(Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
For many years, the Super Bowl halftime show was treated pretty much like halftime at any other football game you might go to, only on a bigger scale — which is to say that while there was entertainment, it wasn’t necessarily the type of thing you’d go out of your way to watch. Before the NFL had to worry about counter-programming, halftime basically meant marching bands — a tradition that’s continued into modern-day games, albeit with a good deal more spectacle (and platinum pop stars) included as part of the package. With Super Bowl LV looming large over the upcoming weekend — and a performance from headliner The Weeknd — we take a look back at the evolution of the Super Bowl halftime show, beginning with the 1970s.
The Super Bowl’s early halftime shows were dominated by marching bands, but they had some competition — most significantly courtesy of Up with People, the multi-cultural performance troupe that sprung out of the Moral Re-Armament movement of the ’60s. Between 1976 and 1986, Up with People performed during four halftime shows, and added a fifth performance to their list with an appearance during the pre-game show for Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Trends have long since passed Up with People by, but they’ll forever remain a fascinating footnote in Super Bowl history.
Performers: By the time Up with People made their final halftime show appearance in 1986, it was clear the troupe was perceived as silly and old-fashioned. Naturally, the NFL went younger and hipper the following year by hiring George Burns and Mickey Rooney to topline the halftime entertainment for a salute to Hollywood’s 100th anniversary, which featured the Grambling and USC marching bands, some high school drill teams, and a handful of Disney characters. Audience demographics were obviously not yet a key concern for the league.
Critical Response: There’s no denying that Burns and Rooney were a pair of Hollywood legends, but this halftime show was a spectacle past its prime when it aired, and it’s widely derided today as one of the Super Bowl’s worst.
Performers: Radio City Music Hall served as the producer for Super Bowl XXII’s halftime show, hiring Chubby Checker to perform with the Rockettes and the marching bands for San Diego State University and USC. Although Checker was enjoying something of a comeback at the time, thanks to his appearance with the Fat Boys on a cover of his signature hit “The Twist,” this show didn’t exactly have its finger on the pulse of a generation.
Critical Response: Describing a show that contained “44 Rockettes, 88 pianos, a 400-piece swing band and a jowly Chubby Checker, high atop a make-believe jukebox, singing the famous 1960s aria, ‘Let’s Twist Again, Like We Did Last Summer,'” the Los Angeles Times snarked, “the musicale represented the quiet, understated good taste that has become the hallmark of the Super Bowl.”
Performers: Give the NFL this much: when you name a show “Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D,” you’re pretty much telling people up front what they can expect to get. Super Bowl XXIII’s halftime entertainment was led by Elvis Presto, the nom de guerre adopted by a former Solid Gold dancer turned Elvis impersonator, and included 3D footage (viewable with glasses obtained courtesy of a tie-in promotion with Diet Coke) and what was billed as “the world’s biggest card trick.”
Critical Response: “It was all meant to be very tongue-in-cheek. It’s all very much a lampoon,” laughed producer Dan Witkowski years later. “I think it all started when we hit on the name Elvis Presto. The rest kind of evolved from there.”
Performers: Super Bowl XXIV was held in New Orleans and coincided with the 40th anniversary of Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts comics, so naturally, the league decided to put ’em both together for a halftime show that celebrated Charlie Brown and the gang, as well as the culture of New Orleans. Performers included singer Irma Thomas, fiddler Doug Kershaw, and clarinetist Pete Fountain… plus Snoopy.
Critical Response: “A tribute to New Orleans, also to the 40th anniversary of the comic strip Peanuts, and maybe also to drugs,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield. “Because Charlie Brown has what exactly the hell to do with jambalaya and Mardi Gras again?”
Performers: By the early ’90s, the league — and more importantly, the networks trapped in an annual bidding war for the right to broadcast the show — recognized the need to safeguard against counter-programming luring viewers’ eyes away at halftime, particularly during a stretch of games that included a series of lopsided victories. Enter New Kids on the Block, who took the stage during Super Bowl XXV’s halftime for a Disney-inspired celebration that included a performance of “It’s a Small World.” It was preempted during the broadcast by a Gulf War speech from President George Bush, and overshadowed afterward by Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — all of which was a relief to the New Kids, according to member Donnie Wahlberg.
Critical Response: “I don’t know how much pride I take in the actual performance,” admitted Wahlberg. “But I take pride in the fact that we were the first ones to do it.”
