Usher Brings Sweaty, Glitzy Showmanship To The Super Bowl Halftime Show
Here’s how much of a professional Usher is: When he played last night’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, he didn’t sing any new songs. Not one. Not even a snippet. The temptation must’ve been overwhelming. Last night was the culmination of an Usher comeback that’s been building for a long moment. Usher, one of the biggest stars of the ’00s, hasn’t been a commercially dominant force for more than a decade, but he’s spent the past few years laying the groundwork for his legacy: a wildly successful Las Vegas residency, a viral Tiny Desk Concert, a pretty big hit with Summer Walker and 21 Savage. Two days before the Super Bowl, Usher released Coming Home, his first new album in seven and a half years. And then he didn’t sing any of those songs. Instead, Usher gave the world what it wanted from him.
Usher had to work for this. No one performer is bigger than the Super Bowl. Last night, even Taylor Swift was a mere supporting character. The cameras kept showing stands and luxury boxes crammed with pop stars — so many that the announcers didn’t even bother to identify them all. (Poor Lana Del Rey, reduced to background extra in a few Taylor Swift shots and then physically knocked on her ass during the victory celebration.) Even compared to other Super Bowl Sundays, there was a lot happening last night.
There was the game itself, which started out as a sloppy grind and turned into an exciting fight. There were all the ads, with so many random celebs thrown into every frame and something called Temu repeatedly instructing us to shop like a billionaire. There were new country songs from past Halftime Show performer Beyoncé. If you looked online during the game, you were confronted with the despicable news that Israel was bombing refugee camps in Rafah, seemingly timing their assault to a moment when most Americans were distracted. How is one legacy-status pop star supposed to cut through all that noise and captivate a mass audience for 13 minutes?
And that’s only part of the challenge. The other part — the more daunting part, probably — is to fit a momentous 30-year career into 13 minutes and 20 seconds, while still finding the space to show the world who you are. The compressed runtime meant that some classic hits — “Nice & Slow,” “My Way,” “U Don’t Have To Call” — were reduced to mere seconds-long snippets or allusions. It also meant that other classic hits — “You Make Me Wanna…,” “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” fucking “Climax” — were altogether absent. That’s just how it goes. Usher has more dancefloor bangers than most, but many of his biggest hits are slow jams that demands space, tenderness, dynamics. No time for any of that at the Super Bowl. Instead, you have to go bang-bang-bang — no skips, breaks, or pauses for breath. If anyone is up for that, it’s Usher Raymond IV.
I was a fan of last year’s widely derided Rihanna Halftime Show, with its futuristic space-platforms moving around hypnotically while Rihanna beamed from the center of the immaculately designed storm. But Rihanna didn’t have to do much there. She simply had to make a regal and rare appearance, show the world her baby bump, and halfheartedly lock in with her army of backup dancers a few times. This was not the Usher way. When you give Usher a platform like that, he’s going to make things sweaty, in every sense of the word.
We already got a taste of eager-to-please Super Bowl Usher in 2011, during the Black Eyed Peas’ Halftime Show, an unfortunate moment that does not beg to be relived. That night, Usher sang “OMG,” the biggest and worst hit from his awkward EDM era, and he turned it into grand theater — descending from the ceiling like Crow-makeup Sting in 1997, then jumping over will.i.am and landing in the splits. Last night, “OMG” made its return, and so did will.i.am. I wasn’t even mad. Usher managed to upstage himself — coming out in a brand new sparkly superhero suit and rollerskates, doing an impossible dance routine on a Tron-looking LED screen, and then skating between will.i.am’s legs. That guy isn’t even tall, and Usher still made it look effortfully effortless.
