With Taylor Swift in the 65,000-strong crowd at Sunday’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas, Usher couldn’t have had any illusions about who had the greater star power and the media’s attention as he hit the field for the halftime show.
So, battling some initial microphone problems, the slick R&B singer and the producing team of DPS with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and Jesse Collins leaned in hard to the showmanship that Usher always has done best, and hoped for the best.
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Hope was not enough, even when the ripped Usher stripped off his shirt halfway through and H.E.R. came out to offer some solid-gold guitar licks.
In no small part, H.E.R.’s extended stint onstage at Allegiant Stadium unveiled the staid mechanics of Sunday’s halftime show as it was clearly intended mainly to give Usher enough time for a costume change and the opportunity to put on roller skates.
“Are you ready to get crazy?” Usher pleaded with a crowd he should have been holding in his hands. They were not ready to get crazy, or maybe they were too busy craning their necks to see what Swift was up to.
The overall dull result was more snappin’ dance moves and collaborations that a DJ Khaled album in a 15-minute extravaganza that had everyone, everything and the bedazzled kitchen sink. Starting off with 2005’s “Caught Up” and moving meticulously through a hit-heavy setlist that is one of the benefits of a 30-year career, Usher also was joined by Alicia Keys, Lil Jon, Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri, the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am and an army of dancers and Sin City showgirls with a full-on marching band from HBCU Jackson State.
Even with past protégé Justin Bieber in the stadium but not onstage, as well as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and the man himself Jay-Z in VIP seats, you would expect no less from a veteran song-and-dance man. Yet, as tight as the tone and pacing of the performance was, Usher felt very 20 years ago and flat – – almost as flat as the first half of grinding play between reigning champs the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
The tenor singer felt flat compared to last year’s all-solo and baby-bump-revealing set from Rihanna, and very flat up against the hip-hop celebration from Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Mary J Blige and Eminem back in 2022 in L.A.
Usher was even flat next to Andra Day’s near-divine rendition before the game of unofficial Black national Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with a gospel choir backing the Oscar nominee up.
Perhaps the die was cast for the Roc Nation’s fifth halftime show coming off a surprisingly scoreless first quarter. Perhaps, it was the underbelly of the Swift effect, which saw the CBS cameras cutting to the superstar up in her private box repeatedly during the first half of the big game. Whatever the reason, even with a mock parental warning at the top, Usher’s Apple Music halftime show never caught fire.
Amidst all the technique and spotlights, there was no heart-stopping moment or big shocker.
This was a show meant to be experienced close up and personal but misread the vast room, so to speak. Super Bowl halftime shows are a vast undertaking, and the performance has to match the heights of the stadium, the game and the tens of millions of viewers.
In that context, why CBS and NFL cameras stuck with the tight-shot style of old rock movies and didn’t allow the scope and scale of the event to unfold is a mystery. It was a disservice to viewers at home. It was also likely what Usher and the producers may have been trying to achieve.
Having joined the Black Eyed Peas in their Super Bowl XLV halftime show in 2011, Usher should have known better.
He should have stepped out of his comfort zone to score a touchdown. For a brief second, Keys’ sprawling red cape offered some promise as Usher’s “My Boo” songmate showed up playing “If I Ain’t Got You” on a red piano. Yet, that spectacle blew away as quick as the cape itself, and was forgotten within seconds.
As his successful Vegas residency has shown, Usher has no problem when it comes to promote or emote. So no wonder the Grammy-winning singer dropped his collaboration-heavy Coming Home album just two days before the Chiefs-49ers faceoff. Already seen earlier in Super Bowl LVIII in the Christopher Walken-themed BMW commercial and other ads, consummate professional Usher was in his element tonight – it’s just not where he needed to be to make a true impression.
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