Looking back at the big game's best halftime shows
A spectacle even in its early years, the Super Bowl halftime show did not feature megastars until the early 1990s. Viewers were often subjected to marching bands and productions that generally had bizarre themes. It only took four decades, but the halftime show has finally found its groove. This year, Justin Timberlake (No. 18, see below) kept viewers from switching the channel at halftime.
Looking back at the history of the Super Bowl's halftime show, many fans have ranked the 10 best, but that’s child’s play. Here’s a ranking of all the halftime shows on Super Sunday I was able to track down. Note, they are judged by their quality and not just star power.
43 (tie). Grambling State University Marching Band – Super Bowl II
• Southeast Missouri State College Marching Brand and Anita Bryant – Super Bowl V
• Texas Longhorn Marching Band – Super Bowl VIII
• Tyler Junior College Apache Belles, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain – Super Bowl XII
• Bob Jani Production Presents "Carnival: A Salute to the Caribbean" – Super Bowl XIII
• Jim Skinner Productions Presents “Mardi Gras Festival” – Super Bowl XV
• Bob Jani Productions Presents "KaleidoSUPERscope" – Super Bowl XVII
As I said, I ranked all the shows I was able to find. These seven shows by marching bands and event producers Bob Jani and Jim Skinner were not available online.
42. New Kids on the Block/Disney Characters – Super Bowl XXV
Take the most annoying songs at Disney World, the most annoying boy band of all time and bad lip syncing, and you’ve got the worst halftime show on this list. This performance in honor of the children of members of the armed forces was the first to feature a major popular act at halftime. It also took a backseat to the Persian Gulf War, as ABC chose to air a report on the status of the conflict rather than show the halftime performance live.
41. Disney Presents “It’s a Small World” – Super Bowl XI
Ever ridden the “It’s a Small World” ride? This show was based on it. Torture.
40. United States Air Force Tops in Blue – Super Bowl XIX
A show titled “World of Children’s Dreams” featured pirate ships, the circus and a space shuttle and it was every adult’s nightmare.
39. Gloria Estefan, Brian Boitano, Dorothy Hamill and the University of Minnesota Marching Band – Super Bowl XXVI
This Super Bowl was played in Minneapolis’ Metrodome and viewers were subjected to an exhausting production titled, “Winter Magic.” Boitano and Hamill livened things up a bit with their ice skating, but the only thing that saved it was Estefan’s performance, which began 10 minutes into the show. On the bright side, the loss of ratings to FOX’s "In Living Color" during this halftime show prompted the NFL to create the type of entertainment offering we know today.
38. Andy Williams, Woody Herman and the University of Michigan Marching Band – Super Bowl VII
This list is objective, i.e, Lawrence Welk fans might place this one a little higher.
37. University of Arizona and University of Michigan Marching Bands and the Rocket Men – Super Bowl I
There is nothing exciting about two college bands with no connection to the city hosting the Super Bowl or the two teams playing in it, but hey, it did have two guys fly around the stadium in jetpacks.
36. Be Bop Bamboozled – Super Bowl XXIII
Billed as the first use of 3D in television, this goofy performance featuring a performer named Elvis Presto who does card tricks (!) is elevated by Bob Costas’ Eddie Haskell-esque intro.
35. Disney’s Salute to Hollywood’s 100th Anniversary – Super Bowl XXI
A corny introduction by George Burns, who was nine years younger than Hollywood, set the tone for this production.
34. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye: Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, Arturo Sandoval and Miami Sound Machine – Super Bowl XXIX
You would have thought Disney would have learned its lesson about tying in Super Bowl halftime shows with theme park rides, but no. In addition to pulling together this odd pairing of performers, Disney tried to use it to promote Disneyland’s new Indiana Jones ride. Needless to say, it was a bizarre mess.
33. Carol Channing, Marguerite Piazza and the Southern University Marching Band – Super Bowl IV
A solid tribute to New Orleans in the first-ever Super Bowl to be played in the Crescent City, although the recreation of the Battle of New Orleans was a bit silly.
32. Peanuts’ 40th Anniversary – Super Bowl XXIV
Another weird halftime show was saved by solid numbers by the Southern University band, Irma Thomas, Pete Fountain and Doug Kershaw, and a showboat at the end.
31. Phil Collins, Toni Braxton, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias with narration by Edward James Olmos - Super Bowl XXXIV
Yet another Disney-produced show focusing on a theme park attraction, Epcot Center's now-defunct Tapestry of Nations parade. Unlike the others, it was not laughably bad. It was just boring.
30. Jessica Simpson, Ocean of Soul, Spirit of Houston, Nelly, Kid Rock, P. Diddy, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson – Super Bowl XXXVIII
This one is best remembered for Janet Jackson’s exposed breast at the end, but it was not very good anyway. “Nipplegate” was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
29. Salute to Louis Armstrong: Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Channing, Al Hirt and the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Team – Super Bowl VI
This is not available online, but I’m going to give a show that featured Ella Fitzgerald honoring Louis Armstrong in New Orleans six months after his death the benefit of the doubt.
28. Florida A&M Marching Band – Super Bowl III
The FAMU Marching 100 is one of the best and most innovative bands in the country and it was on full display at this halftime show.
