The National Football League season is still young, but the most important thing has been decided: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira will be the halftime acts at the 2020 Super Bowl.
These are excellent choices because they check off many boxes. They’re recognized names who can be counted on to put on a good show and will probably excite more casual fans than Maroon 5 did last year. It’s also been 20 years since a Latino performer has headlined a Super Bowl halftime — Gloria Estefan did so in 1999. With the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami, the NFL did not miss the opportunity to book both Lopez and Shakira. The NFL did not fumble this.
However, there’s another musical genre that is even more under-represented at Super Bowl halftime shows. That’s country music.
In the history of the games leading up to Super Bowl LIV game (for those not up on their Roman numerology, that’s 54), only once has there been a country music halftime show. Maybe twice, depending on how you do the counting.
In 1994, when the Super Bowl was in Atlanta, the halftime show consisted of Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt and the Judds. That’s the only true country music halftime show.
In 2003, when the Super Bowl was in San Diego, Shania Twain was the headliner – but was also joined by rockers No Doubt and Sting. Twain sang two of the four songs in the set.
If you want to be technical, fiddler Doug Kershaw (whose background is in Cajun music) performed at the halftime of the 1990 Super Bowl in New Orleans — but so did clarinetist Pete Fountain, singer Irma Thomas and three local college bands. The theme that year was a salute to the music of Louisiana. We don’t count that year.
Country singers have certainly been present at Super Bowls in other ways — typically singing the national anthem (mostly recently Luke Bryan in 2017). But the halftime show? Not so much. It’s as if country stars are pigeonholed — sure, they can do the patriotic thing and sing the anthem, but the halftime show? Umm, let’s call up Coldplay instead. That’ll get people excited.
Why so little country music at the Super Bowl?
Sports are full of statistics so let’s call up some of our own:
The Nielsen rating service says that last year country was the third most popular format on the radio. First was news/talk — no, we don’t want Rush Limbaugh as a halftime act. Second was adult contemporary. Third was country — ahead of pop hits, ahead of classic rock, ahead of everything else.
Now, that’s for all age groups. When you look at the 18-34 age range — a demographic that the NFL surely wants to reach, because every marketer wants to make sure they’re growing a future audience — the results get more interesting. In that age range, country music was the second most popular format, behind only pop hits. (The news/talk format basically dies with that demographic.)
There are lots of other ways to measure popularity — notably by album sales or by online streaming. Country doesn’t do as well there. There’s simply a big difference between what people listen to on the radio and what they’re buying.
When it comes to sales-plus-streaming, the data company BuzzAngle says that in 2018, the nation’s most popular genre was hip-hop/rap (21.7%), followed closely by pop (20.1%). Next came rock (14%), R&B (10.6%), Latin (9.4%) and country (8.7%). After that, there’s a big drop down to niche genres such as electronic dance music, jazz and reggae. The big news out of that study was that Latin music is now more popular than country music —not surprising given the nation’s changing demographics. By that measure, it’s certainly time — past time — for a Latino star to headline the Super Bowl.
Still, it’s also time — past time — for another country star to do something at the Super Bowl than sing the anthem. It’s often customary for a headliner to share the stage with lots of other performers. Last year, Maroon 5 brought out rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi. Over the years, headliners have brought out all manner of rockers, rappers and pop stars. Isn’t it odd that in the whole history of the Super Bowl, no headliner has ever brought out a country music star? (We think the answer is clearly “yes.”) Why is this? It’s certainly not that the headliners don’t know any country music performers. After all, we’re living in an age where the genre-bending “Old Town Road” made its way onto both the Billboard rap chart and country charts. In fact, the “country rap” song would have made it as the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot Country chart if Billboard hadn’t disqualified it as not being country enough. The rapper Nelly has recorded with both Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line. Jason Aldean has recorded with Ludacris. Taylor Swift — whom you may or may not count as country — has recorded with T. Pain. We could go on and on. So it’s not that.
That leaves us with just two possible explanations: Coincidence (which does happen) or the NFL thinks a country star would turn off fans. It’s easy to gravitate toward that answer except that the NFL wasn’t concerned about the Lady Gaga — whose liberal views are quite well-known — turning off conservative viewers in 2017. Not all country fans are conservatives, of course, but they do skew that way. To think that the NFL is intentionally freezing out conservative country music fans is to believe that the NFL is a great left-wing conspiracy. Colin Kaepernick would beg to differ. So what is it then?
Our interest in this is simple: We’re country music fans. So are you, at least enough of you to make a difference. The streaming site Pandora says the most popular genre in Virginia is country music. It’s also the most popular genre in 10 other states — from Alaska to Alabama. So there’s another statistic for you.
Here’s another: There’s one football championship game that hasn’t been shy about booking country acts for halftime. That’s the Canadian Football League. We don’t automatically think of Canada as country music territory, although it is (we’re particularly partial to The Heels, Brea Lawrenson and The Dead South). Shania Twain — a native of Ontario — has headlined the Grey Cup halftime show twice, in 2002 and 2017. This year, the headliner is the reigning Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year — Keith Urban. We hope he’s ready for the cold in Calgary but whatever the temperature, it’ll be warmer than the reception the NFL has given country music.