When we think of nostalgia-friendly Super Bowl acts, we tend to think of the parade of boomer icons who took the stage in the years after Nipplegate: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen. Twenty years after Confessions, Usher is a different kind of legacy act, and he did a pretty amazing job stripping his hits down to just their biggest and best moments, so that even a ballad like “Burn” felt shivery. That kind of rat-tat-tat halftime show becomes a reference game. You need to assume the audience’s familiarity with your hits, and then you need to trigger their memories as efficiently as you can, while sharing space with marching bands and armies of showgirls and famous guests. Usher did all of that.
It’s at least theoretically possible to turn a Super Bowl Halftime Show into an artistic statement, like Prince, or a declaration of supremacy, like Beyoncé. Usher didn’t do any of that. Instead, he went full Vegas on us. That’s who he is. He’s a showman and a ham. At least once a minute, we’d see some new, ridiculous thing, like Alicia Keys’ billowing red cape, which seemed big enough to cover the football field just by itself, or like the way Usher casually tossed his shirt away, which should be studied by anyone who ever aspires to casually toss a shirt away. We also heard Usher actually singing through all of this, which felt important.
These days, it’s widely considered acceptable for pop stars to lip-sync, especially if they’re doing complicated choreography. Usher clearly wasn’t willing to do that. The sound mix was predictably muddy, but I think the show gained something from hearing slight, nervous trembles in the voices of Usher and his guests. It meant that the big notes resonated more, even if Alicia Keys blew her big entrance note so badly that the NFL fixed that part in post before uploading the YouTube video. Usher has been very serious about the importance of R&B and about his place in its history. Even when pulling present-day pop-star moves, he made sure to do the things that R&B singers do — things like singing hard, sweating harder, and kicking the mic stand down and then back up again.
The show was silly and ridiculous in a lot of ways. We got the dancers and enthusiastic crowd-members filling up the screen, adding to the general sense of chaos. We got seemingly random cutaways to certain dancers’ faces, as if the camera guys couldn’t always tell who was famous. We got Jermaine Dupri dressed like a toddler at church. We got Lil Jon with blonde dreads and a black vinyl bodysuit, in such insanely great shape that he almost didn’t look like himself. (Maybe he’s noticed that his own music works great in the gym.) We got Ludacris rapping that his outfit’s ridiculous and being entirely truthful about that. We got Usher getting very, very close with Alicia Keys and kicking off more tired online conversations about marital etiquette.
The silliness was simply part of the show. I had a great time watching Usher. I liked all the little touches that he threw in. Usually, I roll my eyes whenever H.E.R. gets a spotlight moment at some big televised event, but she really ripped that Prince-style guitar solo over “U Got It Bad,” and it gave Usher the few seconds that he apparently needed to put on his rollerskates. The easter eggs were fun, too — Usher’s single glove and his old U chain, the few seconds of the “Freek-A-Leek” beat during the Ludacris “Yeah!” verse. (Usher famously recorded “Yeah!” over that beat originally, but Petey Pablo got ahold of the instrumental and rush-released his version, so Lil Jon had to make a whole new beat.) I didn’t clock the empty golden drum kit, but that was a nice tribute to Aaron Spears, Usher’s drummer who died suddenly last year. As the set ended, with people behind him jumping so much that the stage shook, Usher chanted that he brought the world to the A — a victory-lap moment that felt impromptu, even though it must’ve been as precisely planned as the rest of the set.
I can’t say that Usher gave one of the all-time great Super Bowl performances — not with Prince and Beyoncé and Dr. Dre sitting right there in recent memory. I can say that Usher dunked on his onetime adversary Justin Timberlake so hard that he shattered the backboard. Usher didn’t etch his name into history with that performance, and he didn’t need to. Usher’s legacy will remain secure as long as there’s any living person who still remembers 2004. (It might be assured even after that; my daughter reports that “Yeah!” was the highlight of her high-school dance on Saturday night.) But I can say that Usher gave the perfect Usher Super Bowl performance. For Usher, hamminess and transcendence are one and the same. I can’t imagine who will do the Halftime Show next year, but that person will have a hell of an act to follow.