Ranking the best Super Bowl halftime shows is a subjective and predictable (and pointless) exercise. But let’s do it anyway. Just as the Super Bowl game on the field has changed over the years and gotten bigger (and sometimes better), so too has the halftime show.
In the early days, when the league and game itself were not as big as they are today, the halftime shows were simple marching-band extensions of regular football games. As the years passed, they added occasional singers like Ella Fitzgerald and such pop celebrities as Carol Channing (twice). The Super Bowl Halftime Show as we know it today was not quite a “thing” yet.
As late as the 1980s, it was still just marching bands and Up With People performing salutes to random themes. (According to one of the great first lines on all of Wikipedia, “Up with People is an education organization whose stated mission is to bridge cultural barriers and create global understanding through service and a musical show.”) One year it was a “Salute to the Stars of the Silver Screen.” Just three years later, the theme was “Salute to the 100th Anniversary of Hollywood” (with George Burns, Mickey Rooney, and Disney characters). Other years they would salute the big-band era and “the 1960s and Motown.” In fact, they would even haphazardly combine tributes, as if some board-room decision had ended in a tie: the 1990 theme was “Salute to New Orleans and the 40th Anniversary of Peanuts.”
Then Michael Jackson and, 11 years later, Janet Jackson changed how we view the Super Bowl halftime show.
10.) JANET JACKSON (w/ JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE)
SB XXXVIII – Feb 1, 2004 – Reliant Stadium (Houston, TX)
Unfortunately, nothing written about Super Bowl halftime shows is complete without mentioning perhaps the most famous, or infamous, halftime show. Sadly its pop-culture significance will keep it on lists like this forever. Oh, you don’t remember this one? At the end of the performance, Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet’s, uh, wardrobe and revealed most of her bare breast. This was called “nipplegate” even though Miss Jackson made sure her nipple was covered. She showed about the same amount of her body as an average beer commercial by an Official NFL Beer Sponsor. But it was such an outrage to see that for 2 seconds on live TV that all the news and media outlets spent at least a week editorializing on just how awful and classless it was… all while showing a still photo of said exposed breast. This led to several years of only aging male classic rockers performing at the Super Bowl.
9.) DIANA ROSS
SB XXX – Jan 28, 1996 – Sun Devil Stadium (Tempe, AZ)
Underrated and possibly forgotten performance, but Diana Ross was up to the task and capably worked through a medley of 10 (ten!) hits. Don’t sleep on the classics.
8.) BRUNO MARS (w/ RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS)
SB XLVIII – Feb 2, 2014 – Reliant Stadium (Houston, TX)
Okay, younger artist with some hits but not quite the household name with some older viewers. By any measure, Bruno Mars nailed his performance. He can sing, he can dance, he can open the show with a drum solo, he brings a horn section, and then he has the Chili Peppers pop out of the stage floor to “givitaway givitaway give it away now.” Exhilarating and professional performance.
7.) ROLLING STONES
SB XL – Feb 5, 2006 – Ford Field (Detroit, MI)
At this point, the Rolling Stones are just game managers. Rock royalty just needs to show up, play a few hits, and fill the stadium with classic riffs. Oh, and do it on a stage shaped like the Stones’ lips/tongue logo.
6.) TOM PETTY & the HEARTBREAKERS
SB XLII – Feb 3, 2008 – University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, AZ)
Sandwiched around Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers solid (if unspectacular) performance of hits was the Patriots-Giants “Helmet Catch” game: a truly great Super Bowl, as well as a huge upset of an undefeated team. We don’t need always need guest rappers or genre-bending collaborations. (Aerosmith-Britney-N’Sync? No thanks.) Petty and his underrated band have been a radio staple for decades. Capable rock bands with good songs are like balanced football teams with good offensive lines.
5.) MICHAEL JACKSON
SB XXVII – Jan 31, 1993 – Rose Bowl (Pasadena, CA)
As the 1993 halftime show opened, the excitement for the impending appearance of Michael Jackson was palpable through the TV screen. All of a sudden, there he was: ON THE ROOF. Jackson appears on the roof of the stadium like an alien angel here to resurrect America’s greatest spectacle.
Then he disappeared… a moment later he reappeared onstage at field level, after magically transporting down from the roof. (There couldn’t have been a stunt double or elevators and tunnels; it could only have been magic.) Once onstage, MJ still wasn’t quite ready to rock with you. He just stood there. His mere presence alone was a breathtaking performance. It’s almost funny to think of now, in the age of “how many songs can we medley into a 12-minute show?” that Michael Jackson wasted about 2 minutes just standing there soaking in the applause, and then ratcheting up the roars from the crowd by simply whipping his head around to face the opposite direction for another minute.
This was the performance (and the ratings bonanza) that elevated the Super Bowl halftime show to the pop culture event it’s known as today.
4.) BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & the E STREET BAND
SB XLIII – Feb 1, 2009 – Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, FL)
On paper, Springsteen in the middle of that Steelers/Cardinals classic should be right up my alley. But between the Boss yelling at the TV audience about guacamole and “put DOWN the chicken fingers!” and his insistence on playing his schlocky latest single (“Working on a Dream”) all the way to when he slid across the stage and crotch-crashed the camera… it wasn’t his finest moment. But as a stadium veteran and one of the greatest live performers ever, Springsteen on his worst day is better than most.
3.) PAUL McCARTNEY
SB XXXIX – Feb 6, 2005 – EverBank Field (Jacksonville, FL)
If you can book a Beatle, do it. Yea, I know these old guys don’t play so well in the HD era and most fans and sponsors want their headliners to be younger and hotter (and female). But beyond, or beneath, or in spite of all the surrounding pomp and circumstance, these are supposed to be stadium concerts. The “old guys” might not be ideal for close-ups on the big screen, but they know how to rock.
SB XXXVI – Feb 3, 2002 – Superdome (New Orleans, LA)
In the middle of the Patriots at-the-time stunning upset of Kurt Warner’s high-flying Rams, U2 came out and launched into “Beautiful Day.” Like all the “old guys” mentioned above, U2 knows how to fill up a stadium and play to everyone from the front row to the upper deck and beyond to all the couches at home. And then after their “MLK” interlude, they dropped that banner will all the names of those killed on 9/ll as they segued into the iconic intro of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” A moment so perfect that even Bono opening his jacket to show it was lined with an American flag couldn’t ruin it. The Super Bowl is made for these moments of mass patriotism masking the commercial gluttony.
SB XLI – Feb 4, 2007 – Sun Life Stadium (Miami, FL)
It’s amazing this ever happened, given Prince’s legendary disdain for the establishment. I remember being legitimately concerned that Prince might get electrocuted and die on live television. If they ever decide to just make one artist the official house band to play the Super Bowl every year, Prince was born to be that guy. He has enough hits to choose from, the uncanny ability for picking interesting covers, and the amazing chops to kill ‘em all. Just gaze upon the glory of this set list:
“We Will Rock You”
“Let’s Go Crazy”
“Baby I’m a Star”
“All Along the Watchtower”
“Best of You”
Incredible set and he didn’t even have to play “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Delirious,” or “Kiss.” He covered Dylan via Hendrix, CCR, and the Foo Fighters. And seriously… closing with Purple Rain in some real pouring rain… just proof that Prince controls the weather and might be God Himself. On top of that, in the post-nipplegate era of “safe” rock stars at the Super Bowl, he projected a huge phallic shadow from his guitar onto the backdrop of the stage. Unfortunately we can’t link to video of his performance, because Prince also controls the internet.
EDIT: Check out this NFL Films mini-documentary about Prince’s Super Bowl performance here.