As if it were some mischievous football team known for running trick plays, the Super Bowl Halftime Show has, for many years, deployed as its primary weapon the element of surprise.
Sometimes this surprise has been nonconsensual and offensive: Justin Timberlake forcing Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction; Bruce Springsteen ending his knee slide by slamming his crotch directly into a camera beaming out to a billion people; Maroon 5 appearing, for some reason. In better years, the surprise is actually a delight, like Katy Perry riding a gigantic mechanical lion and later getting flanked by hapless dancing sharkmen, or Beyoncé and an army of leather-clad women crashing Coldplay’s performance to debut “Formation” and pay tribute to the Black Panthers, Michael Jackson, and the Black Lives Matter movement all at once.
Other times, it comes in the form of megawatt tandem performances we didn’t know we needed: J. Lo and Shakira; Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A.; Prince, a thunderstorm, and a giant stage and wailing guitar both shaped in his love power symbol, a synecdoche for the Purple One himself.
At its best, if we are lucky, the 2022 Pepsi Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show in Los Angeles will add to this supergroup-style performance pantheon. On Thursday night, much of social media fell over themselves at the announcement that next February’s show will be headlined by L.A. hip-hop legends Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg, along with their non-Angeleno friends Mary J. Blige and Eminem With a Beard.
Whoa! Indeed, my first reaction to this news was also to be thrilled. I love Kendrick, and I have as much affection for Dre and Snoop’s classic collaborations from The Chronic and 2001 as the next guy. Mary J. Blige is an incredibly talented legend in her own right, and Eminem … Eminem is also a famous person. This grouping is a brilliant idea, even if ESPN’s Bomani Jones has pitched it himself for at least seven years. At first, this reveal seemed to promise that the Halftime Show is going to be extremely fun, as well as dope, phat, chill, fly, sick, and the bomb.
But perhaps we are not so lucky. After giddily imagining what such a concert could look like, I had a horrible realization: Los Angeles. Hip-hop legends. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The Super Bowl … Oh no. No!!! There’s a nonzero chance that the 2022 Super Bowl Halftime Show will surprise us with the return of the terrifying, unspeakable Tupac Shakur hologram. To be clear, I’m speculating; neither the organizers nor the performers have announced that the hologram will appear, nor have they directly hinted that it will. (I’ve reached out to representatives of the show’s organizers—Roc Nation, the NFL, and Pepsi—to ask if it will happen, or if the possibility has been discussed. If I receive a reply, I will update this article.) But unfortunately, I’m convinced that “nonzero chance” is an understatement. It’s definitely going to happen.
The hologram of the late rap luminary debuted, you’ll recall, at the 2012 iteration of Coachella—the music festival that also takes place in Southern California. You may not recall that this 2012 appearance also came during a headline performance by Dre, Snoop, and Eminem. Back then, hands were wrung, thinkpieces were thinkposted, and everyone was generally both horrified and astonished. Wasn’t this reanimation … wrong? Do we really need to live in a world where uncanny, creepy virtual projections of deceased musical icons perform for paying crowds for eternity? Don’t we, as a species, all deserve to be punished for conceiving of and manifesting such a thing? (The answers are yes, no, and yes.)
On top of everything: 2012. That means 2022 is the 10-year anniversary of its debut. Goddammit. The signs are all there from this Halftime Show’s simple announcement alone: The hologram’s return is inescapable. There’s no stopping this.
I can see it now: The group will run through a medley of snippets from the superstar lineup’s hits—“Alright,” “Humble” or “All the Stars,” maybe “Loyalty,” featuring Rihanna as a surprise guest, and whatever the new Kendrick single is; “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” “Forgot About Dre,” and “Still D.R.E.”; “The Real Slim Shady,” “Love the Way You Lie” also featuring Rihanna, and “Lose Yourself”; Mary J.’s “Real Love” and “Family Affair” … and then the show will really start.
