We look at every Super Bowl halftime show from 1991 to 2017 and ask: Why is there a concert in the middle of a football game?

The Super Bowl halftime show is the weirdest gig on Earth

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The Super Bowl halftime show: Remind me again… why is there a concert in the middle of a football game?

January 26, 2017 update
Here we go again. Another Super Bowl, another Tom Brady appearance, another superstar halftime performance. Personally, for what it’s worth, I think Lady Gaga makes perfect sense for this gig, and in fact would have made more sense than last year’s selection of Coldplay, so this year’s beef isn’t about the performer. In fact, apart from the ludicrous name of the actual show, I’m not sure there’s a beef beyond the original premise of this post, which is, “Why do we need a concert in the middle of a football game?” But that’s a matter for another time (i.e. 11 paragraphs down the page).

There’s actually a lot to like about the prospects of Lady Gaga’s show. I bet she doesn’t lip sync, and she’s apparently not going to fill her 12 minutes with cameos and sideshows. From what she says, Gaga has been planning this show since she was four years old, and she’s reportedly doing it all herself. Well, Tony Bennett will be appearing via video, but that’s hardly reason to get rankled. It’s not like the Red Hot Chili Peppers invading Bruno Mars’ set in 2014, or Usher and Slash trying to rescue the Black Eyed Peas in 2011. Unless he were to attempt a twerky choreographed dance routine, Bennett will add class to the occasion. And the NFL could use as much class as it can get.

There’s been rumor that Lady Gaga will “mention” President Trump’s name, which seems like something the NFL would expressly forbid, though the NFL denies it told Lady Gaga not to mention Trump during halftime. But if Janet Jackson taught us anything, when it’s live, anything can happen.

Super Bowl halftime show: NRG Stadium
NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.
There’s also talk of Gaga doing some part (even all?) of her performance from the roof of NRG Stadium. The stadium has a retractable fabric roof (it takes seven minutes to open and close), and is 260 feet above the ground, which is leading to lots of concern over the performer’s safety and how on earth they’d get her up and down – not to mention extraordinary insurance costs.

So, to the aforementioned beef with this year’s show, I challenge you to say the official title of the halftime spectacle without groaning. It’s “The Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl Halftime Show.” I guess if you’re paying a reported $7 million to sponsor the halftime show, you get to name it whatever marketing nonsense you want to, but that’s ridiculous, right? OK, maybe a step up from “Pepsi’s Gluten-Free Musical Super Bowl Halftime Feast,” but it’s pretty lame.

Whatever, I’m over it. I get it. For some people, halftime and commercials are what the Super Bowl is all about. All I can say is, I’m rooting for the Falcons, no matter how compelling an awkward Lombardi Trophy exchange from Goodell to Brady might be.

I guess it’s worth noting that Brady’s first Super Bowl appearance came in 2002, when the Patriots edged out the Rams, just months after 9/11, with a halftime performance by U2 that Rolling Stone ranks as the best of the bunch.

Rolling Stone has ranked all the Super Bowl halftime shows (26 “modern-day” shows with popular music performances between 1990-2015 – last year’s is not yet ranked – and the first 23 lumped in as one entry, which combined ranked higher than just one modern-day show, 2011’s Black Eyed Peas performance). I’ve noted where each show ranks in Rolling Stones‘ estimation in the list at the bottom of the post. Enjoy.


January 29, 2016 update
With Super Bowl 50 (no Roman numerals!) approaching, it seemed a worthwhile endeavor to resurrect this post. I guess I was in a bit of a mood when I wrote this a year ago – I feel much better now, thank you – but I still cling to the contention that the Super Bowl halftime spectacle is less a cultural touchstone than it is a cultural black hole. I will also admit to a strange passive-aggressive fascination with the event, and this year my beef is: “Why not an American artist as the headliner?”

Super Bowl halftime show: NRG Stadium
Beyoncé, Chris Martin (Coldplay), and Bruno Mars perform at Super Bowl 50.