27. Disney Salutes Stars of the Silver Screen – Super Bowl XVIII
Of all the Disney-produced halftime shows, this one worked the best.
26 (tie). Up with People – Super Bowls X, XIV, XVI and XX
The record for most Super Bowl halftime shows belongs to Up with People, a civic organization whose mission is to “bring the world together through service and music.” What’s not to like about that?
25. Grambling State University Marching Band – Super Bowl IX
This salute to Duke Ellington was made memorable by the GSU Tiger Marching Band’s unique formations.
24. Chubby Checker and The Rockettes – Super Bowl XXII
The best of the old school Super Bowl halftime shows also included 88 grand pianos, which was a site to behold.
23. Paul McCartney – Super Bowl XXXIX
After the public outcry over “Nipplegate” the previous year, the Super Bowl needed a performer who was good and safe. Mission accomplished.
22. The Temptations, Smoky Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Vandelles, Queen Latifah and Boyz II Men – Super Bowl XXXII
A solid salute to Motown drops a few pegs because of Reeves’ shaky voice and too many slow numbers.
21. The Who – Super Bowl XLIV
This one would be ranked higher if Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry had destroyed the stage like The Who of old.
20. Madonna, LMFAO, M.I.A, Nicki Minaj and Cee Lo Green – Super Bowl XLVI
You would have expected this lineup to kill but the result was a bit ho-hum.
19. The Black Eyed Peas, Slash and Usher – Super Bowl XLV
The most stylish Super Bowl halftime show in history despite some technical difficulties.
18. Justin Timberlake – Super Bowl LII
This halftime show was definitely creative (and covered a lot of territory in Minneapolis' U.S. Bank Stadium), but was hindered by a lack of energy and inconsistent audio.
17. The Blues Brothers, James Brown and ZZ Top – Super Bowl XXXI
This performance epitomizes what a Super Bowl halftime show should be: big and fun, but not overdone and torturous to watch.
16. Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – Super Bowl XXXIII
A Miami-themed halftime show featured some of Wonder’s best hits and awesome tap dancing by Savion Glover. It also redeemed Estefan for what happened in Minneapolis seven years earlier.
15. Shania Twain, No Doubt and Sting – Super Bowl XXXVII
The highlight was Gwen Stefani and Sting singing “Message in a Bottle” together.
14. Katy Perry, Lenny Kravitz, Missy Elliott and the Arizona State University Marching Band – Super Bowl XLIX
The backlash on this performance is symbolic of how spoiled Super Bowl viewers have become in the last 20 years. However, one thing is for certain: sharks and “Teenage Dream” do not mix.
13. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Super Bowl XLII
This is one of the few halftime shows where it was clear that no one was lip-syncing.
12. Diana Ross – Super Bowl XXX
A great performance was made epic when Ross exited Sun Devil Stadium in a helicopter.
11. Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Tanya Tucker and The Judds – Super Bowl XXVIII
The first Super Bowl ever played in Atlanta featured this Southern-fried halftime show. It also reunited The Judds for the first time, which became less of a big deal after all their subsequent reunions. Stevie Wonder also joined at the end for “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
10. Coldplay, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Gustavo Dudamel, University of California Marching Band and Youth Orchestra L.A. – Super Bowl 50
All the stops were pulled out for the celebration of the 50th Super Bowl and Beyoncé and Mars made a return appearance. The highlight was Beyoncé singing the “Say what!” part of “Uptown Funk.”
9. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Super Bowl XLIII
The only regret about this halftime show is that it did not happen sooner.
8. The Rolling Stones – Super Bowl XL
It was The Rolling Stones playing a stadium. Of course it was good.
7. Lady Gaga – Super Bowl LI
When your 68-year-old father, who thinks music peaked with Credence Clearwater Revival, says, “Boy, that Lady Gaga performance was something else,” you know it had to be good.
6. Prince and the Florida A&M Marching Band – Super Bowl XLI
When Prince passed away in 2016, his halftime show reached mythical status in part because of the rain. Either way, he delivered the most creative performance in Super Bowl history.
5. Bruno Mars and The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Super Bowl XLVIII
Mars knocked this performance out of the park and he only relied on simplicity and talent. It was also good fun for a large, age-diverse audience.
4. NSYNC, Aerosmith, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly – Super Bowl XXXV
The first halftime show produced by MTV seemed like an unlikely pairing of performers, but it turned out to be a thing of beauty.
3. Michael Jackson – Super Bowl XXVII
The first true Super Bowl halftime show headlined and led by a major solo artist set a bar for future halftime shows that few have come close to meeting.
2. U2 – Super Bowl XXXVI
U2 always seems to be the appropriate band for a time of healing. After the attacks of September 11, originally scheduled performer Janet Jackson actually stepped aside so they could play. When Bono sang the first words to “Beautiful Day,” it made the hair on your arms stand up. It only got more moving from there.
1. Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams – Super Bowl XLVII
Beyoncé opened her show with a recording of a Vince Lombardi quote on excellence and then owned the halftime show in a way that few performers have. She even reunited Destiny’s Child. As Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield wrote, “Why would you ever have a Super Bowl without Beyoncé?” Super Bowl 50 heeded that advice.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo by Drew Hallowell, courtesy of www.philadelphiaeagles.com)