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A History of the Super Bowl Halftime Pop Extravaganza

The Super Bowl has had a tortured relationship with pop, both pre- and post-Janet.
  • The Superbowl halftime show has become a showcase for the biggest stars in pop music, but it wasn't always this way.
    The Superbowl halftime show has become a showcase for the biggest stars in pop music, but it wasn't always this way.

    Flashback to a time before the modern Super Bowl era. If you were in charge of booking a halftime act to entertain the crowd, you'd very likely go with the type of entertainment that cropped up year after year: college marching bands performing American standards. Save for an appearance by Ella Fitzgerald in 1972, big names were not a part of the Super Bowl halftime equation. Even as recently as 1989, the halftime show featured an Elvis impersonator.

    Prior to Pepsi taking over the halftime show, Disney often subsidized the event, meaning select Disney characters joined the performers to sing selections from the studio's songbook, most notably in the year 1991, when a high-profile act — New Kids on the Block — joined Mickey Mouse to sing "It's a Small World After All" and "We Are the World." (They did get to sing some of their own songs, before closing with a "Small World" reprise.)

    But 1991 was also the beginning of a different trend when it came to Super Bowl performances. These days, the Super Bowl Halftime Show is synonymous with two things: being sponsored by Pepsi and featuring some of music's biggest hitmakers. It's essentially a big pop concert in the middle of the biggest sporting event of the year. In 1991, while NKOTB were hangin' tough during the halftime show, the most important musical performance of the year happened before the first down, kickstarting what would be a determinedly more populist trajectory.

    Jan 27, 1991 — Super Bowl XXV: Whitney Houston sings "The Star-Spangled Banner"

    It took until the Super Bowl's silver anniversary for it to stumble upon a winning musical recipe. That year, Whitney Houston, one of the defining artists of the 1980s, was invited to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" to kick off the biggest night in sports. Houston wanted to reinterpret the song for the event, and her musical director changed the song's time signature from a 3/4 waltz to 4/4 to allow Houston to deliver a jazzier rendition of the standard. The NFL tried to get her to change it, but Houston and her team would not budge.

    Houston's performance took place only ten days into the Persian Gulf War. The Super Bowl was also broadcast worldwide for the first time that year. Callers flooded Arista Records' phones for three days asking to buy the single, which led them to release it, with proceeds going to the American Red Cross Golf Crisis Fund.

    Rolling Stone later called Houston's song the most memorable moment in NFL music history. The single debuted at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles, Houston's highest debut on the chart, six places above "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." The song was re-released after 9/11 in the US, when it reached a new peak of #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, with proceeds going to relief efforts.

    For the first time, the Super Bowl understood the power of aligning itself with one of the biggest names in pop.

    January 31, 1993 — Super Bowl XXVII: Michael Jackson

    Jackson headlined what is widely considered one of the most-watched television moments in history. Over 133 million people tuned in to see him perform "Billie Jean," "Black or White," "We Are the World" and "Heal the World."

    Why did they go for Jackson? According to Rolling Stone, he solved a problem that arose during the 1992 show, which aired on CBS. The halftime show that year featured a less than A-list Gloria Estefan and Brian Boitano. In a masterful feat of counter-programming, Fox aired a special episode of In Living Color at the same time, which led to a 22% decline in ratings for CBS between halves. Jackson was a way to make sure people didn't change the channel, and launched the modern era of big time pop halftime extravaganzas.

    Jan 28, 2001 — Super Bowl XXXV: Aerosmith, NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly

    There were a lot of great performers in the years between Jackson and Aerosmith — Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Phil Collins stand out — but Aerosmith's 2001 Super Bowl Halftime show, produced by MTV and sponsored by E-Trade was a landmark moment.

    Aerosmith were the headliners, promoting their new song, "Jaded," off their then-upcoming album Just Push Play. But rather than just rely on one of the biggest (and oldest) bands in rock, MTV also brought in some of current radio's biggest hitmakers to accompany Steven Tyler and company. And so it came that NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly joined Aerosmith to perform "Walk This Way."

    It can't be overstated just how much this galaxy of stars forever changed the Super Bowl Halftime show. Britney, NSYNC, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly lent Aerosmith a level of coolness they needed for their album promo, while Aerosmith seemed to put their stamp of approval on teenyboppers like Spears and NSYNC, who, despite their mondo sales, lacked respect in the music world. This was musical synergy, and it's an equation several future shows would try to replicate.

