There’s a Spectre Haunting Football: Prince, Justin Timberlake, and impending global doom.
When I think about professional football, I think about global destruction. The poles melting. Markets failing. War. Then, humanity losing its collective mind as a consequence and becoming ever more frightened and boastful and vain…are we there yet? I don’t know, but certainly all those traits are on display in the world of football, like a naked butt with a ton of ugly growths on it. Traumatic brain injury, cheating scandals, demeaning mascots, the shutting down of free speech…it’s certainly convenient the way these cancerous subjects cluster around a single sport, all the better for us to observe it happening.
No wonder so many of us only tune in to it once a year, for the Superbowl, and even then, we mostly watch for the ads. Only this year, the ads were almost as emblematic of America’s puzzled immorality as the game itself. First there was the one which used Martin Luther King Junior’s empassioned voice in the service of selling Dodge trucks. Then there was one using a version of Nirvana’s song “All Apologies” to entreat viewers to sign up for T Mobile.
Soon after that one, I was surprised to see one which used the iconography of the band Pussy Riot, ’til I realized it was for a movie about housewives robbing a bank. Following that, there was an ad for something called “Unsolved” a true crime series about the murder of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. It was interesting that Tupac was making an appearance, even in ad form, because it was sort of on his behalf that I had even tuned in to the event. I was intrigued, because a few years ago, I wrote an article about Tupac’s appearance at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio California, where he was a surprise guest during Snoop Dogg’s set. At the time, he had been dead for fifteen years.
Tupac’s appearance — via hologram, or, more specifically, a special effect known as “Pepper’s Ghost” in which an image is projected on a tilted screen, giving the impression that it’s 3D — gave the throngs of kids at Coachella a huge thrill, caused a sensation on social media, and basically was seen as a ‘cool’ happening, helping to reenergize the festival and boost its hipster cachet. What wasn’t widely talked about was the sinister overtones the effect had, overtones that relate to both ethics and race. You see, one legacy of slavery is that images of black male bodies haunt American culture. Billie Holiday famously sang about “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” in her song “Strange Fruit” (1939), and the canon of universally known American images of violence against black bodies include the video of Rodney King’s beating, as well as the famous photograph of murdered Mississippi boy Emmett Till’s mutilated dead body. Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner…today, the dead black body is still a spectre haunting America. And the technological resurrection of one in order to make it perform with someone on stage is, in my mind, one step worse, because to force a reanimated body to sing, dance and say the words of someone else has overtones of puppetry, minstrelsy and voodoo, activities that have artistic or historical links to slavery.
You may see where I’m heading with this. The day before the Superbowl, there were numerous reports that half-time performer Justin Timberlake was going to use a similar effect with Prince. According to various sources, that was the plan; after a lot of pushback (including widely circulated screenshots of a Prince interview in which he specifically said he didn’t approve of it), Timberlake himself reportedly told Sheila E. that the idea had been scrapped.
But it hadn’t. Or not entirely. Near the end of Timberlake’s performance, he sat at a white grand piano and began playing and singing “I Will Die 4 You,” while Prince’s image performed above him on a screen. It was probably put together rather hastily, and can of course, no longer be seen on YouTube, but the immediate effect was that he was dueting on the song with the ghost of Prince.
The Coachella hologram — and Michael Jackson one used at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014 (and presumably in Vegas) — differed from this in that they have been specially doctored so that they seem to be doing things that the performers never did in real life. (Tupac, for example, says, “What the Fuck is Up Coachella,” although the festival only came into being four years after his death.) Therefore, the use of Prince’s image, and his music, at this particular moment in the half time show, could be seen differently; as merely a tribute to the city’s most beloved artist, as if someone were playing in New York and they showed Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York” behind them, or something like that.
Honestly, I might even be inclined to go with that reading, except for a few troubling problems. First, at Coachella, although performing for a largely white audience of whose fetishization of him was a bit grotesque, Tupac was at the very least rapping alongside his friends Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, whereas Prince was ‘singing’ with Justin Timberlake, a far lesser artist whose work he was not particularly invested in (quite the opposite, in fact).
Also, Timberlake’s entire performance was tepid and lame, and only partly because his music is tepid and lame —it’s impossible not to notice that he’s just a big grown up Mouseketeer wearing a bright red kerchief whose head looks like a pellet and who is clearly interchangeable with every one of his backup singers and dancers. This was fairly clear throughout but never so much as when he segued from Prince’s “I Will Die For You” into the theme song from the movie “Trolls.” Now, that is a seriously insufferable segue.
Then there’s the Janet problem. As everyone who’s not clinically dead knows, in 2004, JT performed on the Superbowl with Janet Jackson, and accidentally revealed her nipple, and although it was his mistake, not hers, she somehow took all the blame for it. Many people today thought she should have been invited back to the Superbowl as well (and indeed, there was a twitter campaign by former NFL-er Matthew A.Cherry to tweet Janet videos all day, which was pretty cool), but that was not to be. Instead, for the second time in a little over a decade, Timberlake used an African American person’s achievements to somehow highlight and magnify his own, way more meagre, ones. He used their flesh to do that. And both cases, he did it without their consent.
In both cases, he surely meant no disrespect. But we live in an era when these kinds of exploitations are simply taken for granted, and the consequences of that thoughtless incomprehension are very bad indeed. There is a divide in this country over race and equality that is getting realer and angrier and more obvious on the daily, and the sooner people are willing to acknowledge that, the sooner we can get over it. Over what? I hear you cry. Over our unconscious racism, is what. Our exploitation of black bodies, in music, on the football field, and in ads. In the superbowl, especially. Because using Martin Luther King’s speech to sell Dodge trucks and Prince’s image to enhance Justin Timberlake’s brand is to hold those two men hostage like their forebears, only in the country of the living. It is to turn them into more strange fruit, dangling from a different kind of a tree.