If Billboard and some cryptically deployed emoji are to be believed, the halftime show for Super Bowl 50 — set to take place at the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium in Santa Clara, California, on February 7 — will be led by the pop provocateuse Katy Perry. Neither the league nor Perry have explicitly confirmed her placement. But even without an official headliner, this year’s halftime show has already been the focal point for controversy; the Wall Street Journal reported in August that any artist who played would have to share in the show’s production costs, while rumored halftime contender Rihanna had a public tiff with the NFL over CBS suspending the use of her Jay Z collab “Run This Town” after Ray Rice’s domestic-violence incident came to light.
In recent years, the Super Bowl’s producers have apparently shaken off their fear of pop musicians that cropped up after Justin Timberlake tore off Janet Jackson’s top in Houston 10 years ago, abandoning the classic rockers who dominated the later 2000s for the Hot 100-approved likes of Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Madonna and the Black Eyed Peas. In quite a few ways, selecting Perry over her pop peers makes perfect sense. (Taylor Swift seems like the other logical choice for a 2015 mega-event — except that she’s very much in the Diet Coke camp, and Pepsi is presenting this year’s halftime show.) She’s still one of the most recognizable musicians to come up during the 21st century, thanks to her ability to attract attention even when under cover of pizza; she has a sizeable catalog, and “Roar,” the pugilistic lead single from her 2013 album Prism, is easily adaptable to the sports milieu; and her splashy live show will at least rival America’s annual orgy of stunt-filled commercials and hyperconsumerism on a spectacle level.
There’s also Perry’s strident attention-getting, a cornerstone of her career that seems well matched to the NFL’s efforts to appeal to women (or at least their dollars) in the aftermath of the Rice video going public. More than any other pop act save Lady Gaga, Perry allows her audiences to see just how hard she’s working, reveling in not just breaking a sweat but being watched while doing so. In that light, her recent crowing about how much she loves gridiron action, even though she only attended her first college football game earlier this month, recalls the bubbly look-at-meism of her 2008 breakthrough single “I Kissed a Girl.”
The track also speaks to other parts of Perry’s career that make her an odd choice for the Super Bowl, which, despite being a product of the ultra-aggressive NFL, markets itself as a family affair. “Roar” and the It Gets Better-aligned “Firework” are big-tent inspirational songs, designed for choirs of KatyCats to join in. But tracks like “Girl,” the metrosexual-shaming “Ur So Gay,” the spiteful kiss-off “Circle the Drain,” and her most recent single, the weirdly classist “This Is How We Do,” have a decidedly nasty edge to them. True, those songs will probably not drop into the halftime setlist; “How We Do” peaked at only No. 24 on the Hot 100. But they speak to Perry’s overly self-confident bluntness, which also came through when she noted that she’d never “pay to play” the Super Bowl during her raucous, corn dog-assisted appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay earlier this month.
The memories of “I Kissed a Girl” might kick up a mild fuss among America’s moral crusaders when Perry is officially announced, but it probably won’t torpedo the evening. The Super Bowl has seemingly settled into being OK with artists who have explicit material in their catalog; Madonna’s 2012 appearance, even when not taking the presence of the bird-flipping M.I.A. into account, could have doubled as an “all clear” for sexually provocative acts given her role in pushing TV’s sexual boundaries. But the type of controversy Perry has kicked up recently, especially when it comes to performances at marquee events, is harder to swallow, even if it’s not the type that occasions complaints to the FCC; her flirting and vamping comes with a hefty side dish of cultural appropriation — geisha girls at the American Music Awards, bootylicious backing dancers on her Prismatic tour — which has proven to be a much more effective catalyst for opinion-page commenters than revealing costumes or innuendo-heavy lyrics.
Still, attention is a value-neutral proposition; angry mentions of ethnic stereotypes or sprayed bitterness are just as important to making a topic “trend” online as are positive ones. The NFL might be betting on Perry to pull in some eyeballs who would have kept their party TVs tuned to the Puppy Bowl all day. And if Perry really wants to satisfy the rockists; those who wish the NFL would put the Who, the Stones, and Petty on eternal halftime-show loop; she could transform her chart-topping single “Dark Horse” into a morose ballad or bust out the acoustic guitar she toted around while trying to make “Ur So Gay” a 2008 Hype Machine hit. Back then, at least, she really was trying to be One of the Boys.