When it comes to recent controversies surrounding the NFL, there is no shortage of recurring topics for discussion, but one of the strangest debacles involves this year's Super Bowl halftime show and SpongeBob SquarePants. How? Well, let me set up the backstory. Arguably the most influential cartoon on TV in the past 20 years, SpongeBob SquarePants has been producing episodes nonstop since its 1999 premiere. Its simple premise centers on a sea sponge's adventures under the ocean making friends, going to driving school and working minimum wage. Things all kids can relate to.
This was a sweet idea for a Hillenburg tribute, although I personally didn't think anything would come from it. That was until mid-January, when Live Nation, the concert production company for the halftime show, tweeted a preview video featuring B-roll of announced performers Maroon 5, Travis Scott and Big Boi in behind-the-scenes clips. What really stuck out was a clip of SpongeBob SquarePants, making a brief, split-second appearance. This was the sign people were hoping for. "Sweet Victory" would be played at the Super Bowl … or so we thought.
Still, there was briefly a glimmer of hope during the game. Maroon 5 started playing, and the concert suddenly included a transition to original animation of Squidward leading his marching band, with the same outfits from the episode. This was it! It's really happening! The animated orchestra blows their trumpets to hum the first few notes of a song—and then the show cuts back to live footage of Travis Scott and his hit "Sicko Mode."
Maybe they'll play "Sweet Victory" after this song, right? Maybe they're going to cut back to the animated segment? Nope. Any reference to SpongeBob, as well as my last few shreds of hope, disappeared after those 14 seconds of animation. Had someone watched the Super Bowl without knowing the backstory, they would have no idea why SpongeBob even showed up. There is no context given. It doesn't correlate to anything.
The fact that any reference to SpongeBob made it into the most-watched American television broadcast of the year is promising and shows just how massive SpongeBob is to a lot of people.
That said, I can see why this happened the way it did. The petition was launched in late November, less than three months before the Super Bowl. Planning a halftime show isn't done overnight, and making room for another song or getting the license to use "Sweet Victory" would have been a time-consuming hurdle to surpass. But to tease something SpongeBob-related, only for the concert to have barely anything to do with the character, was very anti-climactic. I can't help but feel that, had there been more time, they could have done so much more to honor Hillenburg.
In general, animation is an art form that falls by the wayside or can be discarded as a thing made for kids. The reality is that yes, it's appropriate for kids, but it's also enjoyable for everyone. The fact that any reference to SpongeBob made it into the most-watched American television broadcast of the year is promising and shows just how massive SpongeBob is to a lot of people; even that brief clip helps expose it to a whole different audience that may look down on animation. Thirty years ago, cartoons, video games and superheroes were seen as kids' stuff, but this generation is different. Those kids grew up but continue to find joy in the mediums. Many artists work hard to craft those pieces that become part of entertainment history—they deserve recognition in the same way that sports and cinema are revered. While SpongeBob's cameo at the Super Bowl wasn't all that we wanted, it's still a big step forward for animation earning respect.