Verdict: Fresh. As Wahlberg noted, the New Kids were the first of-the-moment pop stars to perform during a Super Bowl halftime show… even if no one outside the stadium saw it.
Performers: Held at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Super Bowl XXVI halftime show was themed around “Winter Magic,” featuring Gloria Estefan, Olympic figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano, and backup from rapping kids, dancers, and members of the 1980 U.S. Olympics hockey team.
Critical Response: It may have had its absurdly entertaining moments, but the show was embarrassed by Fox’s In Living Color, which aired a “Super Halftime Party” episode that leeched roughly 22 million viewers away from the game.
Performers: Stung by the halftime ratings from the previous year, producers stepped up their game for Super Bowl XXVII, booking Michael Jackson — still out promoting his 1991 Dangerous LP — to perform a three-song set that’s widely credited with redefining the league’s approach to the show.
Critical Response: As the New York Times put it, “Michael Jackson’s legacy will forever include this title: King of Pigskin.”
Performers: No country artist was bigger in the ’90s than Garth Brooks. He didn’t play during the Super Bowl XXVIII halftime show, but producers lined up a multi-platinum quartet to bring sufficient star wattage to its “Rockin’ Country Sunday” spectacular, hiring Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, and the Judds to perform.
Critical Response: “Country music haters forced to watch this spectacle must have had their worst suspicion confirmed,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker. “That country is just pop with with less sophistication.”
Performers: Clearly, this game’s halftime show is no stranger to bizarre spectacle, but even in context, Super Bowl XXIX is something special. Designed to tie in with Disneyland’s new Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction, it featured stand-ins for Harrison Ford and Karen Allen on a quest to rescue the stolen Lombardi Trophy (and musical numbers from Patti LaBelle, Tony Bennett, Arturo Sandoval, and the Miami Sound Machine).
Critical Response: Words can’t quite do it justice, but SB Nation might have summed it up best: “Indiana Jones + singers parents will love + Disney music = a halftime show so 1990s it should be wearing spaghetti straps and feathered bangs.”
Performers: There’s no denying that Diana Ross was well past her hitmaking prime when she took the stage for the Super Bowl XXX halftime show… but there’s also no arguing that she came to show everyone else how it should be done. Classic songs? Check. A whopping four outfit changes? Check. Leaving the field in a helicopter? Check.
Critical Response: “A spectacular triumph,” wrote Tom Shales for the Washington Post. “Perhaps the best halftime show ever.”
Performers: As far as most of us are concerned, the Blues Brothers effectively ceased to exist after John Belushi’s untimely passing in 1982. But surviving Brother Dan Aykroyd had other ideas, enlisting Belushi’s brother Jim, John Goodman, and the members of ZZ Top for a Super Bowl “Blues Brothers Bash” that made up in attitude whatever it may have lacked in necessity.
Critical Response: “The event only served to remind everyone that John Belushi was still dead,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub, “and that Jim Belushi should stick to straight-to-video K-9 sequels.”
Verdict: James Brown made an appearance, ergo the only possible verdict is Fresh.
Performers: The league helped Motown celebrate its 40th anniversary with a halftime musical extravaganza featuring classic Hitsville acts (Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Martha Reeves) alongside the label’s new wave of chart-toppers (Boyz II Men, Queen Latifah). Also: the Grambling State University Marching Band.
Critical Response: “The set opens with the Temptations in what appear to be full denim suits,” shrugged Vox, “and only goes downhill from there.”
Verdict: The presentation might not have been perfect, but the songs are classics. Fresh.
Performers: Pundits chortled when Aerosmith played alongside ‘N Sync and Britney Spears in Super Bowl XXXV, but it was just part of a long tradition of halftime shows built out of wildly disparate ingredients. Case in point: Super Bowl XXXIII’s halftime entertainment, which boasted a bill that included Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, and briefly popular swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.
Critical Response: Lamenting that “Apparently someone thought Stevie Wonder didn’t pack enough star power to command the entire Super Bowl halftime stage,” Idolator called the end result “all over the place.”
Verdict: It’s far from perfect, but Stevie performing “Sir Duke” in honor of Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday? Fresh.
