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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. 

britney spears super bowl
4

Aerosmith, Britney Spears, N’Sync, Nelly & Mary J. Blige (2001)

People still love to argue over this one: Brilliant or insane? Personally, I'm a both man. In fact, I'm getting the "Walk This Way" jam tattooed on my face, as soon as they invent GIF tattoos. It was a scandal at the time – a couple months later, in the middle of inducting Aerosmith into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kid Rock paused to ask, "What were you guys thinking?" But "Walk This Way" has to be one of the most demented three-minute spectacles ever aired on TV. Britney, in silver football pants, starring as the Missy Who Was Ready to Play. Mary J. Blige wailing along. Nelly rapping over Joe Perry's guitar solo. Really, the whole gloriously sleazy history of American pop music is here in this performance.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
3

Beyonce (2013)

So crazy right now. Beyoncé's Super Bowl triumph last year looks even more astounding in retrospect, now that we know how she was secretly spending her spare time. (Like, she probably went straight from the SuperDome to the studio and wrote "Partition" in the limo.) Bey ran the world with superhuman renditions of "Crazy in Love," "Baby Boy" and "Independent Women." For the Destiny's Child reunion, she had Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams magically launched up to the stage. But Bey blew out the lights with her whisper-to-a-scream "Halo." ("Everybody put your hands towards me – I want to feel your energy!") What a trip to share the planet with this woman.

Prince super bowl halftime
2

Prince (2007)

Everybody knew Prince would make this a freakfest for the ages. But he exceeded all expectations, in the middle of a Miami thunderstorm. A Foo Fighters cover? "We Will Rock You" into "Let's Go Crazy"? "All Along the Watchtower"? An epic guitar-hero jam on "Purple Rain"? There was a feeling that nobody knew what surprise this sexy MF would bust out next – at a high-profile event like the Super Bowl, it was a historic blast of rock & roll arrogance. Total mastery. Total cool.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
1

U2 (2002)

U2 created one of the truly great live-TV rock & roll moments of all time, up there with "Bad" at Live Aid. Just a few months after 9/11, U2 made this a tribute to the victims. After kicking off with "Beautiful Day," they played the elegiac "MLK" while scrolling the names of the dead on a giant screen, an unforgettable sight, building up to "Where the Streets Have No Name." At the end, Bono ripped open his jacket to reveal the American flag sewn inside. It was a pained tribute to America that still felt profoundly anti-war and anti-violence, quite a feat at the time. Only U2 could have made this so grandiose, yet so emotionally direct. Grown men wept buckets. Every daft ambition U2 ever had, every lofty claim they ever made, they earned tonight.

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