The Last 25 Years of Super Bowl Halftime Shows, Ranked
Michael Jackson, Prince, Nipplegate: It’s all here
We’ve come a long way from Chubby Checker doing the “Super Bowl Twist.”
Since Michael Jackson’s phenomenal 1993 performance ushered in the era of the blockbuster halftime show, football fans have been treated to a bevy of memorable moments (some memorably bad, of course).
To honor the 25th anniversary of MJ’s game-changing appearance, we’ve ranked every Super Bowl halftime show of the last quarter century, including one so good it still gives us chills.
As for this year’s big act? Justin Timberlake, you have a lot to make up for.
1. Prince, 2007
Post-Nipplegate, the Super Bowl slogged through two years of snoozy classic rock sets by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones — two acts who should’ve headlined the 1967 halftime show, but whatever. (That honor went to the University of Arizona Symphonic Marching Band, among others. No nip slips there.)
Then, we got Prince. In the midst of a gigantic rainstorm, the Purple One was literally electrifying (love that lightning storm!). He played the hits (“Let’s Go Crazy,” “Baby I’m a Star”) and nailed the covers (“Proud Mary,” “All Along the Watchtower” and a scorching take on the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You”). Then, he closed with a “Purple Rain” singalong: “Don’t it feel good?” he asked, breaking into the most guitar-as-a-metaphor-for-male-genitalia rock star pose ever. Cue fireworks and explosions. We’re spent.
2. Lady Gaga, 2017
To be completely honest, yours truly doesn’t remember the specifics of last year’s Lady Gaga halftime show. Wikipedia tells me she played the hits: “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “Telephone” and “Bad Romance”. What I unequivocally remember, however, is the brave and daring leap she made from the top of her tower/art installation/giant mechanical thingy in which she looked like a cat leaping from a dresser … only to realize that it didn’t have enough bounce to make it to its destination. Hence the birth of one of the great GIFs of our generation:
Works great as a response on any email chain where you need to tell everyone “F*ck it, I’m going in.”
3. Bruce Springsteen, 2009
Sometime between that familiar drumbeat that launches “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the song’s first line (“Teardrops on the city …”), Bruce bends his knees back, his body nearly flat on the stage, as thousands of fans in Tampa flirt with delirium. He seems determined to save the moment for himself. And sure enough, that’s exactly what he was doing. As he wrote in his memoir Born to Run, “I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them, I see nothing but blue night sky … nothing but beautiful blue sky with a halo of a thousand stadium suns at its edges.” If anyone could find scripture in a Super Bowl halftime performance, it’s The Boss.
Your freshest Beyoncé Super Bowl memory is probably when she crashed the Super Bowl 50 show in 2016, salvaging that flat, poorly cobbled-together Coldplay and Bruno Mars collab. But three years beforehand, she set the halftime show gold standard at the Superdome. Highlights include: her howling vocals in “Halo,” those ever-mesmerizing, undulating thighs somehow nailing each forceful dance move (in goddamn heels!), a tasteful Destiny’s Child reunion and a definitive silencing of all the yahoos who got mad after her National Anthem lip sync at President Obama’s Inauguration a few weeks prior.
5. U2 (2002)
Less than six months after 9/11, U2 hit the stage in New Orleans. In the 12 or so minutes that followed, the Irish band paid tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks, honored the United States and played some solid rock and roll. As Bono made his way around a heart-shaped stage, the band worked through “Beautiful Day” and “MLK,” ending the latter as a tower-shaped screen behind the band began scrolling the names of all the World Trade Center workers, plane passengers and police and fire department officers who died on the 11th. As the names continued to scroll, the band swelled, ripping through “Where the Streets Have No Name” as a choked-up Bono ripped open his jacket to expose an American flag lining.
Perhaps the only Super Bowl Halftime Show to generate more news stories than the game itself (Nipplegate notwithstanding). You had Left Shark. Katy riding a giant geometric lion puppet. Katy riding NBC’s “The More You Know” chyron. It was a massive, overproduced spectacle fit for the massive, overproduced spectacle it intermissioned.
7. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (2008)
8. Diana Ross (1996)
By the latter half of the 1990s, the Super Bowl was still in its nascent adolescence, unsure of what it wanted to be. Diana Ross injected some good ol’ American diva absurdity into her performance, literally whisked away from the stadium by helicopter — her feet dangling over Sun Devil Stadium — while still singing.
