Something old is roaring back.
Last night's Super Bowl, in particular an element of the halftime show, was reminiscent of the early going of the Bush years. While one can presume that a staggering preponderance of Americans support -- in spirit if not materially -- American troops, the showiness of Bruno Mars' tribute to them was strange and anachronistic.
Consider this year's State of the Union address, another recent instance at which fealty to the troops was demonstrated. In that instance, it was fitting to the explicitly political occasion, and reflected actual consideration of the human cost of war. President Obama's inclusion of a wounded veteran at the emotional high point of his speech was thematically connected to a years-old promise that he would wind down the wars in the Middle East in light of the grievous human toll.
Bruno Mars' ceding half a minute of his halftime show to American soldiers sending messages to their families just felt random -- coming as it did immediately after the Red Hot Chili Peppers romped across the stage, shirtless, to the strains of "Give It Away." In an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance that found room for a children's choir, a Mars drum solo and a '90s nostalgia act unseasonably dressed, why not toss in a salute to America's troops, with the stage lit with an electronic waving American flag? Mars' song for the troops was "Just the Way You Are," about a girl who is "amazing just the way you are," just ... like ... American soldiers.
The whole thing, LED flag and all, though, was suffused with the histrionics of the Bush administration, a period during which American troops were badly mistreated by those in power but were the object of almost fetishistic focus in entertainment and media. At that time, to pay tribute to America's troops was so de rigueur as to approach meaninglessness in any individual instance. If you shoehorn a brief tribute to America's troops in between the shirtless Peppers dancing onstage and a hit song about romantic love, does it mean anything?
I am not advocating that people stop paying tribute to the troops. Far from it. A tribute has the power to be deeply moving and meaningful. Though intended as a tribute to the victims of Sept. 11 and not to veterans, U2's 2002 halftime show proved that the time can be entirely devoted to a high-minded ideal and stir the spirit. Mars' framing of "Just the Way You Are" as a song for veterans felt exploitative, though, in old and familiar ways, precisely because of how random it was, how much it felt like an attempt to lend gravitas to an entertainer who came into the Super Bowl not preceded by the decades of fame that past acts have possessed. Sure, Beyoncé and Madonna were superstars, but did they think to give a tribute to America's troops -- all while altering nothing substantial about their act? Bruno Mars got the shiny patina of respect for the troops all while doing exactly what he'd have done had there been no troop tribute at all. In honor of those who sacrifice so much, he didn't even sacrifice the duet with a bunch of shirtless screaming men moments before American soldiers came on-screen.
This was hardly the only uncomfortable throwback during the Super Bowl broadcast. Budweiser bolstered its brand identity with an ad thanking American soldiers for their service -- a meaningful message as the war winds down, but one that identifies Budweiser as the beer that cares about the troops in a showy, performative way. And ads for the reboot of "24," the Bush-era TV drama that portrayed the global battle against terrorism as a thrilling adventure full of truly badass torture, showed just how little America has actually moved forward in its conception of war and of soldiers. A nation that truly honored its troops in manners more substantive than the tear-jerker moment toward the end of a set of pop songs would treat the war on terror with more gravity than the propulsive, deeply fun "24" possessed in aggregate over its run. But that would require moving beyond the easiest of pieties, and that's just not the way we are.