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Posted: Wednesday January 28, 2009 11:00AM; Updated: Wednesday January 28, 2009 3:29PM
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Coming to terms with Bruce Springsteen playing the Super Bowl

Story Highlights

Many Bruce Springsteen fans don't understand why he's playing at the Super Bowl

Springsteen never liked playing stadiums because he couldn't connect with fans

Maybe it's ego, pride or an opportunity to reach more fans. Who really knows?

By Joe Posnanski, SI.com

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After turning down the Super Bowl for many years, Bruce Springsteen finally agreed to play the halftime show this year.
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I have friends, close friends, who are having a hard time with this, really struggling with it. They don't understand why Bruce Springsteen is playing halftime of the Super Bowl. One friend calls it "a soul-crushing betrayal." Another calls it "the ultimate sellout." It should be added that these friends are all football fans as well as Bruce Springsteen fans -- well, aren't all football fans Springsteen fans? They simply aren't feeling it.

Normally, I have no use for people who cry sellout; they tend be the same people who want their artists starving, their actors doing Shakespeare in the Park, their favorite athletes signing for less than market value. But my friends have a point. For 20 years, maybe longer, Bruce Springsteen flatly turned down the Super Bowl. They asked him to perform at halftime every year. Every year he said no. It became a fun little joke for members of his E Street Band.

"Hey Bruce, we doing the Super Bowl this year?"

"Nah, not this year."

True, Springsteen made concessions with his music over the last 40 years. He always said he would never play big arenas, but then he sold lots of records, and people couldn't squeeze into the union halls anymore, it had to be Madison Square Garden. He always insisted that he would never play the football stadiums, no, he could not connect with an audience that large. Then he became world famous.

"Bruce really struggled with stadiums," said Nils Lofgren, who plays guitar in the E-Street Band. "He wanted to maintain the same intimacy he had with 20,000 people in an arena, and it isn't easy to do in a stadium. He really had a problem with it. But then he decided you make music to share, and all of a sudden millions and tens of millions of people wanted to share in the music. That's the whole point. Share the music."

So, Springsteen gave in. We all give in sometimes. But Bruce also held on, he made his honest stand, he didn't do the late-night talk shows, he spoke out for what he believed in, and he played his heart out night after night after night, didn't matter if it was Greensboro or L.A., St. Louis or London, he gave it all. I saw him in Charlotte, not long after his organist Danny Federici died, and it was at the end of a long tour, and it was in one of those new arenas that have all the amenities and none of the soul. It was another night in another town, only I watched Bruce when he played Born to Run. He wrote that song some 35 years ago, and he has probably performed it live, what, five thousand times? Ten thousand? It's a song with words that meant everything to him when he was 25 years old, but what can words like "I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight/in an everlasting kiss," mean to a man who is almost 60, a husband, a father, an icon, a friend, an American, a millionaire. The Boss.

Only he played it that night like it was new, like he was hearing the music for the first time, and as he sweated and wailed and reached, and you don't play music like that for money or cheers or fame or to push a new record.

So, of course Bruce Springsteen kept saying no to the Super Bowl.

Only this year, suddenly, unexpectedly, Springsteen said yes. He did not say why. He still has not said why. Perhaps he will explain at his press conference in Tampa on Thursday. Like I said, I have friends who are having a hard time with it. And I didn't know it until this very second. But I guess I'm having a hard time with it too.

*****

Liz Clarke is one of those haunted friends. Liz is a sportswriter at the Washington Post, and she is so bothered by Bruce playing the Super Bowl that she found herself writing a very personal story about her relationship with Bruce and his music for the Washington Post Magazine. It will run Super Bowl Sunday.

Liz began following Springsteen around in the late 1970s, and she has seen him perform more than 100 times. In so many ways, Liz is a perfectly sensible soul, someone who would never get caught up in hero worship. "I wasn't looking for a hero," she said. "I had no need for a hero, until I heard his music."

Bruce Springsteen cut his first record, with a band called the Castiles about six months before the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers played in Super Bowl I. It wasn't officially called the Super Bowl then, though Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt had already suggested the name (based, famously, on his daughter's red, white and blue super ball). NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle did not like the name "Super Bowl" -- even Hunt saw it as a weak idea -- and so for a while the league officially went with the catchy "AFL-NFL Championship Game."

While the AFL-NFL Championship Game was becoming the Super Bowl, Springsteen played the bars and clubs and union halls. From the start, his best music was always live. There was something transcendent in performance that did not necessarily translate to his records, some sort of energy that he could only create live. He was like football in that way: Everyone knows how well the NFL translates on television because you get replays and analysis and different camera angles and high definition. But on television you never appreciate how hard they are hitting.

"The thing about Bruce is that he was not some rock god playing above the audience," Liz said. "He was playing with the audience. There was interplay, we were together, it was dynamic. He would give so much and you would feel like he would have to be taken off in a stretcher if you didn't yell, if you weren't with him. He wasn't playing music. He was MAKING music."

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