This weekend it was the Superbowl. And if it was the Superbowl, there was a half-time show. And if there was a half-time show, it clearly had to involve classical reception. Right? Right.
Below the jump is my liveblog commentary on the video, second by second, because my internal monologue was so loud that I had to share it… (Sorry, I don’t seem to be able to get video embedding working, so you’ll have to click through.)
0.11: oh, well, we aren’t pulling any punches here! Full military gear, wee Roman helmets, pulling some kind of massive float-like thing, all very Cleopatra (1963).
0.23: close-up on a lad in some more stylized Roman army gear, including a nice plume and a decent sword and breastplate. Does look a bit like he belongs in a Versace ad, mind. Oooh, more processing military Roman types… who appear to be led by women in diaphanous robes carrying basket-like objects. Roman religious procession imagery ahoy.
0.28: men with trumpets? And a lad with a harp sitting on the floor? (He will become more important in a moment.) Some kind of god-style pantheon visual here, I suspect.
0.37: and the wings that had been covered whatever the Roman lads were drawing are removed, to reveal Madonna in full glory, on a throne, being pulled in procession. Yes, definitely someone spent some time with Cleopatra to generate creative ideas for this. Note the subtle ‘MADS’ graffiti on the back of the throne.
0.46: Oooh, costume close-up. You can just see the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the throne, in case you thought this wasn’t a sufficiently obvious homage. The head-dress is very Hollywood, as is the golden floor-ength gown – it is very much like the outfit Taylor wore as Cleo enteringe city of Rome. Oh, and can I just say how appropriate it is that this particular sequence is to accompany the song Vogue, which refers to the style of dance that originated in the Harlem gay scene in the 1970s, and is all about presentation and image? The whole Cleopatra thing is also all about presentation and image. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that this is Madonna saying ‘I’m the queen!’ (see also, queer cultural pun, oh how witty we are). But at the classical reception level, the whole issue of Cleopatra revolves around image and image presentation, and the success of Octavian’s propaganda campaign against her – indeed, the mythos surrounding her death (asps and all) may be the result of his early attempts to manage the news of her suicide back in Rome to his advantage.
Also, this is all very reminiscent of Kylie Minogue’s outfit in her Aphrodite – Les Folies tour last year. Are we seeing a come-back of classical reception in the world of pop?
0.56: mmm, more stylized male body moves. This is all supposed to look a bit like a temple pediment with gods on, I take it? It’s certainly got that feel to it, given the slowness and angularity of movement (and now I come to think of it, voguing actually mimics statuary poses quite nicely).
1.02: we’re back to Madonna in her throne, she’s removed the golden cloak and… is wearing some skirt overlay that looks like a Roman soldier’s cingulum. So we’re going for the military aesthetic here, then, as if the boots left us in any doubt. She’s keeping the headdress, though. And the leopard skin cape thing. Which has Roman military pedigree, since the standard bearers of the legions would wear animal skins, but still.
1.21: she’s onto the big podium now, and doing a bit of a procession with those dancers from earlier, who we can now see a bit better – not quite sure what’s going on with the chap with the curly horns on the left.
1.26: wait, what, this is a Hermes-type coming out from the bottom of the screen? With lyre and wings? And sparkly trainers with wings on? Passing Madonna the lyre to strum? Pop musicians are invoking the god of music now? Kind of awesome, also kind of concerning as I’m not sure how I feel about Hermes as an extra to Madonna. There should be a sacrificed chicken in there somewhere. Also, it’s interesting that they’ve gone for Hermes, inventor of the lyre, and not Apollo, more commonly known as god of music – but also a god very strongly associated with Augustus, Cleopatra’s nemesis.
1.43: zoom-out to what I am going to call the Madonna Pantheon having a good old dance. The more I look at them, the more I think the costumes are meant to evoke the classical and military aesthetic without necessarily going beyond the basics of classical semiotics. Which is – well, it plays on the idea that we know what the classical world is meant to look like, and thus we’re happy when we see it, which is why classical films all adhere to the same set of visual conventions. Given the probable audience demographic of the Superbowl, it’s not surprising the designers have gone for the lowest visual common denominator, but it’s still a tad disappointing.
1.48: alright, the lad in the leather harness and the gold neckpiece owes more to Immortals than to anything actually related to the classical world
2.10: as the Madonna pantheon get on with their voguing, listen to the soundtrack – I don’t remember those sounds of swords being unsheathed and bodies crashing to the ground being part of the original! Very Gladiator and Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
2.19: Madonna is sitting on someone. Given the general Cleopatra as dominator of men topos, this isn’t surprising. Actually, come to think of it, given the whole ‘Cleopatra hangs around with a bunch of men who have disturbing sexual tastes’ thread of polemic that survives in our sources (see, for instance, Horace’s Actium ode), the whole bondage imagery thing is starting to make sense.
