The real Super Bowl spectacle | By Gerri Hirshey

I'll confess I long ago ceased counting on breath-taking football during the annual Sunday Snooze known as the Super Bowl. So I do my best to mine it for the entertainment value: The show biz! The new commercials! The food! Scanning this week's hunka hunka burnin' hype for the Event, I was pleased to note the return of those mightily resurrected and rehab'd boys from Aerosmith headlining the pregame show at Reliant Stadium. (MTV is producing the segment.)

You may recall seeing frontman Steven "Dude Looks Like a Lady" Tyler bawling Aerosmith's chestnut "Walk This Way" with Britney Spears and 'N SYNC during halftime of SB XXXV -- also packaged by MTV. So here Tyler is again, declaring on, "The Super Bowl is Rock and Roll! It's slammin', it's precision, it's passion and pure energy."

Steven Tyler
Ahh ... nothing like the quality entertainment the Super Bowl serves up at halftime.

Such tender sentiment -- this rock/jock lovefest -- Tyler extolled in person when this gentle reporter found herself traveling with Steven and his merry men to Dallas in the following Britney Bowl 2001. Aw, he was disappointed that Brit didn't sing the dirtiest verse on "Walk This Way" (hint: It involved a food metaphor). But he was downright bullish on football when we met for late afternoon tea in our Dallas hotel. ("From the 50-yard line, the vibe was …kickin.") The rest of the band was still abed and Tyler himself was puzzled by the hoohah in the hotel lobby. Bellhops were teary-eyed. Women with Big Texas Hair were squealing over their third Mimosas.

I had to explain: Earlier that afternoon, October 27, 2002, then-Cowboy Emmitt Smith had thrown that city into one high-fivin', yee-hawin', pop-me-another-and-quit-countin'-the-empties-darlin' frenzy by breaking Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. As if on cue, Tyler's scarecrow, 130-pound frame was enveloped in a flying tackle from a former Cowboy player and exec just in from the game -- "a kinda showbiz pal" of Tyler's whose knuckles were ringed with bowl triumphs past. He invited Tyler to "come on out to the house" and celebrate. Dude was still mystified: "Emmitt who? Did what?" Finally, Tyler got it: "You mean they're giving him an award for ... rushes?" He cracked himself up. "Man, I won that trophy in about 1979. THEY RETIRED MY BLEEPIN' NUMBER!"

Jock and Rocker giggled and hugged. And so the clinch still holds, live, on your Mastercard-bustin' big screen -- the torrid lambada of entertainment and sports. Halftime hip hop! "NASCAR Rocks" concerts on the infield! Jocks and rockers may not truly understand one another, but when the stadium lights go on and the spandex is snapped in place, they sure know how to dance together for the cameras. Even better if there's some juicy Product Placement involved: a new album/movie/themed eatery. Everybody's in on that act.

Heck, I caught "Touchdown Tables" on the Food Network the other night. Tough cases like Don Shula, Mike Ditka, Barry Switzer and Lee Roy Selmon limned the flavor nuances and SuperSize values at their namesake restaurants. (Aside: I once saw three Selmon brothers chow down together at an Orange Bowl event of yore; it was more awe-inducing than their joint efforts on the Oklahoma defensive line.)

Sunday night, I know I'll tune in to see the King o' Bling -- P. Diddy himself -- anchor this year's halftime extravaganza, along with Nelly, Kid Rock and Janet Jackson. Like the Aerosmith boys, who once snorted half of Peru, nearly everyone in this year's crop is involved in some sort of image rehab (Daddy/Diddy from gun charge defendant to charity marathoner; dwarf-abusing, toxic-partying Kid Rock as neo-country romantic; and Janet's big brother ... well. We doubt the commish will invite Jacko back for a reprise of SB XXVII's "Heal the World" halftime featuring MJ cavorting with "3500 local children" -- though CBS might. The NFL has long been a supporter of second chances, from free agents to "unretired" coaches. Why not spit-shine a tarnished star and set him/her in the jeweled setting of a 170-million audience? On the newsstand and prime time, celeb redemption is boffo.

There is one other piece of genius programming this year that could prove more contentious than the Panthers/Patriots action. One country-themed pregame segment features a good ol', lowdown feud. The Dixie Chicks, still smarting from their vilification by neo-cons for Natalie Maines' anti-Bush comment, will take the pregame stage with their harshest critic, Toby Keith, who spanked those gals good in the press and threatened to open a can 'o Whup-Ass on terrorist types in "The Angry American": "You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A./ Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American Way."

Beyonce has graduated from 2003 pregame show to 2004 national anthem.