Listen, I rank Paul McCartney’s performance among the best (higher than Rolling Stone does), I love artists (and people, and food, and pets, and fauna) from all over the planet, but this is the 50th Super Bowl. Next to NASA and the Grand Ole Opry, the NFL is the most purely American institution ever. Isn’t there a suitable American musical artist who could represent for this occasion? I mean… Coldplay? Has any member of that band ever even watched a football game? I’m talking American Football, now, not soccer. Maybe if Springsteen plays the inaugural UEFA Champions League Final halftime show, we’ll call it a draw.

But seriously, who comes up with this stuff? Pepsi? Goodell? And for anyone who wondered if Coldplay forked over cash for the gig (I did), that ain’t it. While the NFL would apparently love to turn the Super Bowl into a pay-to-play event, they’re sticking with a “we’ll cover your costs and give you a lot of exposure” deal instead (same is true for Lady Gaga’s 2017 show).

Of course, there is a long list of born-in-the-USA potentials who would have delivered to this insanely big audience. (Last year, Katy Perry’s performance drew 118.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched halftime show ever, beating Bruno Mars’ previous record of 115.3 million viewers.) We could play the, “My favorite band would have been soooo much better!” game for days. (You still can, in the comments section). And Bruno Mars and Beyoncé are going to be joining the croony Brits onstage, as will the Youth Orchestra L.A. – so it’s not like the US is completely unrepresented.

But I stand by my stated theory: the Super Bowl is a mighty weird gig.


January 30, 2015
There is nothing quite as schlocky as a Super Bowl halftime show – watch the Indiana Jones event from 1995 if you need visual proof. It’s America’s biggest cultural offering to the world, and we’ve concocted a forum that’s often as uncomfortable to watch as it must be to perform in.

Give me a marching band, give me game analysis, give me some form of uniquely American entertainment – God forbid we go 15 minutes without it – but this devolution to the gigantic production of these 12-minute mega-music concerts is just so incompatible with the functions of a football game, I can’t quite wrap my head around the concept to begin with.

katy perry Super Bowl halftime show
Katy Perry performs at Super Bowl XLIX.
The fact is, a 12-minute set is not an easy gig, no matter where you’re playing. Knowing you’re performing to an audience of 73 billion (it was 111.5 million last year, for those of you who want actual statistics) adds a little pressure. Knowing that we’re all zoomed in, watching every twitch of your mouth to determine if you’re lip syncing (Katy Perry’s may be the worst example to date) – or to see if someone is going to pull your top off – adds just a little more pressure.

I guess it is worth marveling at the scope of the production. The mechanics of constructing a stage, setting up the sound system, flooding the field with an audience, carrying out a performance, and breaking down for the second half – all in 20-minutes – is pretty fantastic. But the question I can never quite rectify is, “Why exactly do we need a concert in the middle of a football game?”

I mean, I get it. You’ve got the largest TV audience in the world, you’ve got the biggest venue possible, you’ve got to exploit it. $4.5 million for a 30-second TV spot says it all. Of course, I also can’t bring myself to watch the Super Bowl commercials. When in control of the remote, the mute button is my best friend. I try very hard to pretend I’m watching a football game, and every year it gets more difficult. I find it almost a calling, my contribution to the antithesis of the fabricated hysteria surrounding this event, to try to avoid the distractions.

But, I’ll admit, there have been some great performances. I’ll personally rank Prince’s up at the top. Bruno Mars last year was pretty stellar, in the face of everyone predicting a flop. Michael Jackson started the modern-day spectacle of the full concert half-time in 1993, and he was compelling in his performance. And Paul McCartney was awesome, with kudos for a great set choice.

Below are links to the past 27 performances. I even listed the teams that played, just to remind you a football game took place that day. And next to the performances are Rolling Stone magazine’s rankings, just for kicks. They rated the Super Bowl halftime show performances from worst to best. It’s a pretty funny read, though I can’t abide by some of their choices (Madonna and Aerosmith/Britney ranked well above Paul McCartney?). I guess that’s part of the fun.

Got a favorite? One that made you want to leap off a roof? Let’s hear about it below.


