Rhianna from Super Bowl 2023

c/o Matt Slocum, AP

Rihanna’s halftime show for the 2023 Super Bowl was received as a polished and entertaining performance—according to the general view of Twitter—yet it lacked the flashy or show-stopping moments that America enjoys in a Super Bowl. Instead, the performance included impressive, irreverent, and flawless vocals, and it felt more like a far too short Rihanna concert than a halftime show. The most notable wow-factor moment was the surprise reveal that the singer is pregnant with her and rapper A$AP Rocky’s second child. She proved once again that there is nothing unsexy about being pregnant. 

Rihanna did the Super Bowl her own way, with no extreme choreography or gimmicks, instead opting for suggestive smiles and iconic, fun, or sensual dance moments. She and her dancers commanded the audience’s attention every second through the use of personality to match the songs. Rihanna even played at being a cat for a few seconds during “Pour it Up,” and of course reapplied her Fenty makeup between songs. 

Rihanna finished her performance with “Diamonds.” She levitated on a platform as the crowd behind her was lit up with what looked like stars (was it phone flashlights?). She looked around with the mature appreciation of an experienced performer, as the younger generations joined her in singing a song they know well, cementing her as a musical icon of our era. 

“There was so many things that I felt like I had to overcome in order to even do this, I had just become a mom, literally, and I had not been on tour for seven years,” Rihanna told GMA. “So to go from that, to Super Bowl. It was one of those things that I knew would be a challenge.”

In the final moment of Rihanna’s performance, she held up her hands in the shape of a diamond (not a pyramid in a show of support for the Illuminati), representing her union with Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records. In 2019, Rihanna told Vogue that she couldn’t dare perform at the Super Bowl because of racism within the NFL. She specifically cited the treatment of Colin Kaepernick, who has been excluded from NFL teams because he knelt during the national anthem in protest against racism in the U.S. However, since Jay-Z’s Roc Nation—the wider organization that includes Roc-a-Fella records—has reached a partnership with the NFL, Rihanna changed her mind, instead joining the long tradition of stars using the Super Bowl as a platform to deliver their message to the country.

“It’s important for representation,” Rihanna said. “It’s important for my son to see that,”

Many Americans might not realize how much and for how long the Super Bowl stage has been a place for representation, especially considering the traditional values of the NFL and that of a lot of the Super Bowl’s viewership. The first notable halftime show took place in 1965 in Los Angeles, following the 1965 Watts Riots, where the Grambling State University marching band played.

“At the time, the band from Grambling was criticized by some in the African American community for playing amid the climate of racial tension, said Larry Pannell, the band’s current director,” Bonnie Berkowitz and Lazaro Gamio wrote in The Washington Post. “But soon other historically black schools saw the Super Bowl as a grand showcase, and now the Grambling band is considered a trailblazer.”

The Grambling Band would go on to be used in halftime shows for many years to follow. 

Recognition of the Black community in halftime shows continued on into the seventies. In 1972, Ella Fitzgerald—only the third-ever solo act for a halftime show—led a tribute to Louis Armstrong, who had died the year before. Later, in 1979, the theme of the halftime show was “A salute to the Caribbean,” which was led by the Jamaican folk singer Ken Hamilton. The first few halftime shows set the precedent for celebrating marginalized communities within America and recognizing international cultures, especially those that are embedded in American communities today.

These themes can be compared to the messaging in two recent halftime shows. The first is the 2016 halftime show, where Beyoncé, Coldplay, and Bruno Mars performed. Before you ask why on earth Beyoncé was sharing a Superbowl stage, it’s because she had already had her own incredibly well-done halftime show in 2013. Initially, the 2016 halftime show was meant to be Coldplay alone, but this didn’t seem to excite the public, so Beyoncé and Bruno Mars were added.

Yet, the show felt much more like Beyoncé’s Superbowl than anyone else’s, not only because of her superhuman stage presence but also because she decided to use this national platform to make a strong political statement. The costumes and formations for Beyoncé’s dancers were Black-Panther-inspired, and she did the song “Formation,” which has lyrics about black pride. This was an especially powerful statement for the time because it was during Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign when right-wing extreme politics was gaining more mainstream traction. In the wake of that political climate, Beyoncé sent an unapologetic message to the entire country. 

The other recent Super Bowl that seemed to be in protest of right-wing politics of its time was the 2020 Super Bowl, which featured entirely Latino performers, including Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, and Bad Bunny. Lopez wore a fur coat with the American flag on one side and the Puerto Rican flag on the other side. This halftime show was a display of Latino pride, challenging the racism and xenophobia displayed by many Americans who voted for Trump in 2020 and who would have been watching that night.

Probably the most noteworthy halftime performance ever, considering it transformed halftime shows from strange and underwhelming shows (check out any halftime show from the 80s on YouTube) into legendary productions, is Michael Jackson’s 1994 performance. Michael Jackson used the time to send a message about racism, performing “Black or White,” as well as general love and peace, singing “Heal the World.” 

Prince also shook up traditional America with his 2007 halftime show. Prince presented as an openly queer man in his set. This was obvious to many, who couldn’t find a real complaint for why their children were allowed to watch Prince, and instead, there was a legal complaint supported by some viewers that his guitar looked too phallic. Prince’s performance was one of proud sexuality, and it is for this reason, as well as the ephemeral moment in which Prince performs “Purple Rain” in the rain, that this halftime show is a must-watch.

Many great performers of our time have used the halftime show as a place to display their beliefs and their personhood with pride, in a country that often wants to shut certain beliefs and people out. Rihanna did away with a flashy show and decided to take pride in herself and her pregnancy in order to set an example for her son. Let’s hope this Super Bowl tradition continues, and halftime shows continue to be a platform for representation, pride, hope, and the unification of a divided America.


Charlotte Seal can be reached at cseal@wesleyan.edu.

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