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Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s relationship is about as American as it gets

Watching the glitzy Super Bowl after Saturday’s Six Nations match laid bare many cultural differences

For all the emphasis on common purpose – intertwined heritage with the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons; Joe Biden’s ancestral love for Mayo – on Sunday night the United States could not have looked more foreign. The 58th Super Bowl laid bare the cultural differences between the United States and its friends on the other side of the Atlantic.

Las Vegas hosted the biggest sporting event of the year: the Kansas City Chiefs versus San Francisco’s 49ers. The football players are larger than life, their huge frames stacked with shoulder pads and helmets. R&B star Usher’s halftime “show” read like a full concert, replete with guest stars (Alicia Keys most notably), a flurry of dancers, even a roller-skating routine. And then there were the cheerleaders, the confetti machines, the advertising slots that go for millions and millions of dollars, and all the pre match parties. That is before we even begin to consider the actual game play. No one does spectacle like the United States.

It is no wonder that the great and good of American culture – some of the most famous people in the world – descended on the city. Taylor Swift’s presence provoked particular ire in some of the NFL’s most hardened fans. They say her relationship with the Kansas City Chiefs tight end, Travis Kelce, is a frivolous distraction from the purity of the sport (as if an entire Usher concert at half time is somehow not). She brought a posse of A-list friends with her. In another box sat Beyoncé and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Elon Musk was there. As was Martha Stewart. The young millennials were excited to see Justin Bieber in the crowd; the zoomers likely more interested in the attendance of influencer Mr Beast. There seems no event – other than, perhaps, Swift’s Eras Tour – capable of hobbling together such a vast and uneasy coalition of stars.

All of this – the pomp and circumstance, the sheer cost – was thrown into even sharper relief thanks to the timing. The Super Bowl kicked off mere hours after the Ireland Italy game in the Aviva Stadium, and capped off the entirety of the Six Nations second weekend. The events could hardly have been more different. A charitable reading would say the Six Nations possesses a quiet dignity compared with the gaudiness of the NFL: no need for an Usher concert, rugby is sufficiently captivating. An uncharitable one might suggest the Six Nations – no concert, no Swift, no Reba McIntyre to sing the national anthem – looks rather poxy in comparison.


In truth, no other country could put on such a display. Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night was like putting a magnifying glass up to the character of the United States. It speaks to the country’s wealth (companies were estimated to have paid roughly $7 million for 30 seconds of advertising airtime); its love of superficial spectacle; its method of appeasing a polarised nation. But there was something else there too: it was an expression of a nation that is relatively young, perhaps without a firm identity, and certainly lacking a strong civil religion.

Sport has long been understood as a place where people channel a desire for religion in their lives, consciously or not. Christianity in the United States is declining at a rapid clip. Pew Research found in 2019 that the number of adults who described themselves as Christian fell by 12 per cent over a decade, while one quarter of the nation identify as essentially irreligious. Perhaps the Super Bowl is just evidence of cognitive displacement. It looked like a megachurch for a secular America: loud, rich, glitzy, with the star players worshipped like idols. In ancient Greece the Olympics began with a dedication to the pantheon of gods. The crowd on Sunday night seemed in reverence of something just as holy.

The cultural potency of the Super Bowl – with its confluence of spectacle, nationalism and vague religiosity – seems unique to the DNA of the United States. During the national anthem, just before kickoff, an 11,250 sq ft flag was unfurled on the stadium grounds (does such a large Tricolour even exist?). Harnessing this braggadocious energy could be a powerful tool. And perhaps there is no politician in the United States who has a better sense for the politics of spectacle than Donald Trump – a man capable of whipping up media frenzy with a flick of the wrist. In such a light, the relative humility of the Six Nations seems far preferable.

Nevertheless, there was perhaps nothing more American than the images that graced the newspapers on Monday morning. The nation’s sweetheart, Taylor Swift, kissing her boyfriend on the pitch after the Chief’s nail-biting extra time victory. The pretty blonde and the football star? That’s about as Americana as it gets. The Super Bowl is the United States wearing its heart on its sleeve: religiously, politically, financially. As an election approaches we should remember its message.