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The best, worst, and most infamous Super Bowl halftime shows of all time

Here are our picks for the most well-known halftime shows — for better or for worse

The first Super Bowl at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1967.
Jimberg13 / Wikipedia

The Super Bowl isn’t just the biggest football game of the year — it’s an entertainment spectacle that captures the attention of millions of people all over the U.S. Hardcore football fans may be more focused on the teams competing on the gridiron, but more casual viewers tune in for the laughs during commercial breaks and the talented musicians who take over the stage for the Super Bowl halftime show.

While the show has been a longstanding tradition of the game, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the National Football League (NFL) realized the potential of using the intermission to keep people glued to their couches. The artists who appear during halftime have been diverse and memorable, though not always for the right reasons. We thought it was a good time to remember the best Super Bowl halftime shows — and some of the worst — ever.

U2
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Best: U2 (Super Bowl XXXVI, February 3, 2002)

After the devastating terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, the world of sports was a great way for fans around America to mourn those we lost and celebrate the perseverance of the nation. This all meant that the Super Bowl in February was less than five months after the tragedy, and the halftime act needed to be a unifying performance for the ages.

Irish band U2 was more than up for the task and put on one of the best concerts in the history of the Super Bowl. The moment the names of the victims started to scroll across the screen while the music blared in the background is still enough to give even the most hardened viewer goosebumps. It’s a great reminder that sports are so much more than just a way to pass the time; they’re cultural traditions like no other.

Katy Perry
Katy Perry at Super Bowl XLIX" by hpaton1 / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Worst: Katy Perry (Super Bowl XLIX, February 1, 2015)

Katy Perry was one of the most successful pop artists of the early 2010s, bringing comfort and an easily digestible catalog of tunes to the airwaves. As her career started to take a turn in the middle of the decade, this controversial performance at Super Bowl XLIX didn’t seem to help her cause. Perry performed many of her most popular songs, but people got hung up on the cheesy set pieces such as the giant dancing sharks. This show remains the most viewed halftime show in the game’s history, though, so people were entranced by the performance, both positively and negatively.

Miami, Feb,4:,Prince gestures as,he performs
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Best: Prince (Super Bowl XLI, February 4, 2007)

Prince was one of the most talented musicians in history. He could sing, dance, play a variety of instruments, and electrify a crowd at will. He did all of this and more during a rainy Super Bowl night in 2007, and his rendition of Purple Rain which ran parallel to the harsh elements in Miami Gardens, Florida, was the type of show that seemed like it would come from a piece of fiction. That’s the magic of someone like Prince, though, and we still miss him many years after his death. Fortunately, this night will be a vibrant reminder of his genius for the rest of time.

Las,Vegas,September,23,,2011,-,Fergie Black Eyed Peas
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Worst: The Black Eyed Peas (Super Bowl XLV, February 6, 2011)

The Black Eyed Peas were once one of the most popular music groups in the world, but their performance at Super Bowl XLV at what was then called Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, seemed a little out of place, almost like they were trying too hard to live up to the billing placed on them. The outlandish outfits glittered and the dancers in the crowd flashed neon green, making the music a secondary aspect of the performance. It’s hard to enjoy what’s happening when you’re being blinded, right? But they did get special guest Slash to wear a sequined top hat, so that’s something, isn’t it?

Michael Jackson
Jean-Marc Giboux / Getty Images

Best: Michael Jackson (Super Bowl XXVII, January 31, 1993)

The King of Pop was the first true megastar to perform at the big game. He held the audience in the palm of his hand during his 1993 show, and the NFL knew that the music could be even bigger than the football ever since this show. The previous year, the Fox Network had counterprogrammed the Super Bowl halftime show with a special halftime-length episode of its hit show In Living Color, causing the ratings for the halftime show to take a big drop.

The NFL responded the next year with the biggest star in the world, and for the first time, the Super Bowl television audience increased during the halftime show. That showed the NFL that big-name halftime acts would draw viewers, ushering in the age of the megastar halftime spectacle. Unfortunately, there’s only one Michael Jackson. There have been many other great performances through the years since, but this one remains a never-to-be-replicated spectacle for the ages.

Indiana Jones
Everett Collection Inc. / Alamy

Worst: Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye (Super Bowl XXIX, January 29, 1995)

Entertainment purely made for a corporate agenda rarely results in something creatively satisfying, and Disney’s halftime show, in which it promoted its new Indiana Jones attraction at its Disneyland theme park fit this disappointing mold. We’re not saying it’s the worst Super Bowl halftime show ever (Elvis Presto, anyone?), but it was mostly just baffling. Sure, musicians such as Tony Bennett and Patti LaBelle performed, but the show was essentially just a wild commercial for Disneyland. Topping off the show with “Circle of Life” was at least something families could get into, we suppose, but at what cost? And no, despite the picture above, Harrison Ford did not appear.

Melbourne, September,15 - Beyonce Performs
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Best: Beyonce (Super Bowl XLVII, February 3, 2013)

Beyonce is a pretty private celebrity, but when she’s performing for the public, there’s no one else like her. Fans savor her appearances on stage, and this one was so special in 2013 that the lights went out after the fact. Seriously! We don’t know whether Beyonce’s halftime show was actually the cause of the power outage in the Louisiana Superdome (now Caesars Superdome), but it certainly feels like it was electric enough to be the cause. The show also featured a reunion with her Destiny’s Child bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, who joined Beyonce by popping up from beneath the stage.

Lady Gaga 2016
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr / Creative Commons

Best: Lady Gaga (Super Bowl LI, February 5, 2017)

Lady Gaga embraced all the best parts of her performance personality in this Super Bowl halftime show. She dropped into the stadium from the open roof in a theatrical masterclass, and she never looked back. Sexist fans online commented on her supposed overweight appearance compared to other singers on the big stage in the past, but the Bad Romance singer took the hate in stride and let her music do the talking. This was not Lady Gaga’s first Super Bowl appearance, the previous year, she performed the National Anthem at Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Levi's x justin timberlake fresh leaves collection
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Most infamous: Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson (Super Bowl XXXVIII, February 1, 2004)

The impact of this infamous Super Bowl halftime show is still evident today. Yes, we’re talking about the “nipplegate” incident where Justin Timberlake tore off a piece of Janet Jackson’s top, briefly exposing her breast, in what was later deemed a “wardrobe malfunction.” The fallout from the incident on the MTV-produced halftime show led to a debate about putting tighter controls on what was shown on television. It also changed the way the NFL looked at halftime shows for several years.

For the next few years, the shows did not feature current pop stars, but rather; classic rock acts like Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. The one thing people forget about this halftime show is that Timberlake and Jackson were not the only performers, as P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, and Jessica Simpson also were on the show, but their performances were completely overshadowed by the incident between Jackson and Timberlake.

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Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek, Quote.com, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
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