Not everyone watches the Super Bowl for the football: Last year, Lady Gaga’s halftime show on Fox was viewed by 117.5 million people, which is nearly six million more than watched the New England Patriots’ thrilling (or crushing) overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
The Super Bowl halftime show is a condensed stadium show that runs between 11 and 13 minutes and has featured headliners ranging from rock legends like Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and The Who to pop divas Madonna and Katy Perry to R&B-leaning artists Prince, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Bruno Mars and this year’s headliner, Justin Timberlake.
The halftime show wasn’t always such a superstar-driven extravaganza. Before Michael Jackson upped the show’s game in 1993, previous years’ entertainment included Up with People, the Los Angeles Super Drill Team, assorted college marching bands, the Rockettes and Chubby Checker, salutes to Hollywood, the Big Band era and Duke Ellington. The 1995 show was dubbed “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” and featured Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, Arturo Sandoval and the Miami Sound Machine. (Hey NFL, maybe they’re all available next year…)
Any “best” list is purely subjective and this one is no exception, but this reflects the opinions of many friends and acquaintaces we’ve spoken with over the years, not to mention countless other online article like this one. Without further ado, our Top 10 (and bottom two) …
1. Prince (XLI, Feb. 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami)
As a drizzling rain enveloped the field, the Purple One took to the stage for a jaw-dropping dozen minutes which included covers of “We Will Rock You,” “Proud Mary,” a medley of “All Along the Watchtower” and just for good measure, Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” (keyboardist Morris Hayes said the song’s title fit the Super Bowl’s championship theme). He also performed “1999/Baby I’m a Star” with the Florida A&M Marching Band and finished with the weather-appropriate “Purple Rain,” perhaps the greatest live version of the song he ever performed. And it wouldn’t be a Prince show without controversy: As he played the song’s soaring solo on his trademarked curlicue guitar, his silhouette was projected on a giant banner, and the lower part of his guitar looked like… well…
2. Michael Jackson (XXVII, Jan. 31, 1993 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.)
Marking the beginning of the Super Bowl’s modern halftime-show era, the King of Pop starred in one of the most-watched events in U.S. television history, a five-song set that included “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “We Are the World” and “Heal the World.” Clad in a trademark brass-buttoned military style outfit, Jackson used body-doubles to make it look like he teleported himself across the field, exploding out of the bottom of the stage, staring for 90 seconds before launching into “Jam.” Nobody even seemed to mind that it was all sung to backing track.
3. Beyonce, Destiny’s Child (XLVII, Feb. 3, 2013 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans)
Lady Bey would return three years later with Coldplay and Bruno Mars, but this was her coming-out party. She started off with an a cappella “Love on Top,” then roared into “Crazy In Love,” “End of Time” and “Baby Boy” before bringing on Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland for “Bootylicious,” “Independent Women Part 1” and a show-stopping “Single Ladies.”
4. Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson and Nelly (XXXVIII, Feb. 1, 2004 at Reliant Stadium in Houston)
This was the wardrobe malfunction heard ‘round the world, as the FCC logged a reported 200,00 complaints when Justin Timberlake inadvertently revealed Ms Jackson’s right breast, festooned with a metal star, which occurred, appropriately enough during their climactic “Rock Your Body.” And then there’s the tale of that software programmer who, frustrated he couldn’t find a replay online, invented YouTube.
5. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band (XLIII, Feb. 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.)
“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,” the Boss said, and he made it worthwhile. While the other classic-rock halftime titans played solid sets that were, well, solid, Springsteen crammed the electricity of his usual four-hour marathon sets into an action-packed 12-minute highlight reel, starting with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and shifting into “Born to Run,” “Working on a Dream” and “Glory Days.”
6. Lady Gaga (LI, Feb. 5, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston)
No stranger to spectacle, Stefani Joanna Angelina Germanotta made the most of her 13 minutes, jumping off the roof of the building (at least that’s what it looked like) and landing in the center of the field, starting with “God Bless America” and “This Is Your Land,” into a non-stop, rat-a-tat-tat, four costume-change medley of “Poker Face,” “Born This Way,” “Telephone,” “Just Dance,” “Million Reasons” and “Bad Romance.” Sponsor Pepsi Zero Sugar — and more than 117.5 million viewers — got their money’s worth.
7. U2 (XXXVI, Feb. 3, 2002 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans)
Less than five months after the 9/11 terrorist attack, Bono and company turned their halftime show into a tribute to those killed on that day. Produced by Clear Channel Entertainment and sponsored by E-Trade, the show featured just three songs — “Beautiful Day,” “MLK” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the latter accompanied by a scroll of the victim’s names.
8. Katy Perry with Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott (XLIX, Feb. 1, 2015 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.)
Until Lady Gaga, the most impressive SB Halftime entrance had to be the “I Kissed a Girl” gal riding in on a gilded, animatronic tiger — but leave it to rap diva Elliott and the instant Internet meme Left Shark dancer to steal the show. Perry soared across the stadium literally hanging on a star while belting out “Firework.”
9. Madonna, LMFAO, Cirque du Soleil, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., Cee Lo Green (XLVI, Feb. 5, 2012 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis)
The Material Gal proved she still had what it takes in this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spectacular, which included collaborations on “Give Me All Your Luvin’” (with Minaj and M.I.A.) and “Open Your Heart,” “Express Yourself and “Like a Prayer” (with Green). For once, the controversy didn’t come from Madonna: M.I.A. gave the finger to an estimated 114 million viewers, resulting in a $16.6 million lawsuit from the NFL that was later settled for an undisclosed amount.
10. Bruno Mars, Red Hot Chili Peppers (XLVIII, Feb. 2, 2014 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ)
Like last weekend’s Grammy Awards, many people underestimated this diminutive song-and-dance man’s swagger. But he led his band and dancers through a high-octane medley of “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Treasure” and “Runaway Baby” before L.A.’s wizened bad boys joined him for a spirited “Give It Away.” Give the man 12 minutes, and he’ll give you the history of ‘80s R&B.
It wouldn’t be a best-of list without a glimpse of the worst. For these ears and eyes, nothing beats The Who’s feeble 2010 performance for Super Bowl XLIV at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, where the wardrobe malfunction involved Pete Townshend’s beer belly sticking out during one of his trademarked windmill guitar moves. The other has to be the reformed Blues Brothers (with John Goodman sitting in for the long-deceased John Belushi) at Super Bowl XXXI at New Orleans’ Superdome in 1997 — even with James Brown doing “Sex Machine” and ZZ Top belting out “Tush.”