Performers: Once again, Disney took the production reins for a Super Bowl halftime show, offering viewers a “Tapestry of Nations” that featured an intriguing-looking roster of performers — Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton, and Tina Turner — who were handed a set list that resolutely refused to play to any of their strengths. From Turner’s lackluster rendition of “Proud Mary” to Collins’ performance of a ballad from the Tarzan soundtrack, this never really got out of second gear.
Critical Response: “Anything produced by Disney is expected to be corny and sentimental, enough to make you angry and not go to work the next day,” wrote Yahoo! Music’s Rob O’Connor. “It takes a full lineup of processed cheese to top the pack.”
Performers: As we’ve seen, the Super Bowl has a tendency to toss unrelated acts together for its halftime shows, and as often as not, the results aren’t as weirdly entertaining as they might seem on paper. But Super Bowl XXXV bucked that trend with a bill boasting Aerosmith, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly — a wild collision of pop, rock, and R&B stars that worked in spite of itself.
Critical Response: Adam Graham of the Detroit News called it “The most fun halftime show the Super Bowl has ever produced, one whose sheer pop might won’t soon, if ever, be matched.”
Performers: Understandably a little leery about embracing frivolity so soon after the September 11 attacks, Janet Jackson rebuffed the NFL’s overtures for Super Bowl XXXVI — so they turned to U2, who delivered a heartfelt set that included scrolling the victims’ names on a big screen and culminated with frontman Bono opening his jacket to reveal the American flag.
Critical Response: “It was,” decreed Sports Illustrated, “arguably the best Super Bowl halftime show of all time.”
Performers: What does Sting have to do with No Doubt? As the Police co-founder told Howard Stern years later, he and frontwoman Gwen Stefani go way back — a bond that manifested itself when she inducted the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later that year. Stefani and Sting’s duet on the Police hit “Message in a Bottle” stole the show from Shania Twain, who took a critical drubbing for her allegedly lip-synced performance.
Critical Response: “No thanks to Twain,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “Stefani saved the play by doing what she does best, super-charging a Southern California crowd in a stadium setting through sheer force of ska-sonality.”
Performers: You remember this one — even if you don’t remember that Jessica Simpson, a University of Houston marching band, Kid Rock, Diddy, and Nelly also performed. Those Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime acts were bumped into the ashbin of history the moment Justin Timberlake caused the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” that prompted a record-setting number of TiVo rewinds (as well as a not-inconsiderable number of FCC complaints).
Critical Response: “For one flashing moment during her performance at Sunday’s game, Janet’s brother was no longer the most scandalous Jackson,” quipped Entertainment Weekly.
Performers: Breaking with a stretch of combo-platter performances, the NFL lined up Paul McCartney for Super Bowl XXXIX — because if you’ve got a former Beatle on the stage, do you really need anybody else? The answer, of course, turned out to be “no, not at all.”
Critical Response: “Who cares that ‘football’ means something totally different in Macca’s hometown of Liverpool?” asked Paste. “His halftime set of Beatles and solo hits was simple, concise and nearly perfect.”
Performers: Perhaps only in the context of the Super Bowl could the Rolling Stones still seem somewhat dangerous in 2006. Months after releasing their A Bigger Bang LP, the band played the halftime show — and faced censorship for vaguely naughty lyrics in their classic hit “Start Me Up” and new single “Rough Justice.” Trigger-happy mute buttons notwithstanding, it was still the Stones, man.
Critical Response: “They may have joked about their age — with Mick Jagger introducing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by saying ‘This one we could have done at Super Bowl I,'” admitted Hitfix, “but they didn’t come off like a safe nostalgia act.”
Performers: Long heralded as one of the most incendiary live performers of his generation, Prince didn’t disappoint when the NFL hired him to play the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI. Instead of trotting out his greatest hits, he strolled out in the rain to deliver a fiery, finely calibrated assortment of originals and covers of well-known songs by other artists — all topped off with an unforgettable rendition of “Purple Rain.” For more than a few viewers, the Super Bowl has never been the same since.
Critical Response: “Prince,” argued Christina Capatides for CBS, “singlehandedly made it okay to be sexy, unpredictable and inventive at the Super Bowl again.”
Performers: Aside from a brief flirtation with making outré videos in the ’80s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have never been an image-driven band. To their credit, they held fast to that music-first identity at Super Bowl XLII, eschewing the event’s traditional glamour in favor of a meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll show.
