Who won the Super Bowl (halftime show)?

[10/02/2016] I watched the first 24 hours of coverage after the Super Bowl out of the corner of one eye, and it was more interesting than I expected.

There was a huge amount of excitement and pride on the part of YOLA’s teachers and students, for obvious and entirely justifiable reasons. They had an experience they’ll never forget, and apparently loved every minute of it. The students’ joy was infectious and few can have been unmoved by it.

Responses from Venezuelans on social media were much more mixed – indeed positively polarized, as most discussions about Venezuela are these days. Dudamel wasn’t even wearing his Venezuelan cultural ambassador hat and performing with the SBSO – he was there representing YOLA and, indirectly, the LA Phil – and he was only on screen for seconds rather than minutes, yet that was enough to spark extensive and furious online debate about the conductor’s political (non-)position and whether he should be celebrated as a Venezuelan triumphing on the world stage or decried as a government shill. There were eyebrows raised, too, about his willingness to play both socialist and capitalist cards at once: performing at the UN, say, draped in the national flag and under a huge image of Chávez, and also at the entertainment industry extravaganza that is the Super Bowl halftime show. One thing became clear, though, and not for the first time: a lot of Venezuelans are pretty fed up with Dudamel and do not buy his apolitical argument.

I won’t claim for a second that I did a thorough analysis of media responses to the occasion, but my brief perusal suggests that Beyoncé stole the show – at least in journalists’ eyes – with her Black Power-themed performance. After watching the show (it was a long 13 minutes…), I couldn’t help wondering: did YOLA end up on the wrong team? Their role was to provide peripheral ornamentation for a couple of minutes of inoffensive white middle-class British stadium rock. Just moments later, there was Beyoncé with her fist raised, making a statement about social justice, and particularly racial justice. Yes, there was much for cultural critics to get their teeth into here, and I’m sure they will. Yet leaving that aside, isn’t this where the multi-racial YOLA orchestra with its social justice back-story should have come in? As it was, they were overshadowed by Beyoncé’s much clearer statement of intent.

However, this was perhaps a logical conclusion of the Sistema story. Clear socio-political statements are not the program’s style. Its leaders prefer to go with the flow rather than make waves: to make general statements about peace and harmony rather than deal with specific struggles at specific historical junctures. Spectacle – not justice – is the currency of Abreu and his disciple Dudamel, and what could be more spectacular than the Super Bowl halftime show?

As ever, though, it is worth asking whose interests are really being served.

The show is above all a battle of the brands – Pepsi, Beyoncé, Coldplay, Dudamel, and so on – and its raison d’être is to promote them. For Dudamel, despite his fleeting and rather embarrassing appearance (waving a stick somewhere in the distance while Coldplay got on with their song), it was a big deal, and I’m sure that the LA Phil’s Deborah Borda did a few fist-pumps (perhaps figuratively speaking) when it was secured.

There have also been heady statements about how those few minutes will transform the fortunes of music education or classical music in the US. It will be interesting to look back in 5 or 10 years’ time and see if those predictions are borne out. I’m a little sceptical about Mark Swed’s claim in the LA Times that this was “big news for the world of classical music,” given that there was no classical music performed. Things must be worse than I thought for classical music in the US if a brief snippet of backing strings on a rock track is considered a major turning point in the music’s fortunes. (I also saw an article claiming that the use of classical music in advertisements during the Super Bowl further illustrated that a revival was under way.)

It’s conceivable that there will be spinoff benefits in this direction, but perhaps this is just the hopeful hyperbole of a local groupie. Over on the other side of the country, the Boston Globe’s entire coverage of the Dudamel/YOLA segment was a passing reference to “young people coming out with violins.” I understand that viewers were provided with no explanation of who these young people were or what they were doing there. The nature of their participation was such that you really needed to know the back-story to see anything of significance in it. In other words, it spoke to those already in the know about classical music. Otherwise they just looked like a bunch of young backing musicians.

This was what struck me above all: the nature of YOLA’s participation. I was naively expecting them to perform as themselves, but they were simply accessories to an adult game. In Venezuela, that game is more about power and politics; in the US, more about money and brands. Either way, it’s a game in which young musicians are pawns, their enjoyment of that role notwithstanding.

Did this show make a statement on behalf of music education? Well, there were young musicians on stage – better than nothing, perhaps. (There were also young musicians in the bands on the sides, though no one is talking about their appearance as transformational.) But what image of music education did it portray? Did we see young musicians as protagonists, as creators, as people with voices? Did we even hear them properly? No. They were a support act, providing a colourful backdrop, buffing the brands of Dudamel and Coldplay. Unsurprising, perhaps, under the circumstances, but what message did this convey? “Learn music and you too can play a bit-part in the greatest show on earth: capitalism”? Thinking about the history of music education and El Sistema’s 19th-century European roots, it’s hard to avoid the thought: plus ça change.

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