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R&B Pillar, Usher, to headline super bowl 58 halftime show

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

About a year ago, Usher went viral in front of a small crowd on a tiny stage.

USHER: (Singing) Just when I thought I said all I can say, my chick on the side said she got one on the way. These are my confessions.

CHANG: Well, now he's getting ready to play a totally opposite kind of show - the Super Bowl Halftime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

USHER: It's happening.

ZANE LOWE: It's happening.

USHER: It has happened, ladies and gentlemen. Yes.

CHANG: Oh, yes. It is happening. Now, of course, the Super Bowl is not happening until February 2024, so you will have to wait a few months to see Usher take that big stage. But we wanted to mark the moment today. And NPR Music's Stephen Thompson joins us to do just that. Hey, Stephen.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so first, just tell me. How big of a deal is it for Usher to perform at the Super Bowl? - because, I mean, we see big names every year at this show, yeah?

THOMPSON: Well, I think over time, the Super Bowl halftime show has come to be the ultimate form of mainstream validation and acceptance. It's an audience of tens of millions of people all over the world. It has to be exciting to as many people as possible. And so what is more mainstream than playing a Super Bowl halftime show? If nothing else, it's a massive, massive piece of validation for Usher himself.

CHANG: Massive validation. OK. Well, we should note that this is not his first time on the Super Bowl stage. Like, he performed alongside the Black Eyed Peas way back in 2011. I totally did not even remember that. Is it kind of surprising that Usher hasn't headlined a halftime show up until now? Like, why do you think it's taken this long?

THOMPSON: Well, Usher is about 30 years into his career. He's been one of the biggest stars in R&B during that time. But when you think about the arc of not only Usher's career but the arc of the Super Bowl halftime show, it's really evolved into a thing you can headline. When he was coming up in the '90s, a lot of the Super Bowl halftime shows were medleys. So...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

THOMPSON: But it wasn't just, like, one artist who was, like, in charge of holding that stage for the entire time. So there aren't actually that many artists who have been solo headliners.

CHANG: Well, Usher released his last full length studio album something like seven years ago. And then his Tiny Desk concert, which you heard a snippet from earlier, has, like, 18 million views now. His songs are still played on the radio. Why do you think Usher has been able to stay relevant in music for so, so long, for over three decades now?

THOMPSON: Well, I think part of it is just songcraft. Part of it is the quality of that voice. If you go back and watch that Tiny Desk concert, he's just in such strong voice throughout. And I think he's also been able to seize opportunities as they've happened. He has stayed in really excellent voice. He still looks basically the same.

CHANG: He does. I'm so jealous, actually.

THOMPSON: He's just stayed on top of his game. You know, you mentioned he hasn't released a full-length studio album in seven years, but he is dropping his next album the day of his Super Bowl...

CHANG: Oh.

THOMPSON: ...Halftime performance.

CHANG: Very strategic.

THOMPSON: He's a man who knows how to take advantage of opportunities when they are presented to him.

CHANG: Clearly. You know, you mentioned that now the Super Bowl halftime show is much more of a single headliner show, but there's also another evolution, and that's the prominence of hip-hop. Like, with big names such as Rihanna, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, now Usher performing at the Super Bowl in recent years, how would you say the halftime show has changed since Jay-Z was brought on to produce them starting in 2019?

CHANG: So when Jay-Z was brought in to help produce the Super Bowl halftime show, it's important to remember that around that time, the NFL had been embroiled in a lot of controversies around the quarterback Colin Kaepernick. And so a lot of Black artists were really hesitant to work with the NFL and work with the Super Bowl. And once Jay-Z was brought in, that was designed in part to kind of expand the reach of the artists that were going to perform at the halftime show. In the years leading up to that, you had a lot of, like, older, whiter, classic rock acts, people like Tom Petty and The Who. And so I think the shift that you're talking about just really diversified the artists who were playing the halftime show.

CHANG: Well, I love the shift. That is NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. Thank you so much, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF USHER SONG, "U DON'T HAVE TO CALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)