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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. 

Phill Collins Super Bowl
26

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.

gloria estefan super bowl
25

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?

Patti LaBelle Super Bowl
24

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.

Super Bowl halftime
23

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.

Blues Brothers Super Bowl
22

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.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
21

The Who (2010)

Neither Pete Townshend nor Roger Daltrey had ever watched a football game. (Or the halftime-show DVDs the NFL sent them.) 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 (until Louis C.K. rescued it). 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.

Tanya Tucker Super Bowl
20

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.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
19

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.

stevie wonder super bowl
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.

Shania Twain super bowl
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!"

Bruno Mars Super Bowl
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.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
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.

tom petty super bowl
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.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
11

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.

paul mccartney super bowl
10

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.

Katy Perry Super Bowl
9

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

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
8

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.

super bowl halftime

Matt Cowan/Getty Images

7

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 Beyonce.

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
6

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!

Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked: From Worst to Best
5

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.

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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