After the power, presence and flash of Prince, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime performances — not to mention the controversy of this weekend’s Maroon 5-Travis Scott spot — it’s hard to believe that the big game’s intermission show used to consist of college marching bands along with performers like the lily-white singing/dancing troupe Up with People and the late, great Carol Channing.
In retrospect, it’s surprising that it took 26 Super Bowls for people to realize the marketing potential a 12-minute show with an audience that is now estimated to be 100 million people — the single biggest audience for any musical performance on Earth. As the Stones, McCartney, Gaga and others have learned, it might be the best possible way to promote an upcoming tour.
The turning point came on Jan. 31, 1993, with Super Bowl XXVII, when Michael Jackson stood silently at center-stage for what seemed like an eternity before launching into an almost definitely lip-synched medley of “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Jam,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White” and, with a choir of 3,500 L.A. school kids singing along to “Heal the World.” It was a long way from 1967, when the first Super Bowl, still inelegantly called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, was played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before a crowd of 61,946 — far less than the 75,144 capacity — with a top ticket price of $12. The halftime entertainment consisted of New Orleans horn player Al Hirt and the marching bands from University of Arizona and Grambling State University.
And while the Halftime Show has certainly come a long way, there have been plenty of forgotten and/or forgettable performances. Here are six that we almost guarantee you won’t remember.
“Something Grand” featuring the Rockettes, Chubby Checker and 88 grand pianos
Super Bowl XXII, Jan. 31, 1988 — Washington, Redskins vs. Denver Broncos at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego
In a game that was basically over before halftime (the Skins were crushing the Broncos, 35-10), the man who brought us the Twist took the spotlight along with 44 Rockettes, 400 swing band musicians, 300 Jazzercise dancers and 88 tuxedoed pianists playing 88 Kimball grand pianos, along with college marching bands from San Diego State and USC. As a 1950s-era performer best remembered by the Baby Boomers watching the show, he was a safe and mainstream choice, setting the tone for many that followed.
“Winter Magic” featuring Gloria Estefan and Olympic skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill
Super Bowl XXVI, Jan. 26, 1992 — Washington Redskins vs. Buffalo Bills at Humbert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis
Minnesota turned its first-ever Super Bowl halftime show into a plug for tourism, complete with flaky Christmas medleys, a skating medley with Boitano and Hamill — although the Cuban-born Estefan, who is widely associated with Miami, made for a bit of a disconnect when she finished things off with a medley of “Live for Loving You” and “On Your Feet” in front of what looks like a giant Statue of Liberty head. When Fox’s counter-programming a live episode of “In Living Color” dominated the ratings, the NFL shifted direction and enlisted Michael Jackson for the ‘93 game.
“Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” featuring Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, Arturo Sandoval, and Miami Sound Machine
Super Bowl XXIX, Jan. 29, 1995 — San Francisco 49ers vs. San Diego Chargers at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami
How could a halftime show featuring all-time greats like Bennett, LaBelle and Sandoval fall flat? Leave it to Disney, promoting the California theme park’s introduction of its new attraction of the same name — which meant the presence of hundreds of bare-chested warriors with torches, feathered dancers, paragliding Indiana Joneses, towering Buddhas, flame-engulfed villains, explosions and corny “Raiders of the Lost Ark” bits surrounding the theft of the Lombardi Trophy for the contest’s winner — and one of the greatest American singers of the past half-century, Patty Labelle, obviously lip-synching “Release Yourself.” The performance then cut awkwardly to Tony Bennett, resplendent in white suit, who crooned Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” for no apparent reason while surrounded by a stage full of ballroom dancers (?!), accompanied by a soaring Arturo Sandoval trumpet solo. After LaBelle returned with “New Attitude,” she joined Bennett and the Miami Sound Machine — minus Gloria Estefan! — for a grand finale of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” It was as good as it sounds.
“A Small World Salute to 25 Years of the Super Bowl” with New Kids on the Block
Super Bowl XXV, Jan. 27, 1991 — New York Giants vs. Buffalo Bills at Tampa Stadium in Tampa
The halftime performance of the game that popularized the term “Wide Right” — announcer Al Michaels’ description of Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s missed 47-yard field goal that cost the ill-fated Bills the championship — is probably the most forgettable of all, because it was pre-empted by ABC for a Gulf War report and not shown until afterwards. The Disney production, accompanied by that infuriating theme park ditty meant as a tribute to veterans and their kids, featured the Backstreet Boys lip-synching none of their hits, then awkwardly having the kids sit on their laps for “This One’s for the Children” and closing with a nod from Mickey Mouse himself.
“Blues Brother Bash” with Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, John Goodman, James Brown, and ZZ Top
Super Bowl XXXI, Jan. 26, 1997 — Green Bay Packers vs. New England Patriots at Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans
This awkward performance featured a sadly watered-down Blues Brothers — with John Goodman and Jim Belushi trying to replace the irreplaceable John Belushi — stumbling through the opening medley of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Soul Man” before the Godfather of Soul, resplendent in a salmon-pink suit, tackled “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and ”Sex Machine,” briefly providing some authentic energy. ZZ Top rolled up in their custom hot rods for a rocking “Tush” and “Legs,” albeit surrounded by dancers out of a Vegas showroom very literally (and excruciatingly) acting out the titles. The massive finale, “Gimme Some Lovin’,” featured roaring motorcycles and a final dedication to the “memory and spirit” of Dinky Patterson, a performer killed during a bungee-jump rehearsal the Thursday before game time. It was a somber end to a confusing performance.
Black Eyed Peas with Usher and Slash
Super Bowl XLV, Feb. 6, 2011 — Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas
After a Halftime Show murderer’s row of the greatest rock performers in history — McCartney! The Stones! Prince! Petty! Springsteen! The Who! — the NFL pivoted hard to pop in 2011 with the Black Eyed Peas, still riding their string of mid-‘00s hits. By this point the armies of dancers, pyrotechnics and eye-popping light shows had become standard for halftime and the Peas gave it their best shot, with a futuristic stage design that included costumes emblazoned with flashing lights and some weird plastic hairpiece on Will.I.Am’s head. But the quartet’s clunky dance moves and melodically challenged chant-singing fell flat on the big stage, and they’d blasted out their two biggest hits (“I Gotta Feeling” and “Boom Boom Pow”) within the first four minutes. In a nod to halftime’s rock tradition, Slash emerged playing the lick from Guns N’ Roses’ classic “Sweet Child O’Mine,” and Fergie rocked some impressively snakey Axl Rose moves, although her pitchy take on the song made one realize that, hey, Axl was actually a pretty good singer after all. The set segued awkwardly to Usher, who descended from the wings wearing a puffy spaceman-like jumpsuit and barely pretended to lip-sync “OMG” — the highlight of his performance was when he jumped over a kneeling Will.I.Am and landed in a split. The Peas wound down with “Where Is the Love?” (minus the Justin Timberlake, still under his wardrobe-malfunction-based halftime ban) and then went back into “I Gotta Feeling,” concluding the least memorable halftime performance of the modern era.
Will that feat be topped on Sunday? Only time will tell…