Katy Perry’s Super Bowl Halftime Show: It’s Hip to Be Square

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As far as hypemen go, human smiling-poop emoji Katy Perry makes for a chirpy one. Compared to special guest Missy Elliott in “Rhythm Nation”-era Janet Jackson mode, Perry was downright uncool at the Super Bowl last night, whooping “c’mon” while showing off how far a few albums’ worth of arm-dancing practice gets you. Yet the nine-song set had its redeeming qualities.

While Elliott and her army of back-up dancers performed a three-song medley of high-energy nostalgia for the over-25 crowd (“Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It,” and “Lose Control”) — and brought a rarely seen dose of real hip-hop to halftime while they were at it — Katy Perry relied on the same thing that allows her to stand out in a pop landscape filled with more powerful entertainers, more talented vocalists, and more interesting tastemakers: the hits.

Every Super Bowl performer has hits — it’s a requirement for the year’s most popular TV event — but few have the same kind of shiny yet deceptive hits as Perry. Even baby boomers know a Katy Perry song or two, though they may have not realized it before last night’s performance. And millennials will circulate a Perry GIF far more than a Roger Daltrey one, shirt buttons be damned.

After a post-Nipplegate parade of AARP rockers, the NFL rewarded the music world for good behavior with Beyoncé’s performance (and a mostly satisfying Destiny’s Child reunion) two years ago. With an assist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruno Mars followed last year. Though Perry carried the Hot 100 torch this year in Phoenix, her strengths as a performer did not match those of Mars or Knowles. But her series of cheesy, giant-scale set-ups did.

Katy Perry arena shows are works of art because they never drop the façade. While Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and even Miley Cyrus shows have a few moments where the performer goes all Unplugged, Katy Perry shows are pure spectacle, from the homages to Cats and Tumblr to the floating emojis to the world’s most formidable collection of novelty bras. Her Super Bowl performance was a toned-down version of all that, which is sort of a crazy thing to say about an arena show that’s popular among the elementary school set. After what the NFL has been through, it’s a wonder they let Perry put beach balls on her boobs and sing about bisexuality. Somehow, Lenny Kravitz seemed like the correct choice to help her do that. I wonder how many members of advertisers’ coveted demographic said, “Oh, there’s Cinna from The Hunger Games.”

Riding in on a Transformer while wearing a mini-dress version of the shirts favored by pickup artists, Perry was the male teenage dream. Her rock roots — and I use that term loosely — peeked through as she progressed from “Roar” and “Dark Horse,” two No. 1 hits off her 2013 album Prism, to “I Kissed a Girl” with Kravitz’s guitar-hero prowess and traded vocals. Perry is the type of pop star who will bring out a rocker — especially one who lends her a tiny bit of relevance with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame set. She’ll head-bang, though she knows as well as the rest of us that it looks more like a cheerleading routine set to “Pour Some Sugar On Me” or an homage to Tawny Kitaen’s Whitesnake videos than a proper rock show.

Perry’s not alone in the class of pop belters who have knicked a move or two from Freddie Mercury. This part of the show reminded me of Jessie J’s London Olympics performance fronting Queen, which didn’t miss a beat but came off as over-the-top to the point of insufferability. “I Kissed a Girl” was Perry’s only hit when she played Warped Tour, acoustic guitar in hand; the Kravitz portion of her halftime show embodied that part of her early career. I’m just relieved she had the restraint not to play air-guitar in Lenny Kravitz’s face.

In this sense, Perry’s collaboration (again, using that term loosely) with Missy Elliott was not as restrained. Hearing Perry perform an array of old hits, you realize how much her vocals have improved since the days when hitting the high note in the chorus to “Firework” was a cringe-inducing challenge for her. Perry’s limited dancing skills, however, have not improved. This became awfully apparent in the performance of “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls,” two of Perry’s historic five No. 1 hits from her 2010 album.

It was almost comical watching her dance next to “surprise guest” Elliott — who, by contrast, is an entertaining dancer to watch even though she’s by no means the most technically talented. Taylor Swift would have come up with something less embarrassing than Perry’s cartoonish stomps across the stage. I would not be surprised if Missy Elliott had been called in last minute on a coolness emergency. Perry’s chessboard back-up dancers certainly weren’t, though the ironic memefication that followed her floating “Firework” platform’s resemblance to NBC’s “The More You Know” logo probably made her feel cool post-show.

Would I have enjoyed seeing Missy Elliott paired with a current star on a similar wavelength, namely Nicki Minaj? Of course — and I hope the NFL considers her for next year. (To steal a line from Minaj, she’d really be “on her Kate Perry” then.) The silver lining to Missy Elliott’s appearance was that Perry totally got out of the rapper’s way, and in the process showed us a glimpse of a halftime show where musical creativity was on equal footing with the blunt-force power of No. 1 hits. But boy was that dancing shark fun to watch anyway.