    February 1, 2004 — Super Bowl XXXVIII: Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson

    Justin Timberlake would return to the Super Bowl Halftime only three years later, this time alongside music legend Janet Jackson. But while the ensuing years would see his career skyrocket, Jackson's music videos and singles were blackballed after "nipplegate." By now, the story is deeply familiar: during Timberlake's hit "Rock Your Body," he pulled at Jackson's outfit, exposing her nipple, accompanied by the lyric, "Gonna have you naked/ by the end of this song." What followed was a debate about the place of nipples in American culture and a rightwing backlash the likes of which had never been seen before. Both Jackson and MTV, which had produced the halftime show, were banned from future Super Bowls.

    Everything in Super Bowl Halftime shows exists either before or after this moment. Just as Jennifer Lopez's Versace dress spawned Google Image searches, YouTube's cofounder Jawed Karim credits this moment with spurring YouTube's creation, as so many people searched for this moment. It also gave us the term "wardrobe malfunction."

    February 4, 2007 — Super Bowl XLI: Prince

    For years after Nipplegate, the Super Bowl halftime show would not allow a female nipple anywhere near the stage. The two shows directly after were Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. Then, in 2007, Prince was given the helm of the halftime ship. While his show was relatively tame, it was decidedly sexual, including what many thought was a clear silhouette of a penis formed by Prince and his guitar. Many felt like it was Prince's tongue-in-cheek way of sticking it to the broadcast for vilifying Jackson.

    February 5, 2012 — Super Bowl XLVI: Madonna, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., LMFAO, CeeLo Green

    While the only woman allowed on the Super Bowl Halftime stage in 2011 was Fergie (as a member of the Black Eyed Peas), a year later the Queen of Pop was able to finally able to break the dad-music streak of years past. And Madonna didn't come empty-handed: to promote her album MDNA, Madonna brought Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., both of whom were featured on her ra-ra-sis-boom-bah lead single, "Give Me All Your Luvin."

    Madonna's performance was widely praised and logged 114 million viewers, more than the Super Bowl itself. Though she had an album to promote, she definitely got the memo to play the hits. Alongside "Give Me," she performed "Vogue," "Music," "Open Your Heart," "Express Yourself," and "Like a Prayer." But, this was not a controversy-free broadcast, either. During her verse on "Give Me," rapper M.I.A. replaced the word "shit" with a middle finger to the camera. Madonna didn't stand with M.I.A., choosing to throw her under the bus, and calling the move "immature." The NFL slapped M.I.A. with a $16 million lawsuit, which was later settled for an undisclosed amount.

    February 3, 2013 — Super Bowl XLVII: Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams

    What else can be said about this perfect piece of artistry and entertainment? Beyoncé's Super Bowl Halftime show happened at an interesting moment in the artist's career. In February of 2013, Beyoncé had yet to release her self-titled fifth album, which completely changed her image as an artist. Instead, this performance came about 19 months after her fourth album, 4, which many considered her best, even though it hadn't produced as many mainstream hits as her earlier work. Freed from having to promote an album, she instead played the hits and brought us the Destiny's Child reunion we all craved.

    From beginning to end, this Super Bowl Halftime show seemed manufactured to elicit feelings of rapture. Beyoncé was, as the meme tells us, always on beat. Getting to see her together with Kelly and Michelle brought tears to many of us. The show turned out to be the most-tweeted moment of all time.

    Madonna may have brought The Diva back to the Super Bowl, but Beyoncé proved that the Super Bowl Halftime Show was officially a diva's arena.

    February 2, 2014 — Super Bowl XLVIII: Bruno Mars, The Hooligans, Red Hot Chili Peppers

    No one has proven to be a better tease than the Super Bowl. Since the Beyoncé Super Bowl performance, they've tried to do divas only on alternating years and cater to a mostly mainstream (read: straight) audience on what I'll call "off years." That tradition began in 2014 with Bruno Mars, who performed alongside The Hooligans and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

    The show was… fine! But after back-to-back Beyoncé and Madonna, the slightly underwhelmed gay audience had to sit this one out.

