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Critic’s Notebook: Usher and Friends Bring Boundless Energy to a Sparkling Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show

I don’t know if Bill Hader’s Stefon character was necessarily the target audience for the Super Bowl LVIII halftime show, but the easiest way to review the Usher-centric performance would be to say that Las Vegas’ hottest late-afternoon showcase had everything: Usher. Alicia Keys. The Jackson State “Sonic Boom” Marching Band. Bendy Cirque du Soleil acrobats. A Starlight Express tribute. Lil Jon. H.E.R. Usher’s abs. Usher in a bedazzled suit with added abs. Ludacris. Lots and lots and lots of hits.

I don’t know if Usher’s performance is going to generate the same volume of news coverage as Rihanna’s pregnancy-revealing halftime from Glendale, Arizona, last year, but in terms of overall showmanship, it was in a different league. I’d say Usher put on the best one-man Super Bowl halftime since Bruno Mars a decade ago and Beyoncé the year before that (apologies if you were a big fan of Katy Perry and her friendly dancing sharks or the star and co-creator of The Idol wandering through a hall of mirrors).

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The simple fact is that Usher is a showman and he embraced the Las Vegas ethos to the hilt, taking the Allegiant Stadium field surrounded by tightly choreographed dancers, the persistent band, shimmery contortionists and more. Were the Super Bowl being held anywhere else you’d say that it was perhaps too much, but if you’re holding the Big Game in Sin City and you aren’t just letting Wayne Newton go full “Danke Schoen” in front of an audience of billions, you might as well go full chaos. I didn’t spot a white tiger prowling the 50 yard line, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

This brings me to perhaps my only criticism of the show: The segment’s director went for intimacy. That’s not a criticism, really. It’s just a choice. The camera was down on the field and carefully trained on Usher, as well it should have been. But I might have liked a few more shots from the rafters, something to give a bit more perspective on exactly how huge the festivities were, a sense of what the band and background dancers and acrobats were actually DOING and how they were interacting. Even the obligatory mid-level drone shows were very fleeting.

This was all about Usher and the full-service experience he was providing. (An amusing detail about the shots from the field was that things were always happening on the periphery; there was always a feathered outfit, flailing limb or ambling tuba just off to the side.) He danced solo, meshing in perfect choreography with dancers in groups of different sizes. He sang solo. He dueted very nicely with Keys on “My Boo,” after Keys came out alone at a sleek red piano — very sleek, à la David Cronenberg’s alien gynecological instruments from Dead Ringers — for “If I Ain’t Got You.” When H.E.R. came out for an energized piece of guitar showmanship and was followed by dancers on roller skates, you may have thought, “There’s no way Usher’s gonna roller skate, too” — but darned if Usher didn’t come out on roller skates.

It was Usher’s show, but his friends were everywhere, breaking up the Usher’s-greatest-hits format. As fun as it was to see the cameos from Lil Jon and Luda and the rest, the cameos weren’t about adding star power to the event. They were celebrity sleight-of-hand, offering glitzy distraction for each of Usher’s various costume changes. The transition from roller skating into a sparkly blue number was astonishingly fast, though at least one time Usher proved he could do the costume changes onstage and the audience would be perfectly happy.

The thing I appreciate most about Usher is that he made the whole thing look easy, but he didn’t make it look TOO easy. There were slightly imperfect notes, just to let you know that he was doing some of the singing live. By halfway through, he was bathed in sweat. At no point did you ever lose track of how hard Usher was working and how every creative decision was paying off. Usher has a career-capping tour launching in August and he was like a pusher giving audiences the first taste for free, only working his way through the smallest corner of his catalog as if to say, “You’ll have to PAY for the rest.”

After a very, very sloppy first half of football, where on-field injuries were frequently upstaging on-field athleticism, Usher was smooth and boundlessly energetic. Hopefully, the Chiefs and 49ers caught enough of the action to raise their own level of polish in the second half.

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