The Stubborn Voice of a Troubadour
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — February 4, 2008
Tom Petty was not an obvious choice for halftime entertainment at Super Bowl XLII. His most recent album, “Highway Companion,” came out in 2006, and he is by no means a staple of pop radio or MTV. Petty, 57, is yet another of the mature performers chosen for the Super Bowl halftime since Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction in 2004.
But Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, are still touring arenas — his next tour starts in May — and the brawny, ringing riffs of his songs still give audiences clear arena-rock cues. From the first chords of “Free Fallin’ ” on Sunday night, tens of thousands of cellphones were lit up and waving in the air.
That was one of the visual effects that the Super Bowl show splashed onto Petty and the Heartbreakers, who simply sing, play their instruments and occasionally stroll somewhere onstage.
Presumably to hold the attention of the MTV generation, there was a mildly suggestive graphic of a lighted Flying V guitar piercing a heart (creating a stage shaped like the Heartbreakers’ logo), a stampede of fans onto the field and fireworks as Petty started “American Girl.” Then came strobe lights, giant video-screen animations and some murky graphic effect in “Free Fallin’ ” that looked like a psychedelic oil slick.
But the bearded Petty — wearing a polka-dot black tie and, like the rest of the band, a black jacket — ignored the flash and sang in the frayed but stubborn voice that suits his songs. With a weary quaver, he delivered “I Won’t Back Down” less as a boast than as a matter of fact, the song of someone with no other choice.
His four songs balanced disappointment and aspiration: dead-end characters in “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’,” tenacious ones in “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and, in “I Won’t Back Down,” the ideal song for a Super Bowl in which so much hinged on defense. In Petty’s songs, winning is not as important as holding on and holding out. It is the music that turns tenacity into victory, with rock-ribbed, twangy riffs and a sure-footed beat.
Alicia Keys, who has the No. 2 album in the country, got the thankless spot an hour before the game, but she worked it for all it was worth, packing a five-song medley into less than 10 minutes.
In past eras, Keys could have been a piano-playing rhythm-and-blues singer like one of her models, Aretha Franklin. Now, she is compelled to provide music-video-style song-and-dance, so she gamely strutted and gestured along with her dancers, trying some Supremes-style shimmy in her Motown-tinged song “Teenage Love Affair.”
Even with her songs reduced nearly to sound bites, Keys plunged into them. She poured ache and longing into “If I Ain’t Got You” and “Fallin’ ” and joyful devotion into her current hit, “No One.”
She opened her set with an extremely subtle touch of protest. Her funk song “Go Ahead,” she has said, personifies political ideas, and she sang, “You knew you was wrong/You knew all along/Must be crazy if you think I’m-a fall for this anymore.”
The hyperenthusiastic audience allowed onto the field, in brightly colored shirts that may well have been art-directed, swayed emphatically to ballads and bounced vigorously through the upbeat songs. But Keys did not need their hype; she put soul into her sound bites.
Fox brought its “American Idol” franchise to the national anthem. Jordin Sparks, the 18-year-old who won its sixth season, gave “The Star-Spangled Banner” the “Idol” treatment: part Whitney Houston, part Mariah Carey. She started quiet, breathy and seductive. By the end of the lone verse, she was belting elaborately ornamented, show-stopping, contest-worthy high notes.
Correction: February 6, 2008
A music review in Sports on Monday about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who performed at halftime of the Super Bowl, and Alicia Keys, who performed before the game, referred incorrectly to Ms. Keys’s current album, “As I Am.” It fell to No. 2 on last week’s Billboard chart; the soundtrack for the movie “Juno” was No. 1.