Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: Rob Sheffield’s Worst, Best – Rolling Stone
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Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best

Pop spectacles, Janet’s nipple, Springsteen’s marathon, Left Shark and loads of soul revues – we’ve seen ’em all

There is no gig in music like the Super Bowl halftime show. You have 12 minutes to justify your legend. You have 150 million people watching, most of whom are distracted by the nachos platter, how much beer is left in the fridge or how much of the rent they bet on the Eagles. Chances are it’s the biggest worldwide audience of your life, and getting it right means rising to the hugeness of the moment. Getting it wrong can crush a career. Good luck, Justin Timberlake, and try not to undress anybody this year.

And with Super Bowl 52 set for this Sunday, what better time to rank the Big Game’s halftime shows from worst to best. Here’s a subjective, personal, irresponsible and indefensible breakdown of the winners and losers. The Bonos and Beyoncés and Bruces and Britneys. The Janets and Justins. The Michaels and Maccas and Madonnas. Plus the year they trapped poor Gloria Estefan in a Minnesota “Winter Magic” pageant with a bunch of figure skaters and inflatable snowmen. Believe it or not, all these Super Bowl halftime shows really happened. Some were transcendent. Some sucked. Pass those bacon fritters and enjoy the show. Getting it wrong can crush a career. Good luck, Maroon 5.

The Black Eyed Peas featuring Fergie, left,,, and Taboo, right, and perform during halftime of NFL football Super Bowl XLV, in Arlington, TexasSuper Bowl Football, Arlington, USA

Dave Martin/AP/REX/Shutterstock


The Black Eyed Peas (2011)

The worst. Just the worst. Watching at the time, you instantly knew you were witnessing something magical and special – like seeing a unicorn cough up blood. The Black Eyed Peas had light-up robot suits. Cool! Sorta! They did their version of “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” Not so cool! Usher looked like he wanted to hide. Then the tragic words: “Ladies and gentlemen . . . the one and only . . . Slash!” Oh Slash, poor Slash – dueting with Fergie to “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” How did this happen? This was the same Super Bowl where Christina Aguilera did her memorable interpretation of the National Anthem, so yeah, music had a rough day. So did Steelers fans.

Robert Riger/Getty Images


Everything From 1967-1989

Before the 1990s, the Super Bowl honchos had no idea they could turn the halftime show into part of the event. Until then, it was a bathroom break. So there's no point making marginal distinctions between the first 24 of them – a low-budget blur of college marching bands, Elvis impersonators, Carol Channing, George Burns, the Rockettes and year after year, Up With People, who were chipper castrati packed in ice between Super Bowls, then defrosted as an annual reminder to NFL fans that bladders get full and plumbing can help. It'd be silly to judge these by modern-day standards, since none were planned as anything more than cheeseball filler. But at least they weren't the Black Eyed Peas.

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  New Kids On The Block perform prior to the New York Giants taking on the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida. The Giants defeated the Bills 20-19. (Photo by Gin Ellis/Getty Images)

Gin Ellis/Getty Images


New Kids on the Block (1991)

This is where people started learning they could put on an actual show at halftime. But learning slowly. Don’t blame the New Kids, who didn’t get to sing any of their perkier tunes. Instead, they got stuck doing their sappiest hit, “This One’s for the Children,” segueing into a Disney kiddie choir. Except the Gulf War had just started, so “It’s a Small World (After All)” was the last sentiment anyone wanted to hear. Since ABC News did a war report during halftime, this got bumped until after the game, which was probably for the best. The New Kids said their piece a couple weeks later at the American Music Awards, where Donnie Wahlberg performed in a “War Sucks” T-shirt.

ATLANTA, UNITED STATES:  Singers Christina Aguilera (R) and Enrique Iglesias (L) perform during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXIV at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, 30 January, 2000.  (ELECTRONIC IMAGE)  AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

Jeff Haynes AFP/Getty Images


Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton and Tina Turner (2000)

The lineup of talent looks so promising, yet none of the stars did any of their actual hits – everybody who wanted to do some air-drumming to Phil Collins, or some couch-humping to Xtina, got thwarted by goopy ballads nobody knew. Phil did the love theme from Tarzan. Xtina and Enrique rubbed everybody the wrong way with a song called “Celebrate the Future Hand in Hand.” Even “Proud Mary” couldn’t get Tina turning. People, this is the Super Bowl. You gotta make a big impression. You gotta like what you do.

