Sorry, Swifties: Super Bowl LVIII belonged to Usher and Beyoncé

There’s a nice symmetry between last year’s Super Bowl reveal of an expectant Rihanna, and this year’s, featuring a shirtless Usher doing his sweaty best to get America pregnant.

Not that we’re complaining. After a run of Super Bowl halftime shows designed to give conservatives apoplexy, what with your kneeling Eminems and your scandalizing J. Los, Super Bowl LVIII’s only desire was to make love up in this club. This was the sweet center of a performance lineup meant to pull everyone onto the dancefloor, starting with Andra Day singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Post Malone strumming his way through “America the Beautiful” to Reba McEntire performing the National Anthem.

Day and her backup singers were live on the mic, as was Usher, atypical for most Super Bowl showcases. But this was an intentional choice on the part of Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation produced the halftime extravaganza once again. Under the mogul’s supervision, each year’s entertainment choices have been aligned with the nation’s cultural and political vibe. Tapping Usher as this year’s headliner functioned as a celebration of Black performance and artistry at its height and an invitation to shake off the tension.

Usher also gets a promotional boost for his ninth studio album “Coming Home,” his first studio effort in almost eight years released the Friday before the Big Game.

His halftime performance, though, was a trip through his greatest hits and the old days of block parties, funk and R&B spectacles. In a performance that opened with “Caught Up” and “U Don’t Have to Call,” Usher did the most and much more – breaking out elaborate footwork on midfield turf, which is not easy. Nor is singing live through aerobically challenging moves, taking a break only to introduce Alicia Keys playing a few bars of “If I Ain’t Got You” before transitioning into “My Boo.”

Usher is one of those artists whose songs everybody knows regardless of whether you’ve bought his albums.

At its height, and after gyrating through a verse or two of “Confessions,” Usher brought forth an HBCU-style marching band and drumline in formation, spelling out his name. There were acrobats and dancers, and H.E.R. on the guitar, and the riser-flexing rendition of “Yeah!” with Ludacris and Lil Jon exhorting the crowd to their feet.

Usher and H.E.R. perform onstage during the Apple Music Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)If you were curious as to why his Las Vegas residency at the Park MGM’s Dolby Live has been extended several times and credited for breaking up Keke Palmer’s relationship with a partner who isn’t worthy of her, now you know. The man knows how to hit it from a distance. Heck, even the stage – with its larger center round flanked by a part of runways and smaller circles – could be interpreted as a symbol for a devil’s threesome.

As for what Usher’s banger of a performance signals from a broader cultural perspective, that’s a matter of how we came to this Super Bowl. His Vegas show and this stage of his career are designed as tributes to Black music and party culture, along with an R&B revival. His muscular showmanship and athletic movement reminded us that he’s still an explosive live presence.

He’s also a politically agnostic crowd pleaser drawing influence from the old school – those large-scale performances with multiple outfit changes, each more cinematically grand than the next. By the time Usher and his crew were on skates, he’d served winking reminiscences of both Earth Wind & Fire performances and “Tron” along with paying tribute to Atlanta, where his singing career began.

There were acrobats and athletes; there was H.E.R. strutting mid-stage making her guitar growl as if you call forth Prince’s spirit.

There was also the implicit invitation for multigenerational uplift. As some joked online, the first few bars of “Yeah!” is pretty much a trigger for Millennials to bust out their best prom moves. Usher is one of those artists whose songs everybody knows regardless of whether you’ve bought his albums. He’s also a singer who appeals to and caters to Black women, drawing them to the Big Game where other acts might not.

Usher performs onstage during the Apple Music Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)But he’s also the intersection point in what one might describe as the perfectly constructed four-quadrant Super Bowl, with Post Malone hitting the younger Millennials and Gen Z crowd and Reba pleasing people’s grandparents.

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Although much was made of this being the Taylor Swift Super Bowl, which may yet be demographically proven, the pop superstar who used the game’s massive audience to drop new music was not the “Eras” superstar but another – Beyoncé. Queen Bey starred in a Verizon commercial with Tony Hale that concluded with, “OK, they ready — drop the new music. I told y’all the ‘Renaissance’ is not over.”

Shortly afterward a video went live on her Instagram announcing the country-themed Part II of her “Renaissance” album would come out on March 29, dropping two singles, “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” as appetizers. This was also a calculated plan on Jay-Z’s part; the Carters and Usher have been friends for decades.

Running these teasers in the wake of Usher’s super soul circus amounted to a party favor for an audience starving for something sparkly and distracting to make us feel good for a change. Every election year is designed by episode after episode of terrible political and social theater. This had none of that. It was simply a fierce, meticulously defined show made for throwing our hands up with a yeah (yeah!), ok (ok!), and a beat we could all dance to for a few elated minutes.

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