Enquiring minds need to know: Can the gentle Willie Nelson, also appearing, pour oil on these troubled waters? Will anthem singer Beyonce heave major cleavage reaching for the rockets' red glaaaaare? There's just so much to think about beyond defensive matchups. How'd we get to these soap opera-ish Super Moments? When was it that slick Production Values (PVs) began the makeover of this stinky, sweaty American institution? Even the grub at Super Bowl parties has gone upscale and bold-faced -- but we'll get to that later ...

For those too young (or too old) to recall, early SB halftimes -- held long before stadiums were named for global monopolies -- were comparatively crude and innocent affairs. The Universities of Arizona and Michigan marching bands oompahed through the first one in 1967; Carol Channing gamely tried a Mardi Gras theme a few years later; CheezWhiz curdled on defenseless nachos across America when football fans were faced with the Pepsodent good cheer of that crew-necked, rosy-cheeked horde calling itself Up With People. FOUR TIMES! Only the Apollo Theater's famous short film showing raging rivers was more effective at sending viewers off -- gratefully -- to answer nature's call.

We've had spectacle: Chubby Checker hauled 88 grand pianos AND the Rockettes out on the field for SB XXII. (Will Diddy up the ante with 88 baby blue Bentleys?) We've had anthem singers that set dogs howling from Bangor to Berkeley: Anita Bryant! Barry Manilow! Kathie Lee Gifford! But it was the great parent Disney that ushered in the age of Po-Mo Promo when, at the SBs 25th anniversary, it foisted New Kids on the Block on unsuspecting viewers with "A Small World Salute to 25 Years of Super Bowl."

Since then, the rock/jock halftime nexus and its attendant glitz has solidified: Boyz II Men, Queen Latifah, Christina Aguilera, U2, Shania Twai. Getting the gig could be as good as a Grammy in pumping up CD sales. The connection spilled over into the fabled Super Bowl ads. Soon ad director Bob Giraldi (genius of the early Bud Light spots) was producing Michael Jackson videos. Britney was selling Pepsi in Joni Mitchell hippie raiment; last year's Ozzy/Osmond morph was the scariest special effect yet.

We've taken it all in, and taken some of the PV's to heart. Hoity-toity production values have infected even the lowly at-home Super Bowl bash. For years, Kraft home economists and ladies magazine editors have been concocting groaning boards of chilis, dips and dunks, recipes long on virtues like "man pleasing," "hearty," and "good for a crowd." But -- probably within the last 15 years -- the sun-dried tomato has reared its ugly, shriveled head above the California Dip. How else do you explain this year's Food Network offering of "Al Roker's Tailgating Party" that has recipes guaranteed to make Clara "Where's the Beef?" Pell spin in her grave? "Hot and Spicy Eggplant Patties?" Even the pork tenderloin is "stuffed with broccoli rabe." Al, we hardly know ya since that stomach-stapling.

Emeril's PV's were predictably kicked up a notch on his "tailgate" series all Super Bowl week, featuring lame faux-cheerleader booty calls amid the buffalo wings. Wisely, the Foodies offered an antidote, one that harked back to the true spirit of those stew and chili-laden '70s Crockpots that simmered unminded (like the little woman herself) until a break in the action. "Home Food Advantage" featured "Crackling Pork Shank with Fire Cracker Apple Sauce," a wee snack that can clog an artery faster than Joe Horn can speed-dial his mama. Just a few key ingredients: "4 pounds pork hind shanks, 4 pounds lard, 1 pound sugar, 1 quart Pineapple Mustard Glaze."

I doubt the current farm-fresh "slow food" movement among Foodies will ever make many inroads amid the chip-and-brewskie ads this Sunday, which have remained refreshingly non-PC, wiseass and macho despite all the image-rehabbing going on at the 50-yard line. (Think Victoria's Secret models, and that babe setting off the fire sprinklers for Barbecue Doritos.) After all, Madison Avenue knows that sex, starch and salt still sell. But there are signs that heightened PVs are trickling down into the heartland itself. This week, The New York Times reported that California avocado growers in San Diego County now rely on a vigilant posse of "guac cops" working on "Operation Green Gold" to keep folks from stealing the high-priced produce. And this week they are on red alert. Complained one farmer: "When the Super Bowl comes, there is going go be thievery. People want guacamole."

Not CheezWhiz. Not onion dip on Manwich. Pricey, cilantro-laced guac. And I can tell you what Mr. Steven Tyler will be ordering backstage from his chi-chi caterers before he sprints to center stage in Houston: Rare ahi tuna steak and steamed broccoli ("it burns clean, man").

In our house, we're going for retro chili, heavy on the chips and Monterey Jack. And no matter what, we'll be entertained: We'll root for Beyonce to hit the high notes, check out the latest Diddy-wear and -- barring anything inspirational on the field -- we'll bet the bottle deposit money on the pregame smackdown. I'm going with the Dixie Chicks. Their bench is three-deep. They're cute, tough and smart -- and honey, they can play.


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