A man who resembles nothing so much as a walking corpse promises a dead city will rise again.
A guy who's about to turn 50 reprises his role as a rebellious adolescent skipping school.
A 53-year-old woman whose star burned brightly in the 90's gives us brief peeks of her crotch as she rehashes her greatest hits from the past.
A nearly sixty year-old comedian comes at us... on a zipline.
Oh America, are we having a midlife crisis? It sure felt like it watching Superbowl 2012. Not because there were commercials about Cialis, but precisely because there weren't. Superbowl 2012 tried so hard to hold reality at bay—a punishing recession and world-wide economic crisis for which there is no easy or quick solution, a country declining in relevance on the world stage as Brazil, China and other emerging economic and political powers increasingly take the spotlight—that one was left feeling that, when it comes to the state of things, we are all protesting too much.
In lieu of concessions to the new, there were endless admonitions (in the form of clever and not-so-clever ad spots) to "Buy cars to make it all better." Clint Eastwood's monologue about Detroit rising again—how many times have we heard that one?—was moving, but largely because it was so unfounded. Like the GE spot that promised to revitalize manufacturing and "bring us back," it posited that all we have to do is be ourselves and do things the way we always have and we will be great again.
Huhwhat? Maybe we can read the entire Superbowl as an act of denial, a desperate attempt to inoculate ourselves against our nation's slide from preeminence into whatever might come next. This year's reenactment of one of our culture's sacred rituals was especially plangent in certain ways, most especially its tacit admission that we enact rituals to reassure ourselves in times of great anxiety. The NFL's own spot that reassured us that football is "evolving"—right, we're going to end all those head injuries and slow, ugly deaths from brain trauma with better helmets and nicer rules—was at once a concession that things must change, and a disingenuous refusal to get real. Sort of like those spots that urged us to buy cars because that is the best way to get us out of this fix of ours.
Nobody is saying Clint isn't a great actor and director, or denying that Madge has had a great run of it. Nobody is saying that watching football isn't fun. Or that the Superbowl doesn't matter. It obviously does, a lot, to a lot of people. It's just that, to Mark Zuckerberg and Lady Gaga, Superbowl 2012 must have looked a lot like the Lawrence Welk Show.
The Superbowl, with its Roman numerals and heroic theme music—associations Madonna made explicit in her over the top halftime show—has long positioned itself as the modern coliseum sport of the gladiators. But what Rome stands for in history is the decline of empire. We cling to our spectacle of superbowl superpower, treating realities of the present as temporary, reversible setbacks. We may be right. But we may be fiddling... and burning.