Here’s the thing about Bruce Springsteen’s crotch: No one ever saw it coming.
Certainly, it wasn’t what the NFL had in mind, back when it booked Springsteen and the E Street Band to headline halftime of Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa on Feb. 1, 2009. Five years after Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction, the last thing they expected was America’s rock ‘n’ roll dad to come sliding into living rooms zipper-first.
But as we approach the 10-year anniversary of Tampa’s last Super Bowl, a thrilling 27-23 win by the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Arizona Cardinals, it’s the thing most people remember from what was then one of the most anticipated halftime shows ever.
“At the time, it was the most-watched Super Bowl in history,” E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg said. “So you definitely don’t want to drop your popcorn, and fortunately, we didn’t. It was kind of like, you’re thrown out there, and you’re making a little prayer — Don’t let me screw this up — and it came off great.”
The NFL had for years begged Springsteen to play halftime, but to the Boss, it always felt like “sort of a novelty,” he told reporters in Tampa that week. But he felt they were on a creative high with the albums Magic and Working on a Dream, and they were playing some of the best shows of their lives. The producers behind the halftime show had finally convinced him that it was possible to pack the E Street Band’s legendary live show into a 12-minute televised performance.
“I love my job,” Springsteen said then. “We come out and inspire; that’s part of what we do. If they throw the money at us, then we keep that, too. But we do come out to inspire. And it was just like, ‘Well, this is the year.’”
For the band, it had always been a sticking point that their performance feel like a real, live rock show instead of a made-for-TV event.
“We kind of held out until they allowed the audience to be up close, which they (the NFL) didn’t want to do,” said guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt. “We were the first one to have an audience up close. Now, of course, the audience is part of the show.” For Justin Timberlake’s 2018 halftime show in Minnesota, he said, “the audience did more than the artist did.”
I was down on the field amidst the screaming crazies, and what I remember was: Organized chaos. The league had to usher the band and stage out on the field in a matter of minutes. When the stadium lights went dark, pre-selected fans rushed the field, some making it farther than others (then-Times pop music critic Sean Daly managed to break free from the NFL’s media handlers and make it much deeper into the scrum than me).
“It was fascinating to watch,” Weinberg said. “Fortunately, I had at that point had so much live TV experience” — as the bandleader for Late Night with Conan O’Brien — “that it wasn’t that different from doing a late-night program. You have to watch the stage manager; you’ve got to make your cues. So I was really glad I had that experience.”
As the band opened with Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Springsteen grabbed the mic and spoke to viewers worldwide.
“I want you to step back from the guacamole dip!” he roared. “I want you to put the chicken fingers down! And turn your television all the way up! And what I wanna know is, is there anybody alive out there? IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE?”
From there, Van Zandt, “we just played to that, whatever it was, 2,000 people right in front of us.”
Some, of course, more than others. Springsteen ducked into the crowd to slap skin with fans by the stage. And then came that infamous slide across the stage late in Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, which ended up inserting his groin into the international discourse.“Too much adrenalin (sic), a late drop, too much speed, here I come Mike (Colucci, the cameraman) … BOOM!” Springsteen would later write on his website. “And I’m onto his camera, the lens implanted into my chest with one leg off the stage.”
But he recovered, laughing, and the band moved on to Born to Run, Working on a Dream and Glory Days. I’ll say that from the field, the sound was awful — although that’s to be expected, considering the performance was engineered for television, not the bodies on the turf. But Van Zandt and Weinberg were both pleased with it.
“It goes by in a flash, whatever it was, 13 minutes, and a lot of fun,” Van Zandt said.
The game ended up being one of the best Super Bowls of all time, but according to Weinberg, the band didn’t stick around to see it.
“We left right after we played,” he said. “We went right back to Jersey. We went to the airport and flew back.”
After the Who headlined the following year’s halftime show, that was pretty much the end of legacy rock at the Super Bowl. Aside from Coldplay (who were upstaged by Bruno Mars and Beyonce), the Red Hot Chili Peppers (a special guest of Bruno Mars) and this year’s headliners Maroon 5 (who will be joined by Travis Scott and Big Boi), no rock band has gotten a proper call from the league. Van Zandt said it might never happen again.
“Looks like rock ‘n’ roll had its day at this point,” Van Zandt said. “It’s back to pop. And look, we all owe Janet Jackson our gratitude. If it wasn’t for that incident, we probably never would have gotten rock ‘n’ roll at the Super Bowl. I’m glad we had our run, and most of the great rock bands got a chance to play it, and hopefully that’ll come again. We’ll see.”
Springsteen’s Super Bowl show is generally remembered favorably; Rolling Stone and Variety both placed it in their top 5 halftime performances ever. But 10 years later, the crotch slide is still the thing everyone remembers most.
On the day of last year’s big game, Springsteen tweeted out a gif of the incident, so NFL fans could relive it on an endless loop. In the horizon behind him is Raymond James Stadium and Tampa, still linked to the thrust that’ll live on forever.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.