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

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, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.

And with Super Bowl 53 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. From Prince and Madonna, from Michael to Macca. 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.

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.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best

Coldplay, Beyonce and Bruno Mars (2016)

Give Coldplay credit – most bands, faced with the task of opening for Beyoncé, would have come down with a convenient case of the flu. (And a case of the flu would have been more fun than Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" interlude.) Chris Martin and company made the most of "Viva La Vida," but there's no denying the main attraction was Beyonce's world-slaying premiere of "Formation," with her dancers dressed as Black Panthers. It was just a two-minute taste of "Formation," but it was enough to blow the rest of the show away.

Ron Blair; Tom Petty Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, including bass player Ron Blair, left, and Tom Petty, center, perform during halftime of the Super Bowl XLII football game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants, in Glendale, ArizSuper Bowl Football, Glendale, USA

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona.

Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Tom Petty (2008)

Tom Brady and the Heartbreakers – arrrgggh, I mean Tom Petty. Well, as Petty would say, even the losers get lucky sometimes, hence the Giants winning this Super Bowl on a helmet catch. Petty did an excellent set – he was the kind of star who clearly understood the occasion, and knew what his job was. “American Girl” was 100 percent the right opening song. So there’s no problem with his halftime performance at all. But it’s still docked a notch or two for coming in the middle of the most soul-crushing Super Bowl ever. Yeah, I’m from New England. Sorry. It’s not Petty’s fault, but as all Pats fans learned that day, life is cruel. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go slam my head against the wall, 18 times on one side and then 1 on the other.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 31:  Michael Jackson performs at the Super Bowl XXVII Halftime show at the Rose Bowl on January 31, 1993 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

Steve Granitz/WireImage


Michael Jackson (1993)

MJ had a streak of great TV performances through his career: “I Want You Back” on Soul Train, “Billie Jean” on Motown 25, “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. This was the last one of his lifetime. He was in a late-game resurgence with his Oprah interview, his Dangerous album and his sweet snuggle with Janet at the 1993 Grammys. (“Me and Janet really are two different people!”) He began by standing stone still for 90 seconds of silence, then glided through two of his best hits (“Billie Jean” and “Black and White”) before one of his dodgiest (“Heal the World”). Footnote: This was the Super Bowl where the coin-toss honors went to some guy named O.J. Simpson.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - FEBRUARY 06:  Singer Paul McCartney performs during the Super Bowl XXXIX halftime show at Alltel Stadium on February 6, 2005 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Jeff Gross/Getty Images


Paul McCartney (2005)

Good news – he didn’t do “Freedom.” And he didn’t sing “A Hard Day’s Night” as a duet with Terry Bradshaw, like he famously did at the 2001 Super Bowl. Instead, Macca did what he’s done live for the past decade – blaze the hell out of a few classics with no glitz, no fuss, just his own crowd-slaying confidence. Who would have guessed he’d open with “Drive My Car,” kicking off the festivities in beep-beep style? He turned “Live and Let Die” into a rousing stadium-shaker. Hell of a game, too.

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01: Katy Perry and Missy Elliott performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


Katy Perry and Missy Elliott (2015)

Never say Katy isn’t brilliant – the girl went all out to deliver a beyond-ridiculous Vegas show, complete with druggy dancing palm trees and (of course) Left Shark. But the big surprise came when a mysterious silhouette appeared in the shadows, as a teaser snippet of “Get Ur Freak On” played. No. It couldn’t be. It was. Missy Freaking Elliott, shocking the world with her first high-profile appearance in years, the comeback we’d all been praying for. Talk about knowing how to choose your moment. Give Katy credit – only a true star would be confident enough to share a spotlight with Missy

DETROIT - FEBRUARY 05:  Musician Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones perform during the "Sprint Super Bowl XL Halftime Show" at Super Bowl XL between the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field on February 5, 2006 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images


The Rolling Stones (2006)

Mick and the lads came to kick ass. They got down to business with just three songs: “Start Me Up,” “Rough Justice” and the inevitable “Satisfaction.” Bonus points for not playing “You Got Me Rockin’,” which they inexplicably did as half their set at the 12/12/12 benefit concert. As Mick joked before “Satisfaction,” “This one we could have done for Super Bowl I.” Even so, the man was in better shape than most of the NFL players – wiggling all over the stage, shaking mad hips, Mick had his backfield in motion. The network censored the line “You made a dead man come,” understandably.

