Madonna Walks 50-Yard Fine Line Between Spectacular, Mundane

You wanted provocation at the Super Bowl halftime show? Madonna chickened out, but sidekick M.I.A. was happy to oblige. She appeared to offer the tens of millions of viewers the wrong upraised finger--i.e., the middle one--instead of the gunshot motion that she does to accompany the bleeped-out "I don't give a s***" line in their new video, "Give Me All Your Luvin'." It was the first real Super Bowl half-time controversy since Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" of 2004.

However, hemmed in by the Super Bowl's presumed insistence on a family-friendly halftime show, Madonna had nothing outrageous to offer herself, instead giving us the most guest stars ever packed into one 15-minute medley. With LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., and finally Cee Lo Green joining her on the 50-yard line, you half-expected to see Elton John putting aside their blood feud and showing up for a cameo, too.

There were a full touring show's worth of costume and extras changes, too. First, with "Vogue," Madge walked like an Egyptian, with dozens of gladiators and slave girls who looked like an even bigger mass of extras than the bigger cast of thousands that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox when they made Cleopatra.

Then came a medley of "Music" with LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" and "Sexy and I Know It" on a bleacher set with a tightrope jumper for slight aerialist effect. Then the guest rappers--bumping hips, but not lips.

Finally, Pastor Cee Lo led the congregation in "Like a Prayer," as the video screens spelled out "World Peace"... the clear message we'd all been missing for the last quarter-hour.

The staging was all so impressively cinematic on our new LCD megascreens that it was hard to believe the visuals weren't recorded in advance, too, along with the vocals. But will we still be talking about it Monday morning? Not likely, unless the sight of M.I.A.'s errant digit somehow inspires a few seconds of water-cooler talk.

What we're left with is the sight of Madonna looking unusually enraptured as she sang "I hear you call my name..." Which, of course, was not originally written to refer to M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj dressed as cheerleaders chanting "L-U-V...Madonna!" When an optical illusion made the entire football field appear to get sucked into Madonna's stage, it was the perfect metaphor for what this spectacle was supposed to be about.

But, minutes later, the crowd was back to givin' all its luvin' to the Giants and Patriots, having already forgotten their shoulda-been upstager.

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