolling Stone called the performance an “Electric Celebration of Hip Hop.” Aside from the music, it was a proud celebration of the American Black urban experience. On Twitter, Questlove — the Roots drummer and director of the Oscar-nominated film “Summer of Soul” called it “the most beautifulest blackest s— ever.” Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamarr and Snoop Dogg, who grew up just minutes east of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood where the game was played, obviously had a hand in helping Roc Nation, the Jay-Z owned production company that produced the show and created the stylized dollhouse set. Center stage was loaded with architectural replicas of Compton’s iconic landmarks such as Tam’s Burgers, Dale’s Donuts, the Compton courthouse and even Eve After Dark – the nightclub where Dre got his start years ago that was later immortalized in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton.

Center Stage

Of course, as some Black critics such as famed academic Cornel West noted, Sunday’s show was as much a celebration and achievement as it was a missed opportunity. West wrote on Facebook, “The #SuperBowl halftime performance displayed our great Black musical tradition! But it was also a missed opportunity for truth-telling about Brian Flores’ challenge to the NFL’s plantation system.… the political silence of our artists was sad!” As West correctly pointed out, the muted political messaging of a craft that was borne of political protest came across as somewhat hollow – a fact made obvious by the lyrics in many of the songs performed having been sanitized for a family-friendly PG audience. I too noted some of these changes, but I can understand why Dre and Jay Z would have been reluctant to spit out their food just as they got a seat at the table. I think they are smart to be playing the long game.

Fashion Points

As much as the halftime show was a statement about this pivotal cultural moment in time, it was also a high-stakes moment for fashion. While the other male performers donned black gear, Snoop Dogg’s impeccable blue jogger was a subtle nod to his past association with the Rollin’ 20s Crips gang of Long Beach. (Crips are traditionally associated with the color blue, in case you are not up to speed on 1990s L.A. gang colors.) Dre rocked an all-black look including jet-black Nike Air Force 1s which was a bit understated but not far from his usual style. The upside-down 50 Cent and his background dancers recreated the nostalgic look of the original 2003 In da Club music video.

But the nostalgic fashion theme took an abrupt turn when Mary J Blige brought a look that was very 2022 and in sync with her hip hop diva persona. Her silver and white sequined leopard print boots were a nod to her love for high-heeled kicks. Her outfit and hair flawlessly represented who she is today and reminded us how far she has come personally and professionally. Kendrick Lamar – never been known to be “fashionable” in the traditional sense – donned a militant all-black suit that paired brilliantly with his politically charged (but lyrically toned down) alright.

Eminem’s choice in dress was pretty much the same look he’s been wearing for the past 20 years. Sensing that this was a night for Black artists to shine (although he was a central figure in the ensemble), he was wise to not attempt to upstage his fellow Black performers with a fashion choice that would steer attention away from them. (Eminem still managed to create mild controversy by kneeling in an homage to Colin Kaepernick.)

The set’s finale, the intoxicating Still D.R.E. was a love letter to Compton, with myriad dancers dressed in creased, khaki Dickies suits waving Compton flags, a timeless West Coast classic without which the performance would have fallen short.

The Lessons

For retailers and just about anyone else who deals directly with consumers, the lessons of Sunday’s show are quite obvious: not only is hip hop as American as apple pie, but its immense popularity – from music to fashion to film – clearly resonates across generations and socioeconomic strata. That millions of Americans were lip-syncing the lyrics to all the songs performed in Sunday’s 15-minute set proves that Black culture is not for only for Black and Brown audiences and counterculture White kids – it’s who we are now as a country.

Avant-garde brands have always leaned into Black culture in an effort to generate a degree of “edge,” but if Sunday’s program proved anything, it’s that hip hop is right for even the most traditional brands – from Walmart to Target to Kohl’s. Even for Old Navy.

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