Critical Response: “Petty wasn’t a reason to keep watching at halftime,” observed the Village Voice’s Tom Breihan. “He was a reason not to change the channel.”
Performers: Telling reporters he’d passed up on the chance to play the halftime show before, Bruce Springsteen openly admitted he changed his mind when invited to perform at Super Bowl XLIII because he had a new record (2009’s Working on a Dream) to promote. To a certain breed of rock fan, there’s nothing quite like a Springsteen show, particularly with the E Street Band, and with a crowd of millions at their backs, they couldn’t help but rock and roll — but maybe it wasn’t quite the transcendent spectacle the Boss’s fans were used to.
Critical Response: “While shilling does not carry the sting it once did, perhaps Springsteen let the weight of responsibility limit his imagination in his 12-minute set,” Jon Caramanica of the New York Times suggested.
Performers: They were decades removed from their creative and commercial peak and they hadn’t released an album of new material in years, which made the Who something of an odd choice for Super Bowl XLIV. Of course, even if Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were the last surviving members of the original lineup, they still pack enough rock ‘n’ roll punch to sell out stadiums; unfortunately, Townshend was struggling with health issues in the weeks leading up to the game, which contributed to their halftime show’s altogether underwhelming air.
Critical Response: “All that was missing,” wrote the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Keith Spera, “was Austin Powers.”
Performers: It seems fairly likely that the overlap between Black Eyed Peas and Guns N’ Roses fans is awfully slim, and yet for Super Bowl XLV, organizers lined up a halftime show that found Peas vocalist Fergie trying to wail her way through the GNR hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with exiled Guns co-founder Slash on guitar. Somewhat predictably, it compared unfavorably with the original.
Critical Response: “This is how far Slash has fallen,” lamented SB Nation’s Brian Floyd. “Luckily nobody will remember his part as they rip everything else about the show. At least he’s got that going for him.”
Performers: Like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna had a new record to promote when she was approached to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show — and she pulled out all the stops, enlisting Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., and stars-of-the-moment LMFAO to join her in a hits-laden set that naturally included her then-current single, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” The performance wasn’t short on spectacle — she entered being pulled on a chariot! — but quite a few critics, while entertained, resented being so transparently sold a bill of goods.
Critical Response: “Despite its success and extravagance, this whole halftime package most of all was little more than an ingeniously well planned — and shockingly transparent — advertisement,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Randall Roberts, “and not much more.”
Performers: Beyoncé was still months removed from releasing her self-titled fifth solo album when she took the stage during Super Bowl XLVII, but her disbanded girl group Destiny’s Child had a new compilation to promote, so it surprised roughly no one that the trio staged a temporary reunion in the midst of Beyoncé’s career-encompassing halftime show. Still, whatever it lacked in terms of shock value, it more than made up with stage presentation, choreography, and sheer bootylicious abandon.
Critical Response: “From the moment she appeared as a giant silhouette against a plume of smoke while the late Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s legendary ‘excellence must be pursued’ Super Bowl speech was heard,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “Beyoncé turned on a high-energy, sexually charged performance with exciting multimedia elements.”
Performers: Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox LP was in the midst of its quadruple-platinum chart run when he performed at Super Bowl XLVIII, and although he was only on his second album, he already had more than enough hits under his belt to handle the halftime show on his own — but he still brought out the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a mid-set team-up on the band’s 1991 hit “Give It Away.” The Peppers later admitted they’d been miming their performance, but to the folks at home, it didn’t matter much.
Critical Response: “Mars’ performance was near flawless, but the lift in crowd noise when the Chili Peppers played told a story: on this occasion spontaneous rock dynamism trumped slick soul pop,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Vincent.
Performers: The NFL continued its streak of selecting buzzy younger pop performers when putting together the bill for Super Bowl XLIX, hiring Katy Perry for the halftime show — and although Perry opened her set to include guest appearances from Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott, it was totally her show. Well, maybe hers and Left Shark’s, but still.
Critical Response: “With the entertaining, hassle-free show, Perry proved the NFL correct in her selection as halftime,” argued USA Today’s Chris Chase, calling the show “one of the few things the NFL got right this year.”
Performers: For the Super Bowl’s grand 50th anniversary celebration, the league lined up Coldplay to headline, with guest appearances from Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with Mark Ronson. Nothing against the guys in Coldplay, but their midtempo catalog isn’t exactly suited for this type of event — all of which is to say it’s no surprise that most pundits said Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” was the highlight of the set.
