Super Bowl XX. 1986. Bears vs. Patriots. New Orleans Superdome. One of the great joys of growing up in Chicago was watching Walter Payton turn a corner on nasty winter day. The Chicago Bears were a wondrous team in '85/'86: full of great personalities, before any originality in sports was reduced to the common rubble of brand, and a defensive line that rushed the quarterback like marauding beasts. They were Mongols.
The Jumbotron was still relatively new technology at that time—at least it still felt new. I remember the slack-jawed horror when Reagan's mammoth speaking head filled the giant screen, draped in the pulsing stars and stripes. We were celebrating the apex of liberty and the human spirit and lots of other shit, apparently. His comforting tone was deep with menace. I was with Tim Robbins and we got a bad case of The Fear, even though we had prepared for just this situation.
I remember witnessing the UP WITH PEOPLE halftime pageant terrified, with dilated pupils. It was a time when kids were ordered or bullied into attending high school pep rallies—with all that hateful homecoming gibberish.
As you can see in this video now, watching the performance was like diving into an ocean of bad fashion and forced smiles. Dr. Pepper dancing and Mom Jeans from shore to shore… pre-Prozac in motion…. military ballet… Mandatory cheers and quasi-religious cult patriotics… the glory of the empire. A choreographed tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. A celebration of diversity, unity, and fluorescent leggings.
Meanwhile, Reagan was dumping all the mentally ill and vets out on the streets to die, as a direct result of his policies.
Reagan was a bona fide motherfucker (politically speaking) who—among many other horrible things (see Central America's massacres and bloodbaths)—launched the deregulation craze that began America's descent. But the triple-nuclear motherfuckers who shared his ideology and followed would make us nostalgic for his comparatively lesser evil.
The idea that America would one day feel homesick for the '80s was as alien to me then as that vast, choreographed grid of grinning dancers, goose-stepping to synthesizer blasts.
In the middle of the extravaganza, Dick Enberg's syrupy and wholesome voice echoed through the Superdome:
The beat of the future is all around us!
It's the players on the field
The kid in the stands,
dreaming of being out there himself some day
It's a feeling that's hard to describe!
And when you can't say it with words,
you can always say it with your feet.
"The beat of the future!," Up With People sang. "The sound of tomorrow, ringing in my ears!"
There was ringing in my ears, too. We were seated on the 50-yard line ten rows up. The three grams of psilocybin I gobbled before the game was the only thing that kept me sane.
Later that night in New Orleans, I met a zombie, but I got away without being bitten.
* "Smile Until it Hurts," a documentary on the "clean-cut, smile-drenched singing phenomenon" of Up with People.
* "Forever War: It's What's For Dinner," Michael Vlahos
* Another YouTube find: A montage of the preparation and performance of the SuperBowl XX Halftime show by Up with People, in the Superdome of New Orleans LA / January 86 by the UWP casts of 85-86.