10 Most Memorable Super Bowl Halftime Shows of All Time

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10 Most Memorable Super Bowl Halftime Shows of All Time

This Sunday, America engages in some of its most beloved and time-honored annual traditions: drinking beer in the afternoon, making a full meal out of Velveeta and Frito-Lay products, and being perplexed by the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Though we were on a good run of rock legends in the aughts, from U2 to The Who, the show seems to be getting back to its poppy, glittering roots.

Last year, Lady Gaga descended from the rafters like a Disney villain spider, caught a football in midair, and again tried to sell us on “Million Reasons.” This year, we get Justin Timberlake, a pop artist right in the middle of rebranding himself as a Pendleton woolens catalog, and the big question is whether he’ll invite Janet Jackson and make amends for 2004’s wardrobe malfunction. My prediction: it would be the gentlemanly thing to do, but we’re about twenty times more likely to see a cameo from Chris Kirkpatrick. But who knows? The Halftime Show is always full of surprises, many of which are much stranger than you recall. Scoop out another spoonful of queso and join me on a walk down memory lane.


The First Celebrity Performer: Super Bowl VI, 1972

After years of college marching bands, the NFL decided it needed star power. Where were they to turn but to Carol Channing? Though her sports connection seems dubious, she can fairly be called the Cal Ripken, Jr. of Broadway. Out of over 5,000 performances of Hello, Dolly, she missed only one half of one show due to food poisoning. She is also pretty much an endurance athlete. She has been old the entire time I’ve been alive, and now I’m old.

Subsequent Halftime Show entertainers after were cut from the same cloth— Mickey Rooney, George Burns, Andy Williams—which proves that pitching every single thing to the youth of America is still a relatively new practice. There is no existing video of Carol’s Super Bowl IV Halftime Show, but here’s a clip of her in Thoroughly Modern Millie, drinking champagne in a biplane and yelling “raaaaaspberries,” which we can imagine is roughly the same thing.

The Most Frequent Performer: Super Bowl V, X, XIV, XVI, XX

Five times over the last 51 years, the halftime show has been entrusted to the peppy young adults of Up With People. If you’re under 40, Up With People is a kind of touring theme park variety show that seeks to address the world’s ills through the mixed media of music, matching outfits, and the smiles of brand-new cult members. Imagine a non-partisan Freedom Kids. My favorite of their performances is their first: a jazzy tribute to the greatest country in the world (ours!) in the musical revue “200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute To America’s Bicentennial.” It is as relevant today as ever, particularly the suggestion that our country is a temperamental infant.

Though they haven’t graced the Super Bowl stage since 1986, they are still alive and kicky. Their website reveals that they’ve recorded three albums in recent years: Voices, Party ‘Round The World and Stand Up Now, which I originally thought was just one album called Voices Party ‘Round The World Stand Up Now, a title that actually doesn’t make that much less sense.

The First Corporate Sponsor: Super Bowl XXIII, 1989

Difficult as it may be to believe, there was a time when every single thing wasn’t branded. Leave it to football to change that! At the tail end of the greedy, speedy American ’80s, the NFL decided to grab itself some of that of that sweet, sweet Coca-Cola money (but not too sweet, because it’s diet). Bob Costas was then enjoined to introduce a lackluster 3D Diet Coke advertisement—even with the glasses, you can see the light go out in his eyes! After the ad, the whole of the halftime show was devoted to a musical card trick by an Elvis-impersonating magician named Elvis Presto. I promise I’m not making any of that up.

The First Actual Current Celebrity Performer: Super Bowl XXV, 1991

In 1991, the NFL finally realized it needed to connect to the younger sports audience, and so they reached out to New Kids on the Block, then at their absolute peak of being relevant exclusively to 12-year-old girls. Look closely as the kids perform “Step By Step” for an audience that is visibly paying no attention, while the sound of a screaming crowd is piped in. That year, the Halftime Show went from irrelevant to actively repellent, and Fox smelled an opportunity.

The First Time The NFL Had To Worry About Competition: Super Bowl XXVI, 1992

So Fox counter-programmed with a live, truncated episode of their sketch-comedy show In Living Color. About 22 million people made the switch, and were greeted by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier in their popular “Men On” sketch. You know, just in case your Super Bowl party suffered from a shortage of gay jokes. Did the NFL learn its lesson? Let’s put it this way: 1992’s Halftime Show performer was Gloria Estefan, accompanied by figure skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill, in a tribute to…WINTER.

The First Huge Current Performer: Super Bowl XXVII, 1993

Michael Jackson was without a doubt the biggest performer on the planet in 1993, blending a Messiah complex with fascist imagery, and not yet tainted by allegations of you-know-what. His Halftime Show is fascinating in that it’s 12 minutes long, and the first three are just applause. (The last three minutes are mostly him interacting with children. Michael Jackson was maybe not burdened with self-awareness.) In many ways, this was the beginning of the modern Halftime Show: Jumbotron trickery set to attention-deficit disorder medleys of lip-synced hits, for a cast of adoring paid extras. If the NFL could keep getting the right bookings, they could start to build on something here. Next year’s show was Clint Black and The Judds, so that’s how that worked out.

First Indiana Jones Stage Show Without Harrison Ford, But With Patti Labelle Clumsily Lip-Syncing as Some Kind Of Octopus Priestess Or Whatever: Super Bowl XXIX, 1995

This one. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” is such a 1970s cocaine sparkle-nightmare it is legitimately shocking that it didn’t happen until 1995. It is so utterly confusing and misbegotten that when Tony Bennett stops by to sing on top of a Doritos logo, you’re just like: “Well, finally.” My favorite person here is the performer who bellows the first line and then immediately bails on the whole concept.

The First One They Got Exactly Right: Super Bowl XXXVI, 2002

U2. We were still smarting from 9/11, we were ready for majesty and sincerity and hope, all things Bono is prepared to deliver. And thus began a delicious hot streak of legacy artists that ran through the whole of the aughts: Shania Twain & No Doubt, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, The Who. (The Black Eyed Peas came next. The Black Eyed Peas ruin everything.)

The Greatest Of All Time: Super Bowl XLI, 2007

The best of these is undoubtedly Prince, who gave us silhouette guitar-dick, covered the Foo Fighters, and even from beyond the grave manages to pull his videos off YouTube. Here’s a clip above that may already be gone.

We will not see another Prince in our lifetimes, because we have not yet recovered from this one.

Since then, we’ve split the difference: legends like Madonna, stars of the moment like Bruno Mars, and memes in the making like Left Shark.

And here we are at Super Bowl LII with Justin Timberlake. I predict “Filthy,” “Sexyback,” “Mirrors,” possibly a Janet Jackson ripping his pants off and sprinting out of the stadium, and an NBC censor with his quivering finger on the ABORT button.

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