2.55: not strictly classical, but this scene of processing to the front of the stage, posing and moving off seems to owe a lot to the drag pageant style, which would be appropriate given the origins of the term vogue and the fact that these costumes are not a little campy. (Yes, I spent too much time in the last year of my PhD watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race, so sue me.)
3.05: that very deliberate camera vignette does nothing to undermine my drag pageant theory. A minion now helps Madonna remove the headdress (but we’re keeping the cingulum). Transition into next song… with some of the Madonna Pantheon doing interesting jumping things over benches. Goodo.
3.25: …thanks, camera angle. I really didn’t need to know that Madonna’s stage knickers have a star on them. Although I suspect that Cleopatra would have approved.
3.33: these lads in white jumpsuits have nothing to say to classical reception, really, but I quite like the fact they’ve got musical notations all over them. Gymnastics now ensue, and I thought the classical reception angle was all over until…
4.21: …the camera zooms out to a lad in a toga on a tightrope! For no readily apparent reason! As far as I know, there is no ancient Roman tradition of tightrope walking, although they were quite good on acrobats. Oooh, he has shiny gold sneakers too. How you can tell he is classical – he is wearing white and gold and a skirt. Sigh. And is bouncing up and down like a loon on this wire thing. I have no idea to what purpose he is dressed in this Greco-Roman get-up, unless it’s a stab at conceptual unity. I wouldn’t have thought a tunic was particularly practical for this sort of thing anyway.
4.53: oh, we have some DJs on stage! They are wearing animal skins. Erm, they are wearing Roman army kilts too. They are, in fact, clubbing Roman centurion DJs with afros. And proper lace-up boots. And, erm, big glasses, but I understand that’s the trend among the young people these days. I have to say that the sight of techno Roman centurion DJs bopping about with Madonna cheered me up no end, although I do wish that at 5.25 the lad in the skin-tight white leopard skin shorts had thought better of coming out from behind the turntable.
5.32: a dancy bouncy sort of electro techno sequence with Mads and the two techno-Centurions. In which, it has to be said, the flapping bits of various cingulum-style belts do not add a particular dignity to the scene.
5.48: ah, a mildly comic interaction between the techno-Centurions and Madonna to make it clear just how attractive Madonna remains. Jolly good. And not unreasonable to point out physical fitness whilst wearing the costumes of men who would have had to be unbelievably fit in order to participate in the gruelling requirements of the Roman army.
6.06: wait, what? Where are the techno-Centurions going? And why are there all these Cleopatra cheerleaders? Bring back the techno-Centurions!
More seriously – what on earth? The costumes are clearly designed to be evocative of both Cleopatra and the cheerleader image, what with the circlets around the heads, the short skirts, the fact the song we’re now accompanying has a cheerleading-style chorus, and the two ‘guest performers’ are in gear which mimics and echoes that of Madonna herself when she entered a la Cleopatra. The problem here? As far as I can see, and I admit that I’m watching this on Youtube and the quality isn’t great, Madonna is now the only white person on stage. With a bunch of Cleopatra cheerleaders of colour. Which wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t for the fact that Cleopatra’s racial background is a huge, huge minefield. Now, I’m going to be charitable here and assume that Madonna and her designers were not planning to make their contribution to scholarship via the medium of the Superbowl halftime show and will not now be seeking peer review, but really. I will admit I just stared at this segment in a flabberghasted way.
(Madonna has also now lost the cingulum. It must have been getting in the way.)
9.00: ah, we’re getting soldiers back again. Is it the nice buff Roman lads? …wait, no, it’s a marching band, complete with drum marshal. I had a bit of a moment with this – but it’s a nice transformation of the military theme that’s been going through the show so far, beginning with our Roman lads and continuing through the techno-Centurions. The Cleo-cheerleaders provided the segue into the American and the classical, and now we switch from the classical to the American military. It’s actually all quite cleverly designed and structured in terms of thematics once you start looking at it closely.
9.52: and we’re into Like A Prayer, the final number, delivered in full Gospel style. A convenient black-out has allowed Mads to don a more suitably reverent outfit for this number, something slinky in black, which her backing singers are in rather minimalist black and white robes – but even here, I can’t help but have a classical reception moment. Those simple black and white robes are making me think of the sort of things that Christians wear in films set in the Roman empire. A quick Google isn’t showing anything up, so I might have a false sense-memory here, but that was my immediate thought when I saw this.
And as this half-time show draws to an end, I want to highlight a performative difference that strikes me. In the Roman period, spectacles were for the ruling class – the emperor enjoyed the extravagant performances put on for his pleasure, and it was his approval that was sought. Here, the Queen becomes the object of spectacle, the performer – she’s at the mercy of the crowd’s approval, not the one in control. The choice of the classical themes shows an awareness of one part of Madonna’s self-image – but reveals another side of it that perhaps she would rather not dwell on.