In January 1993, Michael Jackson popped out from a stage at midfield of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. and changed the Super Bowl halftime show forever. The previous 26 Super Bowl halftime shows were a mixture of university marching bands, the cultish Up With People, and appearances from aging movie stars like Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, and George Burns.
Those pre-Michael Jackson halftime shows also led most of the Super Bowl viewing audience to find alternatives from spending 15 minutes watching halftime shows with themes like KaleidoSUPERscope and World of Children’s Dreams. Eager to keep the audience from changing the channel, the decision was made to book pop or rock music groups to entertain during the intermission.
Unfortunately, the halftime show for #25 – Super Bowl XXV (1991): New Kids on the Block was pre-empted for ABC News coverage of Operation Desert Storm, which had begun 10 days earlier. CBS couldn’t do much better one year later for #24 – Super Bowl XXVI (1992): Gloria Estefan. Even with Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill helping out, Fox pulled 22 million viewers away from the game by airing a special episode of In Living Color during halftime.
The NFL needed a reason to make viewers stay through halftime — especially if the game was a blowout — and watch the second half. During the past 23 years, the NFL has made a concerted effort to bring performers to the Super Bowl halftime stage who will (hopefully) entertain Super Bowl viewers.
The best of these halftime shows tend to be “mini-concerts,” starring established musicians with experience performing in front of massive audiences who don’t require special guests to make their 15 minutes memorable. The bigger the list of performers, the bigger risk of the halftime show becoming a disjointed mess. The NFL has mostly stayed away from this trend after the outrage over Janet Jackson’s exposed breast in 2004, leading to more conservative halftime shows. But the trend of multiple performers has been creeping back into halftime shows in recent years.
So what is the best Super Bowl halftime show of the past 23 years? Before we get to the number one spot, let’s rank the other 22 halftime shows:
#23 – Super Bowl XXXI (1997): Blues Brothers, James Brown, and ZZ Top
This halftime show may be partly to blame for Blues Brothers 2000, which was released a year later. That’s reason enough to place it last. ZZ Top lip-synching to album recordings of “Tush” and “Legs” just adds insult to injury.
#22 – Super Bowl XXXIV (2000): Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, and Toni Braxton
Easily the most boring halftime show on this list, and it doubles as a 10-minute Disney commercial narrated by Edward James Olmos.
#21 – Super Bowl XXIX (1995): Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett
For some reason, this halftime show features Indiana Jones and Marion attempting to rescue the Lombardi Trophy from some bad guys while Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett occasionally pop up to sing a song. It’s weird, doesn’t feature Harrison Ford or Karen Allen, and seems very out of place in this list.
#20 – Super Bowl XXVIII (1994): Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, and The Judds
This tribute to new country in Atlanta finishes with all of the performers singing The Judds’ “Love Can Build a Bridge” with some special guests including Joe Namath, Charlie Daniels, Ashley Judd (on crutches!), Stevie Wonder and Elijah Wood, who you might remember from a Wavy Lays Super Bowl commercial with Dan Quayle and Troy Aikman.
#19 – Super Bowl XXX (1996): Diana Ross
The Motown Diva put together a medley of 10 songs for her 12-minute show, creating a haphazard mess. These shows have a history of performers being raised into the sky, but no one tops Ross in that department who left the stadium in a helicopter that landed onto the field.
#18 – Super Bowl XXXVII (2003): Shania Twain, No Doubt, and Sting
No other grouping of main performers will make you scratch your head more than this one. The biggest issue with this show is that Sting only performs “Message in a Bottle,” and he does it with No Doubt. How do you limit Sting to one song?
#17 – Super Bowl XLV (2011): Black Eyed Peas, Usher, and Slash
The lowest entry from a post-Janet Jackson performance goes to this show, but don’t blame apl.de.ap or Taboo. This one squarely falls on Fergie for her cringe-inducing Axl Rose impression during “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with Slash.
#16 – Super Bowl XXXII (1998): Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Martha Reeves, and Queen Latifah
Sometimes PBS will play Motown tributes, and you start feeling nostalgic for the records your parents used to play when you were a kid. This tribute to 40 years of Motown is like the bad karaoke version of that, hosted by Smokey Robinson.
#15 – Super Bowl XLVI (2012): Madonna, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., LMFAO, and Cee-Lo Green
We’re nearing the end of massive groups of performers on the list with this bloated halftime show from four years ago that featured a weird tightrope guy who was parodied on Saturday Night Live and another controversy, when M.I.A. decided to flip off the camera.
#14 – Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004): Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, and Justin Timberlake
The most talked about Super Bowl halftime show is actually pretty lame, but it’s easily the most important one in the history of the game. In recent years, the overproduced halftime show has been making a comeback with mixed results. But from 2005 to 2010, a group of aging rockers helped the organizers re-focus the show on the actual artists performing, and we can all thank Janet Jackson’s breast for that.
#13 – Super Bowl XXXV (2001): Aerosmith, N*Sync, Britney Spears, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige
The first halftime show produced by MTV was a nice mixture of old and new, featuring everyone’s favorite couple in 2001: Justin and Britney. There’s just too much going on here, including a version of “Walk This Way” where everyone gets a verse.
#12 – Super Bowl XLIV (2010): The Who
By the time The Who made their Super Bowl halftime appearance in Miami, the time of rock veterans taking the stage had run its course. Helping move the show back towards pop stars was this haggard performance that had The Who sounding very much like aging rock stars.
#11 – Super Bowl XLIX (2015): Katy Perry, Lenny Kravitz, and Missy Elliott
A solo Katy Perry show might have cracked the top 10, but instead it has a strange cameo from Lenny Kravitz — who doesn’t perform any of his own songs — during Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” and Perry not leaving the stage during Missy Elliott’s performance. When Missy is on stage, it’s better if you just let her do her thing. Oh, and Land Shark.