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Superbowl XLII: American Zeitgeist


“I have loved war too well.”

- Louis XIV, 1715

Even if you’re the sort of rarified American sportstard who thought all last year that Tom Brady was somehow associated with a 70’s sitcom, you still should succumb to the spectacle of the Super Bowl.

I can’t deny the draw of The Big Game even though I still think a third down conversion sounds like a religious experience (and I think for true fans it can be). You have to watch because the Super Bowl is America’s mass culture barometer.

Nothing distills America’s collective consciousness like a Super Bowl show. The interplay between the narrative superstructure created by the broadcaster and the commercials’ patchwork undercurrent of American desires and fears is fascinating. In a four-hour window, the heart of the heart of the country is opened up for interpretation. This year, it revealed an America deeply conflicted, caught between converging fantasies and inconvenient realities. We appear to be at odds with ourselves.

So what’s on our minds? FOX set the tone right away in the pre-game show:  War. This is a war. We are at war. Football is war. Simultaneously, the country is years deep into a costly, deteriorating war. We love the troops, we hate the war. We don’t hate what the war stands for, but we hate how we got there. Wait, do we hate our country if we hate the war?

It’s interesting to note that the first Superbowl was held in 1967, right in the midst of the U.S. jungle war operations in Vietnam. Public opinion that intervention in Vietnam was a mistake was on the rise and confidence in military leaders was on the decline . The year leading up to the Super Bowl, 1966, was the year youth activists began protesting the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam, and J. Edgar Hoover branded protestors “Marxists” whose aim was to destroy democracy . Muhammed Ali declared himself a conscientious objector. The anti-communist comic Ironman focused on an iconic technologist who helped U.S. forces against the North Vietnamese and created a metallic supersuit. Sounds familiar .

Forty years on, what’s a conservative broadcaster to do? Beginning with the pre-game reading of the Declaration of Independence, the montage included national landmarks, as well as multiple shots of Navy ships, Ground Zero, and the widow of Pat Tillman. It was not exactly the one-sided drum-thudding conservative militarism one might have expected from FOX, especially considering Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. Indeed, what played throughout the broadcast was a tale of national ambivalence.

Football resonates with idealized images of Revolutionary and Civil War armies locked in ideological struggle. The key phrase surrounding The Big Game this year was “undefeated Patriots.”  America is hungry for media events with a decisive outcome—one in which there are rules of engagement and incontrovertible victories. We like our opponents in uniform. We prefer celebrity soldiers. No IEDs on the 10-yard line, please. The NFL battlefield gives us refs, near assurance of justice, the ability to stop time and reverse decisions, and the idea that on the sidelines, competent strategists are guiding the plays.  But abstracted from the NFL, the real-world concept of “undefeated patriots” is a bitter and preposterous fantasy, reminiscent of childlike promises issued by the Bush administration.

In the run-up to the Giants and the Patriots appearance on the field, FOX ran two vignettes to characterize the teams’ position going into the Super Bowl. Looking for key phrases to capture the spirit of each team, FOX went with “team work” for the Patriots and “road warriors” for the Giants. This is nothing less than a caricature of our attitude concerning the socio-political struggle America faces right now, domestically and internationally; two teams in variations on red, white, and blue, one characterized as a well-oiled, military machine of team work, the other dimly associated with a resilient band of hell-bent survivors mired in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Think this is over the line?  How about the continuous special effects battle between FOX’s gleaming football soldier and the red-eyed, titanium skeleton of the Terminator that raged between commercial breaks (exo- vs. endo-skeletons, if you will)? It’s not at all a battle between good and evil, per se, but a battle against ourselves; we are not united in a just war against a common cause, we are deeply conflicted about our collective direction. We want to believe in victory, but we are also increasingly aware of grim indicators, such as last year’s average of five U.S. soldier suicide attempts per day .

