Cowboy vs. Material Girl

In case you haven't heard, the Giants won. Because nobody who wasn't raised in the Boston TV market can abide the New England Patriots as either will or idea, a nation rejoiced between guacamole-flavored burps. But well before then—before the game's second half, in fact—the great American public met the real titans dueling for supremacy in Super Bowl LXVI. Clint Eastwood versus Madonna was a celebrity death match for the ages.

Madonna had literal home-field advantage, since she and her Madonna-ness—two increasingly disparate entities now that she's 53—were the stars of the halftime show. All 81-year-old Clint did (all? To quote Macbeth, "Did you say all?") was turn up in a two-minute Chrysler commercial. Iconically speaking, he cleaned her clock.

Brother, did I get in trouble fast for posting that on Facebook. So I hastily made with the me-good-multiculturalist bona fides. Honest, I do root for the polyglot future—still and always the Force that our Madge wants to be with her, though she's less its Luke Skywalker than its Yoda by now—over summonses to resurrect past glories, Eastwood's Super Bowl job on Dee-troit's behalf. I just can't help it that a) I'm not totally immune to the latter's appeal and b) as a critic, I dig execution.

If I ever get to teach a course on pop culture as politics by other means—that'll just wow 'em on Craigslist, won't it?—I swear these two clips would top my fantasy curriculum. Ideally, though, I'd like to believe they aren't antithetical, so I was cheered up by the Facebook friend who chided me for my Clint-versus-Madonna instant analysis. (And yes, since you ask: Of course this was while the game was still going on. Don't you understand why people love the Super Bowl?) "It was Clint AND Madonna," she wrote, going all e pluribus unum on me.

What a wonderful world that would be. Indeed, the genius of the Eastwood ad was to link how the Super Bowl unites us with other areas of where that might be wise policy: buying Chryslers, saving Dee-troit, bending the knee to Clint's reputation, binding up the nation's wounds to get right with America. But I've been a Madonna Kremlinologist since, oh, 1984. I bet she knew she'd been one-upped.

Clint's biggest asset was surprise. It's not like he pops up in commercials too often, something this one maximized by waiting until the three-quarter mark to unveil not only who the barely glimpsed spokesperson was but what he was advocating. In an election year, it was daring to make us guess we were watching an ultra-costly political ad—during the Super Bowl? Even Mitt Romney's backers don't burn money that wayuntil the big reveal. From the way "It's halftime in America" echoed Reagan's "It's morning in America" to the if-the-Titanic-was-landlocked soundtrack dirge, it was a great sucker punch.

Madonna, by contrast, lives with the Gingrichian burden of supplying "Étonne-moi!" jolts to an audience wearily aware that that's been her shtick since Reagan was in flower. Conceptually, the Roman-legions Cleopatra entrance wasn't too bad a try, if a bit derivative of 2013 (meaning she knows that Angelina Jolie wants to play Cleo next year and was trying to beat her to it). But that act's conversion into a cheerleading routine betrayed her cluelessness. Doesn't she know that NFL teams already have cheerleaders, and mimicking them falls short of sensational?

My main impression was that she'd just been away from America too long to know the right play. You can make a not totally unreasonable argument that her decline as the Zeitgeist's self-appointed dominatrix, however inevitable—that's why they call it a Zeitgeist—coincided with her decision to become a fake Brit. Shades of T.S. Eliot, who was a bit less dependent on his gym trainer to keep him immortal.

True, the Super Bowl halftime show has long since become a glue factory for superannuated stars: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the deaf-dumb-and-blind Who, all of them damned foreigners to boot. Going by the online reaction, however, people were taken aback by the revelation that Madonna is no spring chicken, meaning not only move-wise—though her thickets of dancers did their best to distract us from noticing, she's just not as limber as she used to be—but in her once splendid instincts.

Eastwood's advanced years, on the other hand, evoked resilience. He was born nine months before James Dean, for Pete's sake—yet here he still stands. If he can do it, so can we, and so forth. And if the nature of that "it" stayed vague, his edge over his Super Bowl rival is that she's not so good at figuring out the "we" anymore.