On Saturday, the day before, she had suddenly released her new song Formation. The video, a powerful and politically charged affirmation of black female pride set in New Orleans, could hardly have been more diametrically opposed to Coldplay’s soppy indie, and as soon as Beyoncé marched onto the football field, clad in skintight leather and Michael Jackson-style military gold sashes, with a posse of impeccably choreographed female dancers dressed like 70s Black Panthers, it was time for an early bath for Chris Martin’s band.
Until Beyoncé’s arrival, the Super Bowl half-time performance had been perfectly enjoyable but lacking the electric thrill – not to mention opportunity for gifs - she provided. Inspired by the Glastonbury festival, it saw Coldplay perform three of their biggest hits – Viva La Vida, Paradise and recent single Adventure of a Lifetime – on a flower-shaped stage, their instruments garlanded with flowers and the band’s name written in Hindi on the drum kit. They were accompanied by the LA Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and spent most of the first part of the show surrounded by selfie-snapping teenagers. It was fun but somehow lightweight, while their nods to Glastonbury – for instance, dancers dressed as giant flowers twirling around the field – had some of the festival’s hippy spirit but none of its demented euphoria.
Perhaps recognising that even 12 minutes of this would have risked losing the audience, Coldplay’s warm and fuzzy stadium rock was abruptly pushed aside by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars performing Uptown Funk – definitely a party anthem, but one so overplayed that its impact was blunted. It took Beyoncé’s performance of Formation – on paper a risk, since it’s so recent, but in practice enthralling – to inject some drama. As my colleague Lanre Bakare pointed out on our live blog, the lyrics “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma / I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” must be some of the most political ever to be performed at a half-time show.
Just when Coldplay were seeming like a distant memory, the band reappeared for a reprise of Uptown Funk, and a confusing section set to Fix You that incorporated footage of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and James Brown performing at past Super Bowl half-time shows. It was unclear whether the half-time show was simply celebrating itself or if we were intended to mourn the loss of those three stars, assisted by Coldplay’s mournful ballad, which then morphed into Prince’s Purple Rain and saw Beyoncé reappear for a triumphant finale. Finally, the whole stadium held up a rainbow of cards, some spelling out the words Believe in Love, perhaps also a sweet affirmation of same-sex marriage.
Having sold some 80m records, Coldplay are by a fair distance the most successful guitar band of the past 20 years; no one who’s come along since has got anywhere near the commercial peaks they’ve enjoyed. Viva La Vida is already a sporting anthem, famously played by Barcelona FC manager Pep Guardiola before every match to inspire the players (and it worked – that year (2008-2009) they won everything). Their unabashed desire to connect with a mass audience – an attitude diametrically opposed to the British indie scene they started out in – made them appear the perfect band for a big occasion like the Super Bowl half-time show. In practice, however, even their most widescreen anthems proved far less compelling than Beyoncé’s politically engaged twerking. A pop star at the height of her powers, as Beyoncé boasts in Formation, she slays – and at the Super Bowl, Coldplay were among the victims.