9. Shania Twain, No Doubt and Sting (2003)
Why these three acts were performing together, we’ll never know. That said, this would make for an excellent Vegas residency.
10. Coldplay, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars (2016)
Beyoncé makes a lot of things better.
11. Bruno Mars (2014)
Nothing to especially write home about (unless you’re one of those PTA moms all angry that the guest-starring Red Chili Peppers played without shirts on), but Bruno brought the energy and, hey, who knew he could play the drums?
The beginning of the classic acts mixed with young whippersnappers trope (or vice versa). Sort of what the Grammys force you to endure every year.
13. The Rolling Stones (2006)
Well, it wasn’t Altamont.
14. Paul McCartney (2005)
Sir Paul wins the award for “Best Coordinated Beat Drop/Firework Explosion” for lighting up the Jacksonville sky during “Live and Let Die.”
15-18. Rockin’ Country Sunday (1994), Blues Brothers Bash (1997), Salute to Motown’s 40th Anniversary (1998), Celebration of Soul, Salsa and Swing (1999)
Tributes are nice, we guess.
19. The Black Eyed Peas, Usher and Slash (2011)
“I Gotta Feeling” is the worst.
20. Disney (2000)
A unabashed corporate bash to ring in the Millenium, featuring: a choir made up of bunnies worshiping some kind of 40-foot mummy monolith, a determined Dr. Seuss meets The Phantom Menace set design … and Enrique Iglesias. Phil Collins sounded great as ever on those Tarzan melodies, though.
21. Madonna (2012)
Watching this performance now has the effect of a Dane Cook special, eliciting the question: Why the hell was this so popular? Taken as a whole, it feels like SNL spoofing a halftime show, what with the gladiators, acrobats, breakdancers, cheerleaders, drummers and a choir. But it’s in the specifics where violent cringing is induced: LMFAO and Madonna’s middle-school talent show routine, a slackliner doing tricks in a toga and CeeLo “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” Green sharing the stage with the legend for the last two songs. Nonetheless, Madonna’s most popular songs are still irresistible, even in this sanitized format (“Vogue” and “Music,” specifically) but the complete surrender of the double-entendre in “Like a Prayer” at the end is the real nail in the coffin. You can thank M.I.A. and her middle finger to the camera for giving this show a reason to be remembered.
22. The Who (2010)
My dad raised me on The Who. We used to contest our own version of “Who’s on first?” every time their songs came on the radio: “Who sings that song”; “Who?; “Yes, Who”; etc. But that was more than 20 years ago — which was already 20 years beyond the band’s prime. So when Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and some dudes (RIP, John and Keith) took the stage at Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, it’s no surprise they sounded a bit rusty. Ok, terrible. They sounded terrible. Combine the notoriously difficult acoustics of an outdoor stadium with a doughy, off-key Daltrey and Pete Townshend mailing in some windmills (both of whom admitted they’d never watched an American football game), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Unsurprisingly, the organizers decided to bring back a top-40 show — in the form of the Black Eyed Peas — in 2011, marking an ignominious end to a multi-year run of classic rock acts.
23. Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Tony Bennett, Arturo Sandoval and Miami Sound Machine (1995)
Under the guidance of MTV — and hilariously sponsored by “AOL TopSpeed,” so we all should have known better — this clusterf*ck of talent and song choice featured Kid Rock trotting out “Cowboy” (a hit four years earlier), P. Diddy morphing Toni Basil’s “Mickey” into “Diddy,” some marching bands (because football) and the dumbest bit of moral outrage in pop-culture history: Nipplegate.
At the end of “Rock Your Body,” Justin Timberlake “exposed” Janet Jackson’s breast (which was adorned with a nipple shield, thank you very much) during the line “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song.” Depending on whom you talked to, this was all completely planned out, a last-minute surprise to Timberlake or an all-out “wardrobe malfunction.” Fines, talking head finger-wagging and a blacklisting of Jackson’s music ensued. As for JT? He released a non-apology apology (“sorry if anyone was offended”) and went on to a life of continued pop success, movie stardom and, now, the 2018 Super Bowl.
Note: If this year’s halftime performance isn’t simply a shameful Timberlake listing all the ways he threw Janet under the bus (followed by an act of seppuku), the 2018 iteration will become the worst Super Bowl halftime show ever.