Lady Gaga performs during the halftime show of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, in HoustonPatriots Falcons Super Bowl Football, Houston, USA - 5 Feb 2017

Lady Gaga performs at Super Bowl LI in Houston.



Lady Gaga (2017)

Everybody was wondering what kind of mischief Gaga would wreak at the Super Bowl: How crazy would she get? How political? How Gaga? Then she aimed straight down the middle with an uncontroversially crowd-pleasing hits medley, even beginning with the Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all!” But she made “for all” sound radical with her queer-positive anthem “Born This Way,” probably the first time “transgender” has been uttered at the Super Bowl. No shock tactics, no surprise guests — just Gaga getting so aggressively normal it was freaky. And “Telephone” is still a jam, with or without Beyoncé.

Singer Madonna (top) performs with Redfoo and Sky Blu (L) of LMFAO during the NFL Super Bowl XLVI game halftime show on February 5, 2012 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.    AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)



Madonna (2012)

Madonna has scored so many historic TV touchdowns over the years, it’s weird to remember what a visceral thrill it was to see her rise to the Super Bowl occasion. Maybe we were all a little worried she’d get this moment wrong. (She does that sometimes.) But then she vogued on out there with all those ancient-Roman gladiator studs, and suddenly it was just the Queen of Queens doing a glam barrage of the greatest pop songs ever, i.e. hers. Like anything Madonna does, it was a total mess. Those Cee-Lo harmonies on “Like a Prayer.” That Nicki Minaj pom-pom sex-bomb cameo. Awesome. Oh, also: World Peace!

Bruce Springsteen Bruce Springsteen, left, and Steven Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, perform at halftime at the NFL Super Bowl XLIII football game between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers, in Tampa, FlaSuper Bowl XLIII Football, Tampa, USA

Bruce Springsteen, left, and Steven Van Zandt, of the E Street Band, perform at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

Winslow Townson/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (2009)

“I want you to step back from the guacamole dip! I want you to put those chicken fingers down! And turn your television all the way up!” His Bossness did a 14-minute end-zone power drive that crammed in all the fervor of a four-hour concert marathon: “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” “Born to Run,” “Glory Days” with new gridiron lyrics. (That “speedball” line never really did make sense anyway, right?) Nice camera-crashing crotch slide, too. All over this nation, from the coastline to the city, the chicken fingers got cold. R.I.P., Big Man.

N SYNC SPEARS TYLER Singer Britney Spears, flanked by Steven Tyler of Aerosmtih, second from left, and hip-hop star Nelly, second from right, join 'N Sync members Justin Timberlake, far left, and Lance Bass, far right on stage for the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXV, in Tampa, FlaSUPER BOWL, TAMPA, USA

Britney Spears, flanked by Steven Tyler of Aerosmtih, second from left, and Nelly, second from right, joining 'NSync members Justin Timberlake and Lance Bass onstage at Super Bowl XXXV, in Tampa.

Amy E Conn/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Aerosmith, Britney Spears, ‘NSync, 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.

Beyonce Beyonce performs during the halftime show of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, in New OrleansSuper Bowl Football, New Orleans, USA

Mark Humphrey/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Beyoncé (2013)

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl triumph 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 Prince performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl XLI football game at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. Heritage Auctions is selling one of the late artist's "yellow cloud" electric guitars beginning June 24 with an opening bid of $30,000. The guitar was one of several custom guitars Prince used in the 1980s and 1990sPrince-Autopsy-Q&A, Miami, USA

Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

Chris O'Meara/AP/REX/Shutterstock


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.

U2 performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVI in the Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 3, 2002. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)

Theo Wargo/WireImage


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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