Singer Gloria Estefan from the popular music group "Miami Sound Machine" entertains the crowd during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXVI in MinneapolisSuper Bowl XXVI, Minneapolis, USA

Bill Sikes/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Gloria Estefan and Olympic Figure Skaters (1992)

A “Winter Magic” pageant, because the game was in Minnesota. Giant snowmen. Figure skaters Dorothy Hammill and Brian Boitano. Hideous dancing imps waving hockey sticks to Queen‘s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” And Gloria Estefan, because when you think of the Great White North, you naturally think of Gloria and her Minneapolis Sound Machine. But everyone clicked away to watch In Living Color‘s live comedy special – one of those genius ideas that changed the world. (In Living Color had a lot of those.) Nobody had ever challenged the Super Bowl halftime before, and it worked, because even cheap Dick Butkus jokes were more fun than hearing “Winter Wonderland” in January. This was the big turning point, as the In Living Color stunt finally jolted the Super Bowl into getting serious about halftime. The next year they brought in Michael Jackson. What would Brian Boitano do?

Bennett LaBelle Benedetto Singers Tony Bennett and Patti LaBelle entertain the crowd during halftime at Super Bowl XXIX, at Miami's Joe Robbie StadiumSuper Bowl XXIX Half Time Show 1995, Miami, USA

Bennett LaBelle Benedetto Singers Tony Bennett and Patti LaBelle entertain the crowd during halftime at Super Bowl XXIX, at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium Super Bowl XXIX Half Time Show 1995, Miami, USA

Hans Deryk/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Patti LaBelle, Tony Bennett, Teddy Pendergrass and Miami Sound Machine (1995)

Damn, 1995 was a year of high-profile disasters: Waterworld, Hurricane Peter McNeely, the fateful day Bill Clinton’s secretary announced, “Sir, the girl’s here with the pizza.” And then there was this one. Disney staged a live-action Indiana Jones caper on the field, except Harrison Ford wisely stayed away. Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett weren’t so lucky. By the finale of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” viewers all over America were gaping in horror – it was like watching the Nazi soldiers open the Lost Ark.

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 28: Mardi Gras style floats with women waving roll by during the pregame show before the San Francisco 49ers take on the Denver Broncos prior to Super Bowl XXIV at Louisiana Superdome on January 28, 1990 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The 49ers won 55-10. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

George Rose/Getty Images


Pete Fountain, Irma Thomas, Doug Kershaw and Snoopy (1990)

A tribute to New Orleans, also to the 40th anniversary of the comic strip “Peanuts,” and maybe also to drugs. Because Charlie Brown has what exactly the hell to do with jambalaya and Mardi Gras again? But because New Orleans is New Orleans, the music was still kinda catchy at its corniest. It all ended with Snoopy dancing on a Mississippi River steamboat to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which segued into “Happy Birthday, Charlie Brown.” Meanwhile, a TV audience of traumatized Broncos fans vowed never to get high before halftime again.

John Goodman, Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi of The Blues Brothers (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc


The Blues Brothers (1997)

John Belushi was dead, by the way. But the Super Bowl brought back the Blues Brothers, perhaps because they couldn’t get the 1985 Chicago Bears to reprise “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman and Jim Belushi immodestly attempted soul classics by Solomon Burke and James Brown. The Godfather of Soul himself appeared, yet maybe deserved a little more airtime than Jim Belushi, don’t you think? By the time ZZ Top came to the rescue for some “Tush,” it was too little too late.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07:  (L-R) Musicians Roger Daltrey, Zak Starkey and Pete Townshend of The Who perform onstage during the Super Bowl XLIV Halftime Show at the Sun Life Stadium on February 7, 2010 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/WireImage


The Who (2010)

Neither Pete Townshend nor Roger Daltrey had ever watched a football game. (Or the halftime-show DVDs the NFL sent them for reference.) Maybe that explains why the Who didn’t understand the high-visibility, high-stakes nature of this gig. Alas, they showed up even more shoddily prepared than the Colts, fumbling a medley of classics — sad to think of all the kids out there first hearing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Baba O’Riley” in this sorry condition. Daltrey sounded like he really did just wake up in a SoHo doorway, killing “Who Are You” dead one hoo-hoo at a time. Those suspicious “crowd sing-along” audio cues sounded about as believable as a Seinfeld laugh track. Sad but true: There’s no easy way to be free.

ATLANTA, GA - 1994: Country singer Clint Black performs during the half-time show at the 1994 Atlanta, Georgia, Superbowl XXVII football game at the Georgia Dome. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

George Rose/Getty Images


Tanya Tucker, Clint Black, Travis Tritt and The Judds (1994)

What did you expect – Nirvana reprising their Unplugged set? This was wholesome all-American country entertainment, and it got the job done with some of the brightest Nashville stars of the day, all of them pretty near their peak, except the Judds, who were in the sixth or seventh year of their farewell tour. (Poor Wynonna was doing fine solo until her mama crashed the show.) No thrills, but in a gig like this, playing it safe can be a smart move.