Critical Response: “By the time Bruno Mars challenged Bey to a dance-off,” wrote Vox’s Caroline Framke, “she’d stolen the show once and for all.”
Performers: The 51st edition of any long-running event is bound to feel a little anticlimactic after all the pageantry that goes along with hitting that half-century milestone, but whatever Lady Gaga’s halftime show lacked in built-in anticipation, it more than made up in sheer showmanship. From patriotic opening numbers to jaw-dropping aerial work and a hits-studded set that ran the gamut from chart-topping favorites to newer material, she took command of the biggest audience of her multiplatinum career — and never let go. “We’re here to make you feel good,” she told the crowd at one point, and that goal was more than evident in her performance.
Critical Response: “Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show,” wrote Time’s Daniel D’addario, “stands as among the very best in the history of the form, racing ambitiously through the artist’s entire career and putting forward the qualities of the artist that just work.”
Performers: Justin Timberlake returned to the halftime stage for the first time since his “Nipplegate” fiasco in 2004. And while he didn’t bring Janet Jackson back with him for a repeat performance, he did pay tribute to the recently departed Minneapolis hometown hero Prince via what some expected to be a hologram, but was actually a projection of the purple one on a screen.
Critical Response: “The performance was decent, and Timberlake sounded good and danced even better. As far as half-time shows go, it was satisfactory, a fun but forgettable display of the singer’s substantial talents,” wrote The Guardian’s Jake Nevins. EW’s Darren Franich summed it up: “He played it too safe; he took Sexy away.”
Verdict: Fresh (barely)
Performers: Maroon 5 took on what promised to be a thankless task, headlining during a year in which controversy rampaged through the NFL over player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem. (Rihanna and Cardi B reportedly said, “Thanks, but no” to the gig in solidarity with the former quarterback.) Rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi also performed.
Critical Response: Yeesh. Not good. You’d think Nickelback played based on the halftime show reviews. The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica seemed to be satisfying a personal vendetta in his review: “Maroon 5 — a quasi-soul, quasi-rock, utterly funkless band…likely the third or eighth or maybe 14th choice for a headliner…Maroon 5 was a cynically apt choice…as easy to forget as mild weather…a performance that was dynamically flat, mushy at the edges, worthy of something much worse than derision: a shrug…an inessential performance from a band that might have lost some moral authority if it had any moral authority to lose.” Vox’s headline: “Maroon 5 was fine.” Writer Alex Abad-Santos went on to elaborate: “Maroon 5’s 2019 Super Bowl halftime show was aggressively fine.” Some other adjectives round out the picture: “basic,” “flavorless,” “painful,” and “tasted like fear.”
Performers: Politics raged once more in the background of the Super Bowl in 2020 – which was one of the last major events held in that blissful period we might now call “BC,” or Before COVID. The national anthem kneeling protest remained a divisive issue and America was gearing up for a fraught election season, but if anyone could unite both sides of the aisle, and the country, it was Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, joined briefly by Bad Bunny and J. Balvin. After Shakira’s six-minute set – in which she was the first Latinx artist to perform music in Spanish during a halftime show – J-Lo came in and wowed with a ferociously choreographed journey through her greatest hits, including “Let’s Get Loud” and “Waiting For Tonight.”
Critical Response: Much of the focus leading up to the halftime show was on the milestone being made by having two Latina performers take the stage, and Lopez staged a chills-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment when daughter Emmie Muñiz sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as mom waved around a cape featuring the Puerto Rican and American flags. After the show there was chatter about some of revealing costumes – come on, we haven’t gotten past this?! – and who upstaged whom. “[Lopez] pushed further with dance than Shakira did, at the cost of a good grip of singing,” Craig Jenkins wrote for Vulture. “Her intricate routines nodded to the Super Bowl’s marching-band past, and suggested that someone’s paying attention to the fearlessly vertical routines in Cheer and large-scale productions like Homecoming.” But the overwhelming assessment was that this was a landmark halftime show, and one loaded with meaning for the game and the country. For Rolling Stone, Suzy Exposito wrote, “… as much as this game has further aggravated divisions in the United States — it’s impossible to play down the fact that for 15 fleeting minutes, hundreds of millions of eyes were on Latinas. And not just Latinas, but Latinas getting loud.”