Watching the Super Bowl Sunday, I was struck less by the game itself, despite the cliff-hanger second half, but by how much the show’s production values seemed to be about projecting an image of Los Angeles as an avatar of hope, culture, beauty and relevance.
From the futuristic silhouette of SoFi Stadium to the ravishing aerial shots of downtown’s glistening twilight skyline, this was L.A. as civic boosters would have it imagined: the west coast’s Emerald City, bathed in flattering magic-hour light rather than the relentless depiction of late, particularly in east coast media, of a Gomorrah of raging fires, grimy homeless encampments, and the drumbeat of murder and violent crime marching into even Beverly Hills.
Too, the game’s stunning halftime show— a valentine to L.A. ’s hip-hop royalty performed on a map of Compton with a set that name-checked neighborhood touchstones like Tam’s Burgers—was casual evidence that the NFL, with its fraught history of finessing racial issues, was willing to embrace the edgier Black culture of the Superbowl’s host city instead of presenting random classic rock warhorses or pop and R&B crooners. And nowhere were there allusions to L.A.’s formerly dominant cultural ambassador; Hollywood’s fast-fading relevance as it retools as a purveyor of commodified “content” speaks to an industry in a transition as profound as that of its hometown.
Whatever the reality of today’s L.A., the Super Bowl’s soaring optics have the power to reset the perception of the city much as a single campaign photo, adroitly presented, can turn a hopeful candidate into a front runner. It’s happened before. Thirty-eight years ago, similarly evocative imagery beaming out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the 1984 Olympics opening ceremony fulfilled a remit that explicitly set out to reset the world’s perception of L.A..
Los Angeles in 1984 was still seen as a provincial curiosity to Easterners, the butt of Woody Allen’s right-turn-on-red punchlines. It had just overtaken Chicago as the nation’s second-largest city but was in many ways mired in the past while San Francisco and the nascent Silicon Valley were ascendant.
The iconography of the ’84 Olympics were to challenge that perception at every turn. Robert Graham’s nude, headless bronze sculptures of athletes mounted at the entrance to the moldering Coliseum immediately set a tone of provocation and playfulness. The Jerde Partnership architects and Sussman/Prejza & Co. designers, charged with giving the games a unified look, ditched the original proposed red, white, and blue and created a palette of vibrant pastels and constructivist-inspired shapes and patterns. “Los Angeles today in 1982 looks exactly like it did in 1981…in 1984 it must look dramatically different,” the designers wrote in a document codifying their aims. “The whole city should look like a wonderfully colorful invasion of butterflies has descended upon it.”
Merge those supercharged graphics with an opening ceremony sprawling with audacious spectacle—84 grand pianos with 84 pianists in swallow-tail waistcoats playing “Rhapsody in Blue” beneath a sky as flawless as Sunday’s over SoFi Stadium—and just like that, a fresh image of L.A. was unleashed upon the world.
Two years later, “L.A. Law”—Stephen Bochco’s ratings juggernaut about a fictional law firm with offices at 444 South Flower St. downtown—began an eight-year run. And everywhere you looked, it seemed, from Spago revving up the Sunset Strip to a downtown suddenly bristling with ever taller skyscrapers, post-1984 L.A. seemed to be walking tall.
Of course, the imagery emanating from the Olympics didn’t conjure all of that; but it was a significant inflection point in the perception of L.A.’s progression from what it had been to what it would become. Given today’s influencer-laden hyper-communications, the surfeit of spectacular visuals that came out of Inglewood during the Super Bowl could presage another turning point in how the world sees L.A.—despite how grim the city and its prospects may look to beleaguered townies today.
In the meantime, try this for portent: we won the game.
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