1991: Super Bowl XXV
New York Giants 20 – Buffalo Bills 19
New Kids on the Block [Rolling Stone #25]

1992: Super Bowl XXVI
Washington Redskins 37 – Buffalo Bills 24
Gloria Estefan [Rolling Stone #23]

1993: Super Bowl XXVII
Dallas Cowboys 52 – Buffalo Bills 17
Michael Jackson [Rolling Stone #10]

 

1994: Super Bowl XXVIII
Dallas Cowboys 30 – Buffalo Bills 13
Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, The Judds (apologies for the annoying click in the audio) [Rolling Stone #18]

1995: Super Bowl XXIX
San Francisco 49ers 49 – San Diego Chargers 26
Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Tony Bennett, Arturo Sandoval, Miami Sound Machine [Rolling Stone #22]
This one is pretty painful to watch.

 

1996: Super Bowl XXX
Dallas Cowboys 27 – Pittsburgh Steelers 17
Diana Ross [Rolling Stone #12]

1997: Super Bowl XXXI
Green Bay Packers 35 – New England Patriots 21
The Blues Brothers, ZZ Top, James Brown [Rolling Stone #20]
How this ranks in the Top 20 of Rolling Stone is beyond me. This is a hot mess.

 

1998: Super Bowl XXXII
Denver Broncos 31 – Green Bay Packers 24
The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Queen Latifah, Boyz II Men [Rolling Stone #16]

1999: Super Bowl XXXIII
Denver Broncos 34 – Atlanta Falcons 19
Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Savion Glover [Rolling Stone #15]

2000: Super Bowl XXXIV
St. Louis Rams 23 – Tennessee Titans 16
Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton [Rolling Stone #24]

2001: Super Bowl XXXV
Baltimore Ravens 34 – New York Giants 7
Aerosmith, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Nelly [Rolling Stone #4]
The fact that this is in the Top 5 of Rolling Stone’s ranking is a pure case of baiting IMO.

 

2002: Super Bowl XXXVI
New England Patriots 20 – St. Louis Rams 17
U2 [Rolling Stone #1]

 

2003: Super Bowl XXXVII
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21
Shania Twain, No Doubt, Sting [Rolling Stone #14]

2004: Super Bowl XXXVIII
New England Patriots 32 – Carolina Panthers 29
Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, and Justin Timberlake [Rolling Stone #17]
Best remembered for Nipplegate, there was a performance before the exposé.

 

2005: Super Bowl XXIX
New England Patriots 24 – Philadelphia Eagles 21
Paul McCartney [Rolling Stone #9]

 

2006: Super Bowl XL
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Rolling Stones [Rolling Stone #7]
Another overrated performance IMO. The stage was cool, but this is a show we’ve seen before from the Stones.

 

2007: Super Bowl XLI
Indianapolis Colts 29 – Chicago Bears 17
Prince [Rolling Stone #2]
I don’t know if Prince’s death made the folks at Rolling Stone take another look, but this performance went from #4 to #2 from the time this was first published. It absolutely belongs where it is. Prince killed it in the rain.

 

2008: Super Bowl XLII
New York Giants 17 – New England Patriots 14
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers [Rolling Stone #11]

2009: Super Bowl XLIII
Pittsburgh Steelers 27 – Arizona Cardinals 23
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band [Rolling Stone #5]

 

2010: Super Bowl XLIV
New Orleans Saints 31 – Indianapolis Colts 17
The Who [Rolling Stone #19]

2011: Super Bowl XLV
Green Bay Packers 31 – Pittsburgh Steelers 25
The Black Eyed Peas [Rolling Stone #27]
This wasn’t good, but ranking it dead last? Rolling Stone doesn’t like The Black Eyed Peas. It was a lot better than the Raiders of the Lost Arc debacle from ’95.

 

2012: Super Bowl XLVI
New York Giants 21 – New England Patriots 17
Madonna [Rolling Stone #6]
The fact that Tom Petty’s set is not in the top 10 and this one is is a travesty. Just sayin.

 

2013: Super Bowl XLVII
Baltimore Ravens 34 – San Francisco 49ers 31
Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child [Rolling Stone #3]
Remember the power outage in this game? Remember Destiny’s Child reuniting? Ranks high on the list.

