Andra Day to Beyoncé: Musical Moments from the Super Bowl - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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The Super Bowl is a classic, sometimes controversial, always inescapable American spectacle as well as a well-oiled corporate machine. This year’s game surprised some by setting a record as the longest of all time. Within those four hours and fourteen minutes, there were plenty of musical moments. The opening performances of American anthems spanned various genres, generated some controversy, and have a key Philly connection. At the halftime show, Usher skated across the stage with trademark charisma, stunning dance moves, and an impressive setlist of hits – along with several special guests. For many, the most important news of the night arrived with just a hint during the final seconds of a Verizon commercial. Beyoncé is back, with two new songs that represent a surprising and suspense-building turn towards country.

Opening

The Super Bowl kicked things off with pregame performances by three vastly different artists. Retro soul singer Andra Day started it all off with a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The performance was a moving moment but conservative critics took issue with the performance before the show even began. A few politicians denounced the inclusion of the “Black national anthem” and boycotted the event as a result. “America the Beautiful” was sung by Post Malone, a surprising but uniquely American choice. In stark contrast to Day’s deeply nostalgic R&B pipes, Malone stands out as a deeply modern pop star. He first broke out as a heavily-tattooed white rapper but has achieved unfathomable pop success in the years since. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he performed a twangy, tender Auto-Tuned take on the song. Reba McEntire, the “Queen of Country” herself, rounded out the pre-show with a rendition of the National Anthem. All three performances were produced and arranged by the multi-talented musical director Adam Blackstone, a Philly legend who first achieved success playing bass with the Roots and now works with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Rihanna.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" Performed by Andra Day at Super Bowl LVIII
Post Malone Sings America the Beautiful at Super Bowl LVIII
Reba McEntire Sings the National Anthem at Super Bowl LVIII

Halftime

The Super Bowl Halftime Show is undeniably one of the biggest, most influential stages in the world of music. It has produced timeless moments, reinvigorated careers, and featured some embarrassing flubs. Usher’s headlining performance last night arrived at an interesting time in the R&B star’s career. Confessions, arguably his greatest album and undoubtedly his most successful, just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Coming Home, the latest Usher album, was released just two days before his performance – though he did not perform a single one of the twenty new tracks. Instead, he used his thirteen thrilling minutes as a reminder why many have often deemed him the King of R&B. There’s his voice, still smooth as ever, floating in and out of falsetto runs and fueling iconic but often hilarious lyrics with sincere passion. Yet there was also a whole lot more – a whole lot often missing from the performances of more dour R&B stars.

Usher is not just a singer but a true performer and an obvious student of iconic performers (and past Halftime headliners) like Michael Jackson and Prince. His dancing, involving some smooth roller-skating choreography, appeared effortless but was clearly the work of a hard-working showman proving he’s still got it.

If it wasn’t already obvious that Usher would dominate the Halftime show, take another look at his 2005 Grammys performance alongside James Brown. After a dance battle to “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”, the Godfather himself dubbed Usher the “new Grandson” of soul. The Halftime performance wasn’t just a victory lap moment for Usher but a reminder that few male stars have challenged him for the title in recent years. In recent years, black women have dominated the genre – a fact Usher recognized with the inclusion of some great guests. Alicia Keys graced the stage to perform the timeless “If I Ain’t Got You.” Though she began on a shaky note, Keys quickly plowed ahead with a steamy rendition of her classic Usher duet “My Boo.” H.E.R. later joined Usher to perform a guitar solo reminiscent of Prince and kick off “Bad Girl” by performing its iconic opening riff.

Apart from the inclusion of the club hit “Turn Down For What”, the entire performance strayed away from superfluous genre mash-ups and opted instead to honor the late 90’s/early 2000’s era of R&B. The focus was on seductive, shirtless infidelity anthems but Usher took a few moments to honor important people in his life. With a brief but poignant comment, Usher dedicated the enduring smash “Superstar” to his mother. Just last October, his longtime drummer Aaron Spears died at just 47. The legendary musician’s drum kit was included on-stage in his honor. Everything culminated with the performance of Usher’s biggest hit, “Yeah!”, along with its original featured artists: fellow Atlanta icons Lil Jon and Ludacris. With a massive marching band, a few stripper poles, and a huge crowd of dancers, it was a fun expression of hometown pride and a final reminder of Usher’s command as a pop-star.

Usher’s Apple Music Super Bowl Halftime Show

Beyoncé

Over the past decade, Beyoncé has pushed the boundaries of global pop-stardom with an auteurist vision and genre-bending, boundary-smashing freedom possessed by very few artists. She popped up on Super Bowl screens in an unexpected and astronomically profitable Verizon ad. The commercial winkingly acknowledged her ability to “break the Internet” by depicting a series of attempts to overpower Verizon’s strength. There were references to Barbie,Lemonade, the Sphere, and finally a split-second announcement. “Ok they ready – drop the new music,” she told comedian Tony Hale just as the ad ended.

Fans quickly flocked online to find a trailer for her upcoming album, Act II, the second in a trilogy started by 2022’s Renaissance. Few might have suspected Beyoncé’s new direction would involve the country genre, but the two new singles and accompanying teaser trailer are an exciting left-turn. “Texas Hold ‘Em” represents a real statement of sonic intent and potential crossover move. Over a twangy riff, she sings “It’s a real-life boogie and a real-life hoedown.” Pulitzer-Prize winning musician Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo and viola on the track, which features production from neo-soul legend Raphael Saadiq.

The other single, “16 Carriages,” is less of an overt left-turn and prominently features organ and stomping percussion in addition to guitar. It’s a soulful and cinematic reflection on Beyoncé’s own coming of age. Both tracks represent a poignant return to the artist’s Texas roots. This double dose of new Beyoncé is an intriguing teaser for the new album, which drops on March 29th. While she’s already broken endless records, it will be interesting to see how the Country Music Awards and the Grammys react to this new sound.

Country may seem like a curious left turn but it makes sense as the second act in a new musical trilogy. Renaissance wasn’t just an exhilarating post-pandemic return to the dance floor; it represented a tribute to the black and queer creators of house and disco. Country is often viewed as the whitest of all genres but like just about all other genres of music it has roots in the work of overlooked black artists. In recent years, Giddens has written and spoken extensively about the roots of the genre and its key instruments in Black culture. Beyoncé remains as surprising as ever, reinventing her sound and returning to her hometown roots.

Beyoncé - Texas Hold 'Em
Beyoncé - 16 Carriages
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