The lights will go down, except for some tasteful ones beaming up from the stage to the jumbotron screens showing Nipsey Hussle, the legendary L.A. rapper and activist tragically gunned down in 2019 at age 33. John Legend and DJ Khaled will come out, and the whole group will perform a bit of their Nipsey tribute song “Higher.” And then the arena will go completely dark. Legend will start playing the piano chords to “Changes.” Mary J. Blige will sing the “ooh yeahs” and the hook, accompanied by a Los Angeles children’s choir on the field. And then he’ll emerge at center stage: The hologram, performing in Tupac’s voice, backed up by everyone else onstage, rapping a cleaned-up verse. Blige and the choir will sing the chorus again. Then the hologram will do the spoken word part where Pac goes, “Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we treat each other.” That will end the song, but not the spectacle. No, it will transition into something much more upbeat: “California Love.” That’s the finale, the song the show will end on. The stadium will go nuts.
NBC, NFL, Dre, Kendrick, Halftime Show “curator” Jay-Z, Pepsi, family of Tupac Shakur, I am begging you all: Don’t do this. Please.
You may feel that the mere possibility of using the hologram is too rare and too alluring to resist. I know it is tempting. I understand that the unparalleled stage and element of surprise you think it has, and the anniversary of the hologram’s debut, setting, and impact of the moment all create overwhelming intersecting incentives to do it. There is obviously no greater L.A. hip-hop legend than Tupac. We all agree.
But reviving holographic Tupac for such a spectacle—dopefied as this spectacle may otherwise be—will turn a concert that is already amazingly fun and grandiose and historic into something grotesque. Sure, yes: Do a Tupac tribute—please! But do not use the hologram. Have Kendrick, Snoop, and Eminem rap Tupac’s parts in “Changes” and “California Love” instead. Or just play a recording on the jumbotron of Tupac doing it while he was alive! That will all be much better and more moving and less fraught with technological horror. And it will be enough—more than enough. It will be great. You do not need the hologram to go big, or to pay proper tribute to the man, his legend, and all that they mean to the city. If you do use the hologram (and I know you want to), instead of the world talking about an amazing performance by an all-star bill in the perfect setting, everyone will instead only be talking about the hologram, and hemming and hawing about it all over again, at an even higher pitch than last time after Coachella. It will go on for days.
And look: Now that I’ve published this piece, the surprise is ruined! All 1 billion people watching the Super Bowl will have already read this piece while they’re tuning in, and they’ll see it coming. So really, Super Bowl Halftime Show, you should be thanking me. Because I’m not ruining the surprise that you think the hologram will be; I’m trying to save you—to save all of us—from yourself.
A technological maxim you may have heard is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. The Tupac hologram will anger and upset a large portion of the audience and perhaps even some family and friends who knew and loved Shakur, who remember that he was not just an icon but a real man who lived. Some of those people may talk to the press and voice their anger and hurt at what you did. People who otherwise will have only praise for you will turn on you in an effort to score a political and moral win. It’s too risky.
We’ll have to hear Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth talk about it. We’ll have to read takes like the one you’re reading—horrible right?—and debates between radio and TV hosts nationwide about whether it was a beautiful tribute or a terrible offense. Charlamagne tha God and company will make the performance the centerpiece of The Breakfast Club. Every late-night comedy host will talk about it—yes, even James Corden. There’ll be an SNL skit. Joe Biden—or at minimum Jen Psaki—will be asked about it. Psaki will quote Tupac lyrics in a reply that she and her fans will think are very clever and cool but is in fact extraordinarily cringe. Tucker Carlson and/or Ben Shapiro will make hay out of the entertainment industry, NFL, NBC, and Socialist America thumbing their noses at death while glorifying the memory of “a gangster” who “pal’d around with killers.” It will be so, so, so exhausting. It’s not worth it.
I’m already exhausted. The past several years have made abundantly clear just how much we cannot have and how little we deserve any nice things. What makes this possibility—this inevitability—so depressing is that without holographic Tupac, the show really could be incredible. With this lineup of beloved living people, you basically cannot miss. But I know the world, the NFL, NBC, Pepsi, and this show too well. Super Bowl Halftime Show, I know you won’t be able to resist. You think that everyone will lose their shit and that it will be unforgettable and legendary. That just because you can do the biggest possible thing at the Super Bowl Halftime Show—bring back a digital facsimile of a beloved dead icon—you should. You’re thinking that maybe you should add a new Nipsey hologram too, as a spin on things. You think it will be an amazing surprise, that it will “create a conversation,” and that it will go viral. Pac was right: Some things will never change.