    February 1, 2015 — Super Bowl XLIX: Katy Perry, Lenny Kravitz, Missy Elliott

    Perry holds the honor of having the most-watched Super Bowl in history with 118 million viewers. In typical Perry fashion, the show was a visual feast, complete with several costume changes made by designer Jeremy Scott, 616 light globes and an animatronic tiger. At this moment in her career, Perry was a hit factory and had a deep songbook to pull from, including "Roar," "Dark Horse," "Teenage Dream," and "California Gurls."

    But just as important as Perry's contribution to the show was rapper Missy Elliott's, who came on stage and did some of her most popular songs, including "Get Ur Freak On," "Work It" and "Lose Control."

    The performance garnered a few days' worth of headlines due to an off-beat animal known only as Left Shark. During her performance of "Teenage Dream," Perry was flanked by two life-size sharks, one of which had forgotten the choreography, leading to a deluge of memes.

    February 7, 2016 — Super Bowl 50: Coldplay, but really Beyoncé, and also Bruno Mars

    After some minor confusion as to who would headline the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show, Coldplay was chosen as the marquis name. Except forget all of that because Coldplay also asked former headliners Bruno Mars and Beyoncé to join them (not to mention boost their ratings).

    To bring you back to this moment in time, it's important to remember that this Super Bowl Halftime show took place about 24 hours after Beyoncé dropped "Formation," both the song and the video. Beyoncé turned the Super Bowl Halftime show into a moment that honored the Black Lives Matter movement. Her dancers' costumes paid homage to the Black Panther party.

    Of course, many white people did not appreciate the move, which they considered to be anti-police. "This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive," said notable bumbling wannabe supervillain Rudy Giuliani.

    Beyoncé was later forced to issue a statement about the performance. "I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let's be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice," she said.

    February 5, 2017 -- Super Bowl LI: Lady Gaga

    If Madonna, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry weren't enough of an overt play for women and gay men to rabidly anticipate the Super Bowl Halftime Show,

    IOK, Gaga was a clear pander, but this halftime also had a deeper, symbolic meaning. Gaga's was the first Super Bowl Halftime since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and many were wondering in the days leading up to the event if the "Born This Way" singer would have an overtly political show or if the NFL, an organization that has shown they're not here for your liberal, lefty MSNBC hogwash, would pressure her to just stick it to the music. What we got was a little bit of both.

    Gaga opened the set with two patriotic anthems, "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land," the latter of which is actually a pro-immigration anthem. Many interpreted the song choice as shade, as there aren't exactly many shady patriotic anthems the chanteuse could've pulled out. After that, Gaga pretty much stayed to the best in her songbook — oh and there was "Million Reasons," too.

    As Salon later noted, Gaga was the first artist to reference the LGBTQ+ community explicitly during a Super Bowl.

    February 2, 2020 — Super Bowl LIV: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira

    For two years after Gaga, the Super Bowl handed the Super Bowl to men. But not just any men, men with a significant pocket of detractors: namely 2018's Justin Timberlake, who by this point had become persona non grata for many after his treatment of Janet Jackson 16 year prior, and 2019's Maroon 5 led, of course, by The Voice's Adam Levine, whose persona is decidedly not for everyone, to put it mildly.

    After two years of men, the Super Bowl has granted two of the world's biggest Latin superstars the chance to entertain the world in its 54th year. Of course, both Shakira, who is one of the most globally recognized music stars and Jennifer Lopez, who is one of America's quintessential pop stars, could each helm their own show, which has led some to feel cheated. (Me, I'm the some. I mean, Hispanic Heritage Month is also ½ of two different months — October and September. Now we gotta have two halves of a whole Super Bowl?!)

    Though the 2020 Super Bowl Halftime show has yet to air, it's already been the subject of criticism. After Maroon 5 performed in 2019, reports leaked that Rihanna had refused to do the show because of the league's treatment of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which basically opens any artist who takes the gig in the future to criticism. (It doesn't help that J.Lo has kinda tweeted #AllLivesMatter once!)

    And then, representing the vast heterosexual delegation, Twister Sister frontman Dee Snider criticized the Super Bowl's choices, saying the league ignores heavy metal acts in favor of pop stars. Well, Snider, call us when your hips don't lie!

    Mathew Rodriguez is an award-winning editor, journalist and essayist. He is currently the associate editor at TheBody and has written for Out, The Village Voice, Teen Vogue, Mic, INTO and The Advocate.

    TOPICS: Super Bowl, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Prince, Shakira, Whitney Houston, Music and TV