The theme of doubt in the midst of struggle carried into Tom Petty’s halftime performance, a string of his four most recognizable songs. Consider some of the lyrics blasted out in the good-time, beer-loving growl of American rock. Listen to the mix of stubborn self-reliance and opportunism, of love and fear:

From American Girl :

“Well, she was an American girl raised on promises.

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life somewhere else.

After all, it was a great big world with lots of places to run to.

Yeah, and if she had to die tryin’ she had one little promise she was gonna keep.”

From Won’t Back Down :

“Well, I wont back down, no I wont back down.

You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

From Free Falling :

“She’s a good girl, loves her mama.  Loves Jesus and America, too.

She’s a good girl, crazy bout Elvis.  Loves horses and her boyfriend too.”

“And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows.

All the good girls are home with broken hearts.”

From Running Down a Dream :

“I rolled on as the sky grew dark, I put the pedal down to make some time.

There’s’ something good waitin’ down this road.  I’m pickin’ up whatever is mine.”

As to the fate of those “undefeated Patriots?” Indeed, it was a stunning upset, one in which a much-favored opponent with a near imperial march towards total dominance found itself unexpectedly unable to make progress, experienced continuous setbacks, and ultimately succumbed. Post-game, Giants’ linebacker Antonio Pierce summed it up thusly:  “This was the death of a dynasty! We wore all black, and we killed it!”

But in Super Bowl wars, even the losers are winners. While Antonio will take home the glory ring and a $70,000 bonus, even the oft-sacked Tom Brady will have an extra $40,000 to soothe his fractured season. Your average pigskin fan could buy a lot of Bud and hot wings with that. Or he might opt to try and keep the bank from foreclosing on his house. Which brings us to the curious (and many say disappointing) run of Super Bowl commercials.

What surfaced was an entirely different sort of conflict, a picture of an America caught between fantasy and reality, one which hungered for luxury (Audi R8) but might have to settle for sensibility (Hyundai Genesis). With Sisyphean imagery of pushing boulders uphill, GMC half-heartedly encouraged us to believe in the great, white have-your-cake-and-eat-it
-too myth of a fuel-efficient Yukon SUV. New beginnings gushed (along with vomit) from an infant’s mouth as he lured us into E-Trade, digital gateway to the world’s biggest casino. Our embrace of global causes was oddly gutted by our raging narcissism (Dell RED). We are terrified of losing our jobs and need help from a magic bullet (SalesGenie), and yet we hate our jobs so much that our hearts burst from our chests and quit for us (CareerBuilder.com). We can be world-saving super heroes (Ironman), but even our fantasy worlds are in the throes of cataclysmic war (Chronicles of Narnia sequel). Also, a mortal struggle is worth the object of our desire (Coke), yet compromise and human understanding of our adversaries paves the way to peace (Coke). Information empowers us to make smart decisions (Cars.com) but if all else fails, we’re prepared to fight to the death or shrink your head (Cars.com).

It might just be that the root of America’s ambivalence, both on the topics of war and the future of our consumer culture, is an increasing weariness of raw data and official intelligence. For the past eight years, we’ve been a very trusting lot, only to find that the “facts” haven’t provided us a way to make sense of the world.  The facts, and the mouthpieces for those facts, have told us one thing, and then turned out to mean another.

The late Frederick Busch, fiction writer, says in a 2005 interview :

“I think it’s a very difficult world to content with now, and has been for a while. I think our cultural legislators, the people who control our money, have this very solid, peasant-like belief that if we can arm ourselves with lots of facts, we will be able to content with the world. They don’t understand that the most practical way of contending with the difficult world is to immerse yourself in it…in the fictions of fantasists.”

So much can be taken from a close reading of the Super Bowl, but it seems to me that if we take away anything, it may be that the mass America we sometimes invent in our heads is not as one-note anymore as it has seemed in the past. The facts don’t tell the story. The American heart needs some guidance, and it is tired of being targeted. It needs relevancy and narrative. It needs uncomfortable but empathetic honesty.

And if you can write that story, you win.  Fourth and inches.


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