Maroon 5's Adam Levine at the Super Bowl halftime

Why the Super Bowl Could Have Done More for SpongeBob—and Animation Overall

SpongeBob made a much-discussed cameo, but this small win for the art form could have been bigger

Mark Humphrey/AP/Shutterstock

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.

When you quote a line from SpongeBob, people in their 20s are gonna know what you're talking about. It's so ingrained in our pop culture and has brought joy to so many. Sadly, on Nov. 26, 2018, series creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away from ALS at the age of just 57. Fans and fellow artists alike were quick to share art, videos and memories on social media. 
One major tribute to the late cartoonist came in the form of an online petition hosted by Change.org, entitled “Have 'Sweet Victory' Performed at the Super Bowl.” Over 1.2 million fans signed the petition to for Super Bowl LIII to honor Hillenburg by featuring "Sweet Victory," a pivotal song from the SpongeBob episode "Band Geeks." This episode followed SpongeBob's neighbor Squidward forming a marching band to perform at the Bubble Bowl, their version of the Super Bowl. As the band struggles, Squidward is close to giving up, which provides an emotional moment for a character who's usually the butt of the joke. The episode concludes with Squidward and his band showing up to the stadium regardless, with the band having secretly trained all night to nail "Sweet Victory" just for him. Quite the triumph.

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.
The internet speculated about what exactly we were in for. Would Maroon 5 perform their own cover of "Sweet Victory"? Would they find the original performers? Would there be any costumes or sets inspired by SpongeBob? Alas, the answer proved to be: D) None of the above.

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.
Massive fan outrage immediately began trending on Twitter. SpongeBob screen caps and memes expressed disappointment from show devotees who even posted videos of the halftime show with "Sweet Victory" edited in. Posts of backlash were even blamed for Reddit crashing during the game. I myself was on-board with the furor, as I really wanted to hear that power ballad played at a live event of this scale. 

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. 

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