The program opened with a homily by President Bush about American values, teamwork, dedication and the National Football League.
It ended with Aretha Franklin singing the National Anthem, with the glare of red rockets reaching the dome of the U.S. Capitol.
Washington Redskins great Joe Theismann reverently called it "a national moment of remembrance," saluting thousands of uniformed military personnel in the crowd. ABC Sports and "New Pepsi Vanilla and Diet Pepsi Vanilla, the Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla" simply called it "NFL Kickoff Live 2003."
This pre-packaged spectacle on the National Mall was business as usual for most American viewers. But it may have taught a lesson to the 7,000-plus pastors, parents and youth ministers who read and passed on one of Walt Mueller's email alerts to punch "record" on their VCRs and use this as a religious education lab.
"This kind of stuff has become so mainstream that we don't even blink," said Mueller, founder of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org) in Elizabethtown, Pa. "The whole thing is about mass marketing, of course, but those messages are mixed in there with patriotism, sex, entertainment, sports and everything else. ...
"This was a peek into the American soul. It said, 'This is what we value. This is what we think is acceptable, good and, of course, cool.' "
The show had something for everyone, from the generic rage of tattooed suburban rockers to bluesy power chords by graying superstars who are eligible for the AARP. Football legends hugged military heroes, while TV producers wrapped everything in red, white and blue.
But the reason many tuned in was to see what former Mickey Mouse Club boy toy Britney Spears would do to top her girl-on-girl love fest with Madonna on the recent MTV Video Music Awards. The one-time Southern Baptist babe gave it her best shot, lip-syncing her way through gender-bending "freak dance" moves that mimicked sex with reed-thin female dancers as well as the hunky males.
Washington Post critic Tom Shales was amused, in a tired sort of way: "When they weren't being groped or fondled by her, dancers helped Spears strip her pants off, revealing a bikini-like black bottom. ... They even helped straighten out the little pixie's shorty shorts so that they didn't reveal too much. Or maybe so that they did."
It was a pathetic sight, said Mueller, and many viewers probably laughed. But it's important for adults to see this through the eyes of millions of girls who started watching Spears -- with parental blessings -- when they were nine or 10 years of age. Now they are entering a time of tremendous physical, emotional and spiritual changes.
What did they see on their television screens?
"Twelve- to 14-year-old girls are not going to watch something like this and say, 'Oh, what a cynical attempt to be shocking in the name of commercialism,' " said Mueller. "No, the girls who grew up with Britney -- whether they want to admit it or not -- have to see this and think: 'This is how Britney looks now. This is how she acts now.