5 Unforgettable Super Bowl Halftime Performances

super bowl halftime
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

As we ready ourselves for the biggest game in American sports, many of us are laser-focused on the match-up between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. For many others, however, the real highlight of Super Bowl LII will be the halftime show. And for good reason. In 1990, Super Bowl producers realized halftime could be more than just marching bands and flags tossed in the air. Ever since, performers have been pushing the limits of what a 20-minute concert in front of the whole world can be.

We can debate the best and the worst performances all day, but the following list is a look back on the Super Bowl halftime shows that upped the ante and kept everyone talking, long after the fourth quarter came to an end.

Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson (2004)

As we ready ourselves for what Justin has in store for us this year, we also must prepare for the forthcoming commentary that is sure to come regarding the last time JT took the stage at halftime of the big game. What happened, what happened…? Oh yeah. As if anyone could forget. He tore a piece of “clothing” from Janet Jackson’s “shirt” and exposed her breast in front of millions of people for about one second. Scandalous, to be sure. Accidental? About as accidental as falling asleep after eating too much turkey on Thanksgiving. We all know it’s gonna happen. And so did Justin. Janet and Justin were also joined on stage by P. Diddy, Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson, and Nelly.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (2008)

Oh, Tom. How we miss you already. There was nothing scandalous about this show, but there were some things that make it stand out as one of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history. First of all, Tom and the boys played a rock concert. As in, no lip syncing or backing tracks to be found. This fact alone is worth talking about. Petty had such easy-going crowd control, he looked like he could be on the stage of a smoky little night club. The four-song set had 64,000 spectators singing every word along with the band, and the stage was surrounded by awed fans, not paid extras. When “Free Fallin’” began, even the most cynical among us felt a surge of patriotic love for America in all her glory.

Michael Jackson (1993)

If you need a reminder of why Michael Jackson is The King of Pop, watch this halftime performance. After two Michael lookalikes appeared on top of the giant video screens 300 feet above the playing field, the real Michael appeared on stage in an explosion of light, then stood there like a statue with his head turned for a minute and a half before the music began. Who else before—or since—would ever be allowed to do that? During “Billie Jean,” viewers got an A-plus moonwalk, followed by arguably the coolest fan participation spectacle of all time during “We Are the World.” All in all, MJ’s performance made the ’93 Super Bowl one of the most watched events in television history. Hail to the King.

The Rolling Stones (2006)

No one can work 70,000 people into a frenzy like Mick Jagger. He did exactly that in 2006 on the greatest Super Bowl halftime stage ever built. The Hot Lips logo of The Stones, the most recognizable icon in rock, was the platform for the ageless Stones in Detroit. Ronnie Wood turned the distortion up to 11 on “Start Me Up” and found a mean guitar tone befitting a Motown throw-down. The censors didn’t like Mick’s line about making a dead man … feel very, very good, so they cut his mic. Classic Stones. Following a (then) new song no one knew, Mick made the joke, “This [next] one we could have done at Super Bowl I,” and gave a wry smile as Keith began playing the greatest riff in rock history. Mick ripped off his shirt and “Satisfaction” brought the house down.

Prince (2007)

This was the night the world learned that Prince could control the weather. In the midst of a Miami rainstorm that would have chased a lesser performer off the stage, Prince delivered a set that will forever be known as one of the greatest, most talked about performances in Super Bowl halftime history. After a “We Will Rock You” intro, Prince segued into “Let’s Go Crazy” as dripping wet fans rushed the stage. He then played a medley that included “Proud Mary,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and a Foo Fighters cover. Who does this guy think he is? He’s Prince, that’s who, and he does what he wants. What happened next couldn’t have been scripted any better by a team of writers. Prince strapped on his purple Love guitar and began “Purple Rain”…in the rain…in a flood of purple lights that made the rain look purple. As a giant, 50-foot sheet rose in the wind, the silhouette of Prince and his extremely phallic guitar provided the visuals to an inspired guitar solo as the crowd looked on in awe. Fireworks, a bow to the crowd, and then most likely a second half to the game, but who remembers that part?

Feature image by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.