From Who's Next to "Snooze, next!" That, in a nutshell, would seem to be the Who's career trajectory. The band's ballyhooed Super Bowl halftime show was greeted with a resounding trip to the refrigerator by the nation's rock fans, who are suffering from a possibly terminal case of classic-rock fatigue. When even grizzled boomers are tweeting that they would rather have been watching Ke$ha, you know a change of game plan may be in order for next year's Bowl.
In principle, it was a great booking: In their prime, the Who were arguably the greatest live rock band that ever existed on the planet. And it's not as if surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are so far past that prime, even in their 60s, that diehard fans shouldn't greet any reappearance as a matter for joy. But maybe that should remain a semi-private joy—not something to be shared with millions of critical sportsaholics who will notice only that Rog has to avoid some of the high notes now, or that Pete is in no danger of sliding on his knees across the stage, as promised in the teaser ads.
And it may be fans most of all who lamented that this was, to quote an old album title, Who by Numbers: two or three minutes each of the five '60s or '70s songs you guessed ahead of time you'd be hearing—that is, the ones overexposed in every CSI commercial or movie trailer, ever since Townshend pioneered the art of over-licensing.
There was something very rock & roll about the way Townshend appeared to literally have just rolled out of bed. While Daltrey looked natty as ever in a striped jacket, Townshend was all about the grey stubble, half-untucked shirt, and frayed jacket sleeve. When he went into his trademark windmill moves a few minutes into the medley, you wondered if his thrift-store outfit might literally fall apart, in a sort of punk-rock variation on the halftime-show wardrobe malfunction tradition.
Unfortunately, there was more punk-rock in Carrie Underwood's climactic missed final note of the National Anthem than there was in anything about the Who's 12-minute "Stars on 45" set.
For better and worse, everyone seemed to be singing and playing live this year, unlike past Super Bowls, when some of the greatest singers in the world lip-synched to pre-recordings of the anthem, and some of the greatest rock bands in the world mimed along to tracks they'd laid down earlier in a studio. The Bowl show producers seem to have given up their belief that nothing dare be left to chance, and so we got to hear some vocal limitations from pretty much everyone who performed—which was far better than the sterile lip-syncing alternative.
Underwood did just fine covering Francis Scott Key, and given her usual perfection, the pitchiness of that last note was... shall we say... humanizing? Queen Latifah also had a slight bit of struggle earlier, though not too embarrassingly much, with "America the Beautiful." The mystery of whether everyone would be lip-synching tonight or not was solved in the first 10 seconds of Latifah's performance, when she tore the earpiece out of her ear in frustration and decided to wing it. Her rendition of the country's unofficial secondary anthem was not bad—although, in a coda that involved a kids' chorus getting a little bit jiggy with the tune, the song did risk getting a little too Glee-ful for comfort.
The two musical choices for the pre-show telecast were curious, to be charitable. Steve Winwood's awkwardly off-tune rendition of "Higher Love" brought out the kind of hatred in the twitter-verse and blogosphere that we haven't seen since... well, since the Grammys a week ago.
Daughtry managed to stay on key during "Life After You," but whichever booker had the thought that "nothing pumps up a Super Bowl crowd like an earnest ballad about lost love" may be in need of some personal psychotherapy. Chris Daughtry has unexpectedly sprouted some hair, much like an American Idol-themed Chia Pet. And between the closely cropped hairdo and the shades, he is very much resembling Bono nowadays, except for the too-carefully-groomed-for-rock beard.
But when Daughtry is the day's token sop to youth, and when even aficionados of the halftime act are saying "Enough!," something's wrong. Contemporary acts may never be invited back, with the Janet fiasco still reverberating with the half-life of nuclear waste. And now boomer acts are getting a less-than-warm welcome. It may be time for something really novel next year, like... a marching band?