HOUSTON, UNITED STATES:  Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake perform at half-time at Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium, 01 February 2004 in Houston, TX.  AFP PHOTO Jeff HAYNES  (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)


Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson and Nelly (2004)

We’ve seen the nipple and the damage done. Without question the most famous halftime show ever, the one that forced a generation of Americans to hear their moms utter the word “aureole.” It killed off Janet Jackson‘s previously unstoppable career – almost 20 years of hitmaking, zapped in one breast-bounce. It damn near killed Justin’s too, as his clumsy (and none too gallant) handling of the controversy ended his post-N’Sync honeymoon with the public. (It took two years and Timbaland for JT to get his sexy back.)

The music was mostly great, but the fallout was poisonous. The Bush administration (especially Colin Powell’s son at the FCC) led a hysterical crusade to demonize MTV and Miss Jackson. You could pinpoint this as the moment MTV decided to bail out of the music business entirely. All around, a disastrous moment for America. Also, Jessica Simpson sang.

25 Jan 1998: A view of the Half Time Show taken during the Super Bowl XXXII between the Denver Broncos and the Green Bay Packers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Broncos defeated the Packers 31-24.

Getty Images


Boyz II Men (1998)

When it came to halftime shows, the motto for the late Nineties was “more Sixties R&B oldies, please.” Boyz II Men, still one of the world’s biggest and best pop groups at that time, led this tribute to Motown, bringing out Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Martha Reeves. And what do you know – no Jim Belushi.

Justin Timberlake performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, in MinneapolisEagles Patriots Super Bowl Football, Minneapolis, USA - 04 Feb 2018

Mark Humphrey/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Justin Timberlake (2018)

JT returns to the scene of the crime, reprising “Rock Your Body” atthe Super Bowl 14 years after it capsized Janet Jackson’s career. He kept it basic — no NSync reunion (he didn’t even give them a Destiny’s Child-style wham-bam quickie), no Janet rematch, no Britney twirl during “Cry Me A River,” not even Timbaland for “Sexy Back.” Justin was promoting a new album (Man of the Woods, it was called — seriously) and aiming to please in the blandest way possible. The highlight was a brief video duet with Prince on “I Would Die 4 U.” But by the time heended with “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” not even Prince could have made a case for not stopping the feeling.

N 345779 001 01/31/99 Miami Super Bowl Xxxiii In Miami. Gloria Estefan And Stevie Wonder Perform At Half-Time.  (Photo By Joe Traver/Getty Images)

Joe Traver/Getty Images


Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan (1999)

Stevie rolled out a few tried-and-true classics in Miami, graciously giving local goddess Gloria Estefan a long-deserved do-over shot at Super Bowl redemption. “Sir Duke” was his hundredth-birthday salute to Duke Ellington; for the finale, he donned a jacket with “AFRICAN” down one sleeve and “AMERICAN” down the other. Gloria turned the beat around, giving her Miami peeps salsa percussion. And the cameo from then-hot swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will help remind future historians that the Nineties were weird.

SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 26:  Singer Shania Twain (C) performs during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVII between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders on January 26, 2003 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Al Bello/Getty Images


Shania Twain, Sting and No Doubt (2003)

Hey, let’s just forget Shania showed up for this one, OK? Her performance was a career-freezing sadgasm – you know the star is bombing when the camera goes for close-ups of the keytar dude. But Sting and Gwen came along to rescue the show. They made an insanely cute couple with their tantric harmonizing to “Message in a Bottle.” Gwen was such a natural for this role, boosting the hometown SoCal crowd with her all-American enthusiasm – busting out push-ups for the feminist “Just a Girl,” no less – it’s strange they never begged her to come back and do it again. Bonus points for Chris Berman adding the punch line: “The Sting has been on the Raiders offense!”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02: Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers performB during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVIII Halftime Show at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Elsa/Getty Images


Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (2014)

Bruno Mars was a bold choice – people questioned whether he even had enough catalog to fill the time slot. But he proved he belonged right off the bat with that drum solo. He evoked the Motown-revue halftime shows of the Nineties with his old-school R&B moves, rocking a Jackie Wilson quiff, a James Brown suit and reviving the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Then he gave it away to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who made the bold choice to surprise literally nobody by jumping around shirtless to one of their biggest hits.

28 Jan 1996:  Diana Ross performs at the halftime show during Super Bowl XXX between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.  The Cowboys won the game 27 - 17. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello  /Allsport

Al Bello/Allsport


Diana Ross (1996)

The diva-est halftime ever. “Come on, world!” Miss Ross yelled, while getting lowered to the stage on a crane made of sparklers. “We’re gonna take you higher! At the Super, Super, Super Bowl!” The staging was alarmingly klutzy – during her Supremes medley, it was hard not to worry she’d get trampled by her army of red-vested dancers. But what an ending: Diana announced “Oh my – here comes my ride!” as her helicopter landed and her flight crew led her away for a true diva exit in the Ross-Chopper. The Super Bowl folks clearly loved it, since they went on a tear of Sixties soul revues for the rest of the decade.