By Alex Beene and David Hopper
Today, the Super Bowl Halftime show is easily the most-watched concert performance each year, averaging over 90 million viewers per broadcast. More than any other critical or commercial award, being invited to perform on the NFL Championship’s stage is perhaps the greatest sign an artist has made it.
Yet, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, for most of the event’s early years, college marching bands were the featured entertainment, not pop stars on millions of Spotify playlists. The first star to pop up as halftime entertainment was Carol Channing, who, despite providing a fantastic performance, is more known today for her contributions to Broadway and movie musicals than being the first celebrity on American television’s most viewed yearly broadcast.
In the last 30 years, the show has dramatically transformed into one of the most buzzed-about and eagerly discussed on the planet. Depending on the performer(s) and the teams involved, the halftime show may now get more hype than the game itself.
David and I took a trip down memory lane and have provided our 10 favorite performances in chronological order. We both agreed when discussing these that this could’ve been a top 20. There are so many fantastic performances, and, as evidenced by the many entries on our list from the last decade, it seems the show continues to only get better with each passing year.
Michael Jackson (1993)
The over-the-top spectacles we come to expect with the Super Bowl halftime show started with Michael Jackson at the Rose Bowl nearly 30 years ago. The King of Pop popped onto the stage and stood like a statue for nearly two minutes as the crowd went wild. MJ then broke into “Jam,” a then-current hit single from the Dangerous album, followed by the timeless “Billie Jean” and his signature moonwalk. The show was capped with a moving “We Are the World” singalong, complete with a giant globe and fireworks. The bar for halftime shows was raised way up that day, and many feel that Jackson’s performance hasn’t been equaled since.
At a time when unity in the United States is desperately needed, perhaps everyone should take a look back at this legendary Super Bowl halftime performance. Taking place months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, U2 quite simply knocked it out of the park and brought tears to the eyes of millions of Americans who were still trying to process the devastation that had happened six months earlier. The poetic conclusion, which would have the names of the victims of the attacks scrolling behind Bono’s blasting vocals, remains one of the great moments in the event’s history.
Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Nelly, Jessica Simpson and Kid Rock (2004)
Ah, yes. This is the one. The show that produced the phrase “Nipplegate.” Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” would be the source of endless controversy for months and is today viewed as having a long-term effect on Jackson’s career. It’s a damn shame, too, because this halftime combo of some of 2004’s hottest acts holds up shockingly well. Having “Hot in Herre,” “Cowboy,” and “Rock Your Body” on one setlist shouldn’t work, but it does. There’s such a strong energy to all the performers, and one can only hope as more time passes, the merit of the music replaces the nip slip as the memory of it.
Paul McCartney (2005)
Following 2004’s “wardrobe malfunction,” it was clear that powers that be wanted safer picks for the halftime show. Paul McCartney the following year was the first of several aging rockers (The Stones, Tom Petty, and Springsteen would follow) who were unlikely to take off their clothes.
Macca chose a perfect opener in “Drive My Car,” which features one of the great riffs in the Beatles catalog. He then went right into latter-day Beatles with “Get Back” before launching into the dramatic, firework-fueled “Live and Let Die.” He, of course, closed with the crowd-pleasing Na, na, na-na-na, na…Na-na-na, na….You know the rest.
If there’s such a thing as a sure bet for a stellar halftime show, Prince is it. The Purple One delivered what many, including Billboard, consider the greatest halftime show of all time. (Rolling Stone ranked Prince #2 after Beyoncé). Clad in a teal blazer, Prince opened with “Let’s Go Crazy,” peppering it with solos on his purple guitar showing why he’s a guitar god. He followed that with fan-favorite “Baby I’m a Star,” using a funkier arrangement bolstered by a marching band. He closed the show with an epic performance of “Purple Rain” – in the rain. Too perfect.
Bruce Springsteen (2009)
“I want you to step back from the guacamole dip. I want you to put the chicken fingers down. And turn your television all the way up!!!” Bruce Springsteen commands to the camera before hopping on a piano and asking, “Is there anyone alive out there?!” In a mere 12 minutes, The Boss and the E Street Band show why many describe their concerts as a religious experience.
JB Clark, who co-hosts the podcast Bruce Springsteen Sings The Alphabet, told 360° that his two favorite Springsteen moments were “The Big Man joined the band” line of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (this set’s opener) and when Bruce does a crotch slide into the camera at the Super Bowl (at the end of “Tenth Avenue”). My one quibble is the ill-advised choice to perform his then-new single “Working on a Dream” and bringing out the cliché church choir. But that slight misstep was quickly forgiven after he brought down the house with the “Glory Days” closer.
While having a female pop star be the Super Bowl centerpiece may seem commonplace today, in 2012, the idea Madonna would perform instead of an aging male rock band seemed outlandish to some. As with so many of her past endeavors, however, Madonna would prove to be a trend-setter for the show’s future. A soulful, stylish performance, which included appearances from LMAFO, Nicki Minaj, Cee Lo Green, and M.I.A., not only dazzled but also set the template for the spectacles we now take for granted.
It should surprise no one Beyoncé arrived at the 2013 Super Bowl to slay. The crowd in New Orleans’ famed Superdome were in for a real treat, as not only would they see a dance-inducing spectacle, but also a reunion of Destiny’s Child. In a surreal moment, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams would seemingly pop out from the stage beneath them and join the pop queen in a medley of their best songs. Moments later, when the third quarter started and an electrical outage caused the lights to shut off momentarily in the stadium, some joked Beyoncé literally knocked the power out. After seeing this one, you’ll believe she did.
Bruno Mars (2014)
Few modern performers have the mainstream appeal or the show-stealing skills of Bruno Mars. Right up there with Michael Jackson and Prince, it’s hard to think of another artist that is such an obvious no-brainer choice for a halftime show. Yet, even those who were familiar with Mars’ work left this one stunned from a true masterpiece of production. Mars bounces around the stage from vocals to instruments like a teenage prodigy who just discovered he could be every member of a band. It also features the most random special guests in the show’s history, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers make a surprise appearance. As strange as it all sounds, it works shockingly well. Mars’ performance was so beloved he would be asked back just two years later to collaborate with Beyoncé and Coldplay for the 50th Anniversary of the Super Bowl.
Shakira & J. Lo (2020)
Last year’s show in Miami was a stunner and a long-overdue showcase of Latin music. Shakira kicked things off with incredible dancing and impressive vocals, tearing through such smashes as “Whenever, Wherever” and “Hips Don’t Lie.” J. Lo showed that 50 is the new 20 as she effortlessly did an expert-level pole-dance routine. The show featured guest appearances from reggaeton stars Bad Bunny and J Balvin. Lopez’s daughter Emme even joined her mom to sing “Let’s Get Loud.” Fantastic performances with everything you’d want from a Super Bowl halftime show.
Let’s hope this weekend The Weeknd can put on a spectacle that lives up to those performers who have paved the way for him. Now, help yourself to chips & guac and there’s chili in the crockpot. And, oh yeah, I think some guys are going to play a football game, too.