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Music to Tackle By

With the first half of Sunday's AFC Championship game in the books, CBS's announcing team went to work, chronicling highlights from the first 30 minutes of play, outlining key injuries suffered by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, and setting the stage for what to expect in the second half. Their task completed, the announcers signed off and turned over the broadcast to the afternoon's halftime entertainment -- pop music recording artist Sheryl Crow.

Crow and her backup musicians stood on a platform overlooking one of the end zones at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, surrounded by black-and-gold clad Steeler fans. Crow herself was wearing a mustardy beige pantsuit and the kind of furry headgear normally associated with Soviet agricultural ministers. The scene thus set, Crow launched into a song entitled... well, I'm not familiar with her particular brand of earthy pop. Suffice it to say, it had precious little to do with passing, tackling, or otherwise engaging the hated enemy from New England in a battle for American Football Conference supremacy. For all I know, Crow was singing about the year's wheat harvest figures for Uzbekistan.

The crowd, it is safe to say, was less than enthused. There were no audible catcalls -- certainly nothing along the lines of the tsunami of booing that rained down on Destiny's Child when the group tried to perform at halftime of last year's NBA finals. But apart from a few hardy souls waving their Steeler Terrible Towels, not many people were either getting down with their bad selves or putting their hands in the air like they just didn't care. For the most part, the crowd just looked puzzled as to what Sheryl Crow was doing in the middle of their football game.

"Sheryl," the crowd seemed to collectively say, "all we wanna do is have some fun. And we got a feeling -- judging by the looks of you and your Politburo-style chapeau -- that we are the only ones."

To be fair, CBS wasn't the only network to interrupt a sporting event so that it could feature a completely unrelated musical number. Over on Fox, viewers were treated to a halftime performance by R. Kelly, who was joined by a choir to perform a song about what an awfully nice place America is to live, what with its liberty and its amber waves of grain and its freedom to wear a giant, diamond-encrusted "K" around your neck. But again, unless one of the reasons for America's greatness musically enumerated by R. Kelly and company involved Marshall Faulk's ability to advance the football down the field, then his performance was as out-of-place as Sheryl Crow's little ditty about five-year vodka production figures.

Now more than ever, we as a people are being subjected to random acts of rock and incongruous musical interludes at our halftimes, during our seventh inning stretches, and while the Zamboni is touching up the ice in between periods. Whereas the likes of Creed, Aerosmith and Faith Hill used to content themselves with mangling the national anthem and then leaving us to our sports, they are now likely to appear at any point during a broadcast, taking valuable time away from grave matters of import, like Mike Ditka and Jerry Glanville discussing Jerome Bettis' groin.

I guess I don't begrudge the pop stars their right to follow their creative muse and gratify their egos in front of a captive audience of millions. They're just trying to move product, after all, and that's what this country is all about -- that and liberty and amber waves of grain and the right to wear gaudy jewelry, if R. Kelly's lyrics are anything to go by. It's just that the music they choose to perform rarely, if ever, fits the venue where they're performing. The songs are usually about rocking the night away, or loving the one you're with or not stopping thinking about tomorrow. Few songs in our current musical canon can really lay claim to capturing that moment when a middle linebacker is able to summon up his 'roid rage and knock the opposing team's quarterback off his feet and into a grade-two concussion.

Again, this isn't necessarily the fault of the performers. It's not like when they sit down to pour their hearts and souls into their music and lyrics, they're thinking about whether the song will be appropriate for halftime at a Bucs-Seahawks game. Well... except maybe for Smash Mouth.

No, the responsibility to restore just a little bit of sanity to televised sporting events falls squarely upon the TV networks who have allowed halftime to become a testosterone-fueled version of Top of the Pops. If broadcasters are going to continually turn to musical acts to juice the ratings -- and I have a hard time imagining droves of Sheryl Crow fans tuning into a football game just to listen to their favorite leggy chanteuse sing a three-minute ditty about an unbroken chain of freeborn republics casting off the shackles of capitalism -- then they at least owe it to their viewers to select songs that fit the occasion.

Take ABC, which, six or seven years ago, got it into its head that what would really enhance the "Monday Night Football" viewing experience would be an opening musical number performed by a pop artist with just a nodding acknowledgment that a football game would soon follow. So you had Amy Grant singing "Baby, Baby" while adorable children pranced around in Green Bay and Chicago jerseys or Vanessa Williams belting out "Saving the Best for Last" opposite of grainy footage of Steve Young scrambling for his life.

America, quite rightly, rebelled, turning on ABC with the kind of ferocity normally displayed by wounded, cornered woodland creatures. The network junked its Pop-Star-of-the-Week approach, and restored Hank Williams Jr. and his rousing "Are You Ready for Some Football?" tune to the opening credits -- quite possibly the only time in recorded history when anyone west of Appalachia was glad to hear a Hank Williams Jr. song.

The other networks need to learn from ABC's hard lesson. They need to select musical accompaniment that's both relevant and complementary to the sporting events they're broadcasting. No more Aerosmith-'N Sync duets. No more Michael Jackson and his halftime salute to the children of the world. No more Up with People and its salute to... um... people.

That's why I'm hoping that at this Sunday's Super Bowl, Fox puts the kibosh on the planned halftime performance by U2, and turns the stage over to a musical group that befits the occasion. Ladies and gentlemen, your 1985-86 Chicago Bears, here to lead us all in a stirring sing-along of "The Super Bowl Shuffle."


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