September 5th, 2003
America, Brought To You by . .
By Tom Shales
American bad taste is the most powerful bad taste in the world. That seems
to be what was really being celebrated on the Mall last night at an excruciating
55-minute rock concert ostensibly convened to herald the new pro football season
and televised live on the struggling ABC network.
The event was deemed so auspicious that George W. Bush took yet more time off
from fighting the war on terrorism to appear, via videotape, at the end of the
concert and just before the game, in the manner of a TV huckster. He tried to
make some connection between football and "the spirit that guides the brave
men and women" of the military, much as the concert had done.
He also said pro football "celebrates the values that make our country
so strong." Like what, violence and greed?
Then, in intense close-up, the leader of the Free World asked the trademarked
rhetorical question, "Are you ready for some football?"
Some bureaucrat whose thinking cap had blown off authorized lending the once-solemn,
or at least dignified, Mall to this very raucous and very commercial event.
The show was a collaboration between the NFL, apparently trying to lure younger
viewers to football, and, as the announcer said, "New Pepsi Vanilla and
Diet Pepsi Vanilla, the Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla."
The not-so-musical music included a performance by bouncy sex bunny Britney
Spears, whose vocalizing was clearly prerecorded and badly lip-synced—but
then who knew what the heck she was singing about anyway? Spears depended heavily
on elaborate pyrotechnics and on manic aerobic-erotic choreography during her
two numbers; dancers hurled themselves, cartwheeled, tumbled and even crawled
across the stage.
At one point, she gamboled about amid, literally, great balls of fire—apparently
forgetting that Michael Jackson’s hair was once set ablaze while he was filming
a Pepsi commercial.
There was also, as part of the alleged dancing, what’s commonly referred to
as "some girl-on-girl action" (Spears and Madonna kissed on the lips
on a recent MTV special), as well as writhing onstage costume changes. When
they weren’t being groped or fondled by her, dancers helped Spears strip her
pants off, revealing a bikini-like black bottom for the second number. They
even helped straighten out the little pixie’s shorty shorts so that they didn’t
reveal too much. Or maybe so that they did.
Spears just kept singing, singing, singing. Or rather syncing, syncing, syncing.
But the feeling some of us at home were having would be better described as
sinking, sinking, sinking.
Also appearing was a Waldorf-born rock band called Good Charlotte, rock veterans
Aerosmith—who did so many numbers they turned it into an Aerosmith concert
—and popular supershrieker Mary J. Blige, who apparently prefers a strange
squatting position when she wails and screams.
The only really respectable musical performance, also clearly recorded in advance,
was the majestic Aretha Franklin’s overblown yet effective rendition of the
national anthem. Of course on the line "rockets’ red glare," red fireworks
were set off at the back of the stage. The show, directed and co-produced by
Joel Gallen, was a never-let-well-enough-alone production.
A closing credit, "Paid for by the NFL," suggested the football league
bought the time outright from ABC and then sold the commercial minutes. Many
of the ads were, of course, for new Pepsi Vanilla and Diet Pepsi Vanilla, the
Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla (when will they come out with not-so-chocolate chocolate?),
but there was also a super-kinetic blitz of a commercial for Reebok Vector shoes,
scored to the opening chorus from Carl Orff’s "Carmina Burana," one
of the most frequently appropriated pieces of 20th-century classical music.
When Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini included a bit of "Carmina
Burana" in his borderline-obscene film "Salo," he explained he
did so because he considered it "fascist music." We just note that
Each musical act was introduced by a former NFL star—Joe Theismann and Joe
Namath opened the show together—teamed with a member of the armed forces.
Theismann said of the concert, "It’s a national moment of remembrance,"
which really seems preposterous in light of what followed. A woman representing
the Coast Guard said, "I’m proud to be an American" before introducing
During a brief cutaway to FedEx Field in Landover, game announcers John Madden
and Al Michaels argued briefly over which player seemed more "juiced"
for the Redskins-Jets game that was soon—they promised—to follow. Then
back to the Mall for more eardrum-shattering rock.
While the sun still shone, the beautiful U.S. Capitol provided an unlikely
and, it seemed, reluctant backdrop for the acts. When night came, and the dome
was lit up, it appeared to recede a bit into the distance, as if in shame.
Perhaps the Mall will be available now to every American for weddings, birthday
parties and bar mitzvahs. No, probably not. You’ll have to be a giant corporation
to take over this precious public space and, in effect, spill a ton of garbage
all over it.