over the last few weeks, Usher Raymond wasn’t necessarily the musician people were talking about when discussing the upcoming Super Bowl 2024. But even if the formation of a new American power couple in Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce was the force attracting eyeballs, the R&B star gave a performance that was more than sufficient to keep them. In just over 12 minutes, Usher and a star-studded cast of guests, including Alicia Keys, H.E.R. Lil Jon, will.i.am, and Ludacris, packed in about 16 songs from around his three-decade musical career, marrying a visual spectacle with unusually strong musicality.
In the run-up to Sunday night, he said it would be inspired by his long-running Las Vegas residency, and the setlist mirrored the one he has used at those shows. In a custom oversized white suit with playfully baggy pants designed by Dolce & Gabbana, Usher looked like an Atlanta Liberace. The show’s beginning had a circus-like atmosphere, featuring dancers in the iconic feathered showgirl costumes and others in sequined outfits in midcentury-referencing silhouettes.
The wisdom of adapting a Vegas residency was obvious, and it’s an approach the NFL should return to again. A practiced band allowed him to move among his hits swiftly, and the more-is-more approach to the setlist allowed him to play a medley of his more beloved ballads without sapping the energy. Eventually, the mood transitioned towards his more club-focused music and he did a quick change into a custom Off-White vest and pants.
The addition of his guests meant that the show was a one-night-only affair, however, and a sampler of the music that millennials associate with their teen years. Keys joined to sing “If I Ain’t Got You” and duet “My Boo,” will.i.am performed “OMG,” Lil Jon came for “Turn Down for What” and “Get Low,” before Ludacris joined for his exuberant verse on “Yeah!”. From Babyface-led R&B to club-focused bangers during EDM’s imperial phase, Usher’s career kept pace with changing tastes, documenting a contradictory industry in a period of rapid transition. The Super Bowl show proved just how powerful a charismatic performer can be in anchoring all of those trends in talent.
Despite lodging hits on the top 40 in four different decades, Usher took time to assume the mantle of “icon” that came more easily to some of his contemporaries. But with the opening of his Las Vegas residency in 2021 and his viral 2022 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, it was clear that he became an elder statesman of pop music without anyone realizing it.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, he explained what it meant for him to be in such a retrospective mood. “I’m learning something at the age of 45. It is to savor the moment,” he said last week. “Days are becoming shorter. Weeks are becoming shorter. Years feel like months now; they go by so fast. I’m just trying to savor every bit of it and just enjoy it.”
It can be frustrating to realize that the NFL is just now coming around to the things it might have been a little too scared to embrace during their original heyday, but it’s easy to see just how far the atmosphere of the show has changed since a slow-moving crisis took root nearly a decade ago. In the wake of the Ferguson uprising, when players wanted to express themselves, and a wide swath of owners wanted to ensure that nothing changed. As the league tried to stem the tide, Colin Kaepernick emerged as the face of resistance and the target of the league’s anger. By 2019, a wide array of celebrities were turning down offers to perform during halftime, whether due to solidarity with the blacklisted quarterback, worry about potential backlash, or concerns about the league’s tendency to micromanage. In 2021, Jay-Z and his company Roc Nation started a partnership that entailed leading the production for the show. For the first three years, it was easy to watch the show and wonder if some new blood would turn the doldrums around, or if the NFL would even let them.
It’s only a bit of kismet that Usher is taking the stage while Swift is in the audience. If the R&B crooner represented the 1990s becoming the 2000s, the country-turned-pop phenom has represented the era that followed. It also feels telling that the league seems pretty happy to keep spotlighting Swift despite the rise of right-wing conspiracy theories over her relationship with Kelce and presence on the sidelines. The NFL has finally realized that you can’t please everyone, but in the 21st century, it makes financial and moral sense to side with the millennials.