The Super Bowl halftime show is the biggest stage in the world, and anyone who dares to perform on it jumps to the front of the cultural conversation. In recent years, the NFL has used the halftime show to reach out to people who don’t usually go to games to drink beer and eat chips, and the results have often been great.
Many years, the halftime show is a chance for fans who have never heard of some of the biggest artists in the world to find out what all the fuss is about. Some fail when they get to the big stage, and some make it. and only a few do well. Let’s remember some titans:
Katy Perry (Super Bowl XLIX, 2015) got an honorable mention
Katy Perry’s show was so wonderfully weird that it would have made this list even if she had just stood there and said nothing as she rode in on a huge golden robot tiger and walked through dancing chess pieces. But then Left Shark came to the party and danced to a beat only it could hear, and things got five notches better.
10. Michael Jackson at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993: By the early 1990s, the halftime show at the Super Bowl had become boring and silly, and it needed a lot of star power. Enter Michael Jackson, who was a few years past his best in the 1980s but still had so much control over a stadium that he could stand still for several minutes before the music started. Jackson’s worst showmanship skills were on display here. Even though he started with “Billie Jean,” he wasted time with meaningless songs like “Heal the World” when almost any other song from his catalog would have been more powerful. The mix is bad because the crowd drowns out Jackson, but it was a million times better than the silly talent shows of the last 25 years and made it possible for superstars to own halftime.
9. Lady Gaga (Super Bowl LI, 2017): It takes courage and presence to lead the Super Bowl halftime show all by yourself, and Gaga did just that in all her glorious Broadway-robot-space-alien weirdness, diving off the roof of the stadium and leading a pulsing cast of thousands through a frantic, chaotic explosion of color, flame, and sheer joy. Upped the ante on the halftime show.
8. Madonna (Super Bowl XLVI, 2012): Madonna was one of a long line of halftime show performers who were a couple of generations past their pop-culture peaks. However, while some of them just sang their old hits over and over, Madonna put on a whole over-the-top extravaganza with garish costumes and spectacular dance numbers that was full of sexual innuendo that made parents all over the country reach for the remote. Also, M.I.A. flipped off the camera, which was a silly act of defiance that probably cost her some money in the settlement she reached with the NFL, but the amount is not known.
7. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira (Super Bowl LIV, 2020): There was a time when the NFL almost only cared about its older male fans, playing familiar classic rock songs to make the night feel like a trip down memory lane. Those days are over. The NFL knows it already has those fans’ attention, so it can try to bring in more people with more shows, like this beautiful, chaotic tribute to Latin culture. During this halftime show, everyone was too busy looking at Shakira’s hips and Jennifer Lopez’s dancing to pay much attention to their guacamole. (They also put in some Led Zeppelin for classic rock fans.)
6. Diana Ross (Super Bowl XXX, 1996): You’d be right to wonder if Diana Ross was the right person to do a halftime show in the 1990s. But this show set the standard for spectacle, with Miss Ross wearing many different outfits, including a huge golden dress, before she literally takes off, still singing, hanging out the window of a helicopter that lands on the field. Now that’s how you get out of a place.
5. U2 (Super Bowl XXXVII, 2002): U2 is always happy to tell you that their hearts have always been in the right place. An Irish band was a strange choice to play the first Super Bowl after the September 11 attacks, and the upbeat chords of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the cheering fans were a strange contrast to the names of those who died in the attacks, which were scrolled across the screen. But rock can be a transcendent experience at its best, and U2 came close to that on this night.
4. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar (Super Bowl LVI, 2022): Dr. Dre was given the keys to the house by the NFL, and all he did was throw one of the best parties the NFL has ever seen. Dre and his collaborators made a short history of hip-hop, hid anti-authority messages in the beats, and put it all together in one of the craziest Super Bowl sets ever. What makes this different from the ridiculously over-the-top halftime shows of the past is that everyone seemed to be in the groove and perform with ease. One for all time.
3. Bruce Springsteen (2009’s Super Bowl XLIII): Everyone remembers the slide, where Bruce slid crotch-first into your living room, but what came before it was the best rock show the Super Bowl has ever seen. For someone who is used to having an audience in the palm of his hand for four hours, 12 minutes was nothing. Springsteen wrung out the crowd and left them gasping for air. The Boss ruled the night with just a few fireworks and the healing power of rock and roll.
2. Beyoncé (Super Bowl XLVII, 2013): Every once in a while, the best show you why they’re the best. This was the night for Beyoncé to do just that. Old-school NFL fans who hadn’t listened to new music since David Lee Roth left Van Halen got to see how hot Queen Bey could be, and their eyes got burned. A performer at the top of her game giving a great show on the biggest stage possible. The power went out in the third quarter because Beyoncé took it with her.
1. Prince (Super Bowl XLI, 2007): The standard by which every halftime show will be judged from now on… and nothing has come close since. The perfect showman on the biggest stage on earth, making every note sound great. Prince mixed funk, rock, blues, and even marching bands into a wonderful stew that ended with an epic guitar solo on “Purple Rain.” He did everything in the rain. Of course. This is the best halftime show that has ever happened or will ever happen. Rihanna will be the main act at this year’s halftime show. Will she be good enough to make this list? We will soon find out.
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