The Superbowl & America

The Superbowl is quintessentially American; a sport only we play combined with the decadence and self-involvement at which our country so gloriously excels. Naturally, I love everything about it. I love the advertisements, the flyovers, the weird prop bets, the spectacle of the halftime show, the pomp and circumstance and self-seriousness of the event, the gluttony. And, of course, the game, too. There’s loads about the NFL that rightly deserves to be richly criticized but I’m also deeply attached to the league, so the athletic competition that is there, buried underneath all the layers of hoopla, is for me actually compelling as a championship game in its own right. And as a lifelong Patriots fan I was especially excited for Superbowl XLIX. But rooting interests aside, the Superbowl is a Great American Event, and last Sunday was Superbowl XLIX, so last Sunday was a great day to be American.*

But if, from the inside, the Superbowl reflects America at its most “us”, from the outside I suspect there’s a decent chance it shows America at its most “them”. Allow me to clarify (and not, say, just rewrite that opening sentence so it’s clear enough to not require clarification). One reads, on occasion, articles, essays, books even, that contain in them commentary from non-Americans expressing their perception of this place as some combination of strange, decadent, superficial, immoral; in general kind of odd and certainly concerned with all the wrong things. And this perception emerges from places which, from a development perspective, might not seem out of place at all in the United States, but also from places that don’t really have much in common with the American lifestyle at all. So it probably does not stem from something like, “I am a subsistence farmer in central Asia and haven’t seen tall buildings in person ever, Manhattan looks nuts.” That is, these commenters seem to be keying on a fairly transcendent perceived otherness in America.

Often times I’m a little bemused at this sort of thing, in no small part because I rather enjoy living here, and for all of America’s well-documented idiocy, there’s a lot to like about the place. Here is Josh Barro expressing the sentiment much more pithily than I ever could: “I never understand Russian complaints that the US is “decadent.” As in, not a hellhole?” But in the wee hours of Monday morning, still basking in the glow of Tom Brady’s ascension to the status of “greatest human to ever live” and the Patriots’ coronation as the greatest franchise in NFL history, I read this bit of Superbowl coverage from El Pais (who only recognize Brady as “among the best of all time”, the big jerks) and saw this picture of Katy Perry performing at halftime:

Now, there are plenty of other cultural institutions in plenty of other countries that traffic heavily in spectacle and craziness – just look at a Bollywood dance scene or the Beijing opening ceremonies. But our judgments about what passes for normal or acceptable or immoral or ridiculous or, yes, even decadent, in other countries aren’t much for global consistency. So take the picture of Katy Perry, and imagine for a second you’re seeing it as a native sat in Moscow or Muscat or Mumbai or Mombasa or Munich – you can kind of see how somebody somewhere else in the world might look at it and think, “what in the hell goes on over there?”

*It was also an especially great day to be Tom Brady (really though, when is it ever not an especially great day to be Tom Brady?), or Malcolm Butler, or a Pats fan