Buddy Holly and Super Bowl Halftime Shows: It’s About Which Music Dies
I don’t suppose, realistically, the National Football League ever considered using the Super Bowl halftime show this past Sunday for a memorial tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Roger Peterson, pilot of the Beechcraft Bonanza airplane that crashed into a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, and killed all four.
Since Sunday was the 60th anniversary of the crash, the timing would have been perfect.
But I suspect those who issue these invitations for the Super Bowl saw greater contemporary appeal in the band that did secure the slot, Maroon 5.
Maroon 5’s lead singer Adam Levine, whose other high-profile gig as a judge on NBC’s The Voice makes it feel like he’s been around forever, has in fact not turned 30 yet. This underscores the understandable truth that the popular media industry today courts the young, just as it did when Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were striving for radio and television time in the late 1950s.
That said, it could also be noted that the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII was unremarkable, a term also widely applied to 1) the game and 2) the commercials.
I’m not sure we should find “synergy” in three related items whose shared trait is being forgettable, but I will say this: Buddy Holly was not forgettable.
After the Super Bowl I pulled out a couple of Buddy Holly albums — yes, I know, it would be easier to punch this stuff up on the computer — and listened to some slightly less popular tracks, including “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “I’m Gonna Love You Too.”
This to me is quintessential Buddy Holly: breezy with an irresistible rhythm that moves at the speed of a guitar lick or a crisp drumbeat. He wraps it up and I’m thinking, “Oh man, over already?” A great rule for artists: Leave ’em wanting more.
He did that. So did Valens, by the way, but Valens was so young — just 17 — that we only heard the beginning of his first act. Holly was 22, still crazy young, but he had already left a trail of songs from “Maybe Baby” and “Oh Boy” to “That’ll Be the Day,” “Not Fade Away” and dozens more that have lost not a note of their freshness.
There’s always been speculation, given how much Holly had already accomplished, about what he would have done next. While what-ifs are as dubious in music as they are in sports, they’re equally irresistible.
We know for sure he was moving from the lean rockabilly of 1954, ’56 and ’57 into productions with strings, like the almost eerie ballad “True Love Ways” and his haunting final single, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More.”
He clearly saw a major part of his future in songwriting and producing — inspiring the romantic scenario in which he would have brought black and white artists together to create something no one had ever heard or imagined. This notion became a central plotline for the movie Eddie and the Cruisers.
Whatever might have happened, we know some things that did. The Beatles picked their name as a play on Holly’s band, the Crickets. The Rolling Stones sang his songs. Sixties artists from Bobby Vee to Bobby Fuller tried to pick up where Holly was cut off. Don McLean’s “American Pie” elevated Feb. 3 to “the day the music died.” Gary Busey starred in a movie about Holly’s life. His songs became a Broadway show that’s still playing around the world. Paul McCartney bought his music catalog and has helped put multiple tribute shows together.
Yes, enough years have passed since the 1950s that no artist from that era, even Elvis or Chuck Berry, remains in the forefront of popular culture. Things just don’t work that way.
Still, the best of that music has endured in a way that its critics, including most of the “good music” world, assured us would never happen.
Also, the dangers those critics predicted it would bring down on America and its youth never materialized. Instead, artists as unchained as Little Richard, as mesmerizing as Elvis and as geeky as Buddy Holly opened doors to freedom and possibility.
Popular music and popular culture can do that. Not at Super Bowl LIII, perhaps, but elsewhere, they still do.
I have to admit that if I were on the Super Bowl Halftime Show Committee, I wouldn’t have been lobbying for a Buddy Holly/Ritchie Valens tribute. But when I went home, I’d still listen to “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” because happily, it does.