 

2014: Super Bowl XLVIII
Seattle Seahawks 43 – Denver Broncos 8
Bruno Mars [Rolling Stone #13]

2015: Super Bowl XLIX
New England Patriots 28 – Seattle Seahawks 24
Katy Perry

2016: Super Bowl 50
Denver Broncos 24 – Carolina Panthers 10
Coldplay [Not yet ranked]

2017: Super Bowl LI
New England Patriots 34 – Atlanta Falcons 28
Lady Gaga

 

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14 thoughts on “The Super Bowl halftime show is the weirdest gig on Earth

  1. My problem with the super bowl performances is the performers do it for nothing. They believe it is good publicity. The NFL is wealthy and the argument that it is worth it for the exposure is insulting. The NFL should come up with some money and the performers should demand the money.

    1. Trouble is, someone will always do it for free as this is the biggest possible gig on the planet. And there are record sale increases to prove a good SB performance translates to increased revenue. And the NFL does cover the cost of the production, which must amount to some significant cash outlay. So, I hear you, getting paid seems like a no-brainer, but that’s one thing you can count on NOT changing in this equation. As mentioned, the NFL sees this as a potential opportunity to get performers to pay to play. And the line to get in on that would be pretty long as well. Though that would definitely be the time to boycott the show… if you don’t have enough reason already.

  2. In agreement with the blessings of the remote control’s mute button, it is especially appreciated during those damned, irritating, intellectually disrespectful medication commercials, that usually end with, “Ask your doctor about..”.

    1. Yeah … the pharma ads were particularly troubling this year, IMO. What’s with all the ex-pro ballers pimping that stuff? And the walking intestines were downright gross.

  3. So, the world gets to see people politicize an entertainment moment, glorifying thugs, terrorists, calling all white people racists, showing how vacuous the American people are, and worse.

    But then, America IS about freedom and liberty, even if that means that you, as an ‘entertainer’, are free to show how completely detached you are from reality, your fans, and what really matters in life.

    I stopped watching the Super Bowl years ago, and the deplorable “entertainment” at half-time that goes with it.

  4. Muting commercials? I thought I was the only one! Thanks for that.
    Halftime shows…whatever. Go watch world football, not this dense game that destroys minds young and adult.
    I thought we would’ve learned from the Roman Empire’s mistakes by now.
    Not this country…where’s my pick-up truck? Typical Americans celebrating gore as entertainment.
    It’s freedom right!! Or endless misguided patriotism.
    We’ve all got a long way to go and I’m afraid we’ll never get there.

    Halftime show should go away along with ‘American’ football entirely.

    Thanks for the article. One of the 1st I’ve been compelled to respond to.
    And by the way as far as super bowls go..other than Sir Paul, all the other homogenous crap acts will be forgotten.
    Prince?…please. Nothing but a pretentious PR monger.

  5. The halftime show is about entertaining the millions of people watching the Super bowl from around the globe. Why not, have a halftime show. Everyone that watches the Super bowl is not interested in watching a bunch guys run up and down the football field beating each other up. Besides this is the United States a country that has to always do things, big, glamorous, or don’t do it at all. Also, the halftime show gives people in the arena time to go and support the vendors, use the restroom, find a new lover, or get caught soliciting prostitute. So, Americans can’t go without a halftime show, we will be lost.

  6. If my home team, in this case, the Atlanta Falcons, aren’t playing, I’m not really all that interested in the Super Bowl game itself. As a musician and music enthusiast, I am greatly interested in the halftime show. For reasons I won’t go into now, I couldn’t watch the event this year, only listen to it on radio. The bastard announcers wouldn’t shut up during halftime to allow us to hear Miss Perry’s halftime concert. They only paused to let me hear little snippets and then went back to discussing the game. What’s up with that? Just because I couldn’t watch the event doesn’t mean I didn’t want to hear it! The folks at Westwood One need to tell their announcers to shut up during the halftime show and let the listener hear the concert, thank you very much!

  7. Funny thing, I was just asking my friends the same thing. I honestly cannot remember ever watching a halftime Superbowl performance. I don’t mind too much the commercials, I dig some of them. I honestly wish that they would just chill with the halftime hoopla and make the “halftime” be mostly about the first 30 minutes of the game and then, game on.

  8. I can’t say that the half time concert was something that I even thought a second about after it was over yesterday. I’ve just been haunted and tormented by the call that lost our Seahawks the SuperBowl Title to make it two years in a row. I don’t feel one way on Katy Perry however Missy Elliott was looking good and sounded great. But what I took away from this half time show is that I’m not as scared of sharks as I used to be.

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