Chicago Tribune — February 4, 2008

Steady-as-it-goes Petty show
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune — February 4, 2008

NFL won’t back down from rolling out veteran acts since Janet Jackson debacle
The Type-A personalities in charge of the NFL and its precious image don’t like surprises, and they picked a fail-safe performer for their Super Bowl halftime show Sunday.

Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers are rock-‘n’-roll lifers who have consistently delivered solid songs and shipshape performances for 30 years. The only hint of glitz came at the outset: an aerial shot that showed a giant, neon-lit replica of a Flying V guitar piercing the heart-shaped stage. That was one of those so-cheesy-it’s-cool moments left over from ’70s arena concerts, an acknowledgment that rock shows on TV are frankly pretty boring. So why not go for a little spectacle?

But Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t do spectacle. They’re a bar band — and a very good one. With his Southern drawl and sleepy-eyed expression, the bearded Petty never gave the impression that this was anything but another gig. He put the focus squarely on the songs.

And the songs he performed are among the best mainstream rock of the last three decades: “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin'” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” But until the latter, they all chugged along, never once in danger of receiving a speeding ticket.

Mike Campbell finally put some metal on the pedal with his guitar solo on “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” but then just as quickly Petty’s 12 minutes were up. Hey, at least it was way better than Up With People. Remember them? Thought not. They were the featured halftime Super Bowl performers four times from 1976 to 1986.

When telecasters figured out they could sell every second of the four-hour broadcast to advertisers for millions of dollars, halftime minutes got a lot more precious. In the last decade, the Super Bowl signed up major rock, rap and pop performers to keep viewers riveted rather than wandering off for beer-and-nacho refills.

Then came Nipplegate, the infamous Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake “wardrobe malfunction” at halftime of the 2004 game. The NFL is all about charging fans big money to watch oversized men in armor smash in each other’s brains, but show a little skin and the league caretakers turn into moral crusaders.

As a result, the NFL tightened up its halftime editing policies with the TV networks and vowed to censor any unsanctioned language or choreography. They also skewed away from younger, more risque performers and started booking older mainstream acts in recent years: the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Prince.

Petty fit comfortably into that parade of veterans whose rebel days are very much in the rearview mirror. Other than a few stray pot-smoking references in some of his biggest songs, Petty has never exactly been a lightning rod for controversy anyway. That meant no chance he’d play “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” or “You Don’t Know How it Feels” with its “Let’s roll another joint” refrain.

“It was strongly hinted” by the NFL not to play those songs, Petty told Rolling Stone recently. “It’s a family show.”

The biggest surprise about the performance was that he agreed to do it at all; the rocker has refused to license his songs for advertising and corporate sponsorship for his tours.

So what was he doing playing a halftime event sponsored by a tire company? Apparently, the chance to perform in front of a worldwide audience was too tempting to turn down — particularly on the eve of a national arena tour, which Petty announced a few days ago.

If that was the motive, Petty did a good job of reminding fans of some of his biggest songs. But it really wasn’t a great performance; it was more of a Tom Petty commercial. Short of wardrobe malfunctions, Super Bowl halftime performances share one thing with teams that lose Super Bowl games: They’re quickly forgotten.

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