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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.

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)

20

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

19

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

18

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

17

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

16

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

15

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

14

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
13

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

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, Ariz Super Bowl Football, Glendale, USA

Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock

12

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.