Q Magazine

The Greatest Super Bowl Halftime Shows

From NKOTB (no, really) to Prince, and via wardrobe malfunctions, Roman Legionnaires, inflatable globes and a censored Mick Jagger, sometimes you've gotta put the chicken fingers down and turn the television all the way up…

prince janet jackson justin timberlake madonna
Source: mega

Every show is memorable... some more so than others.

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New Kids on the Block (1991)

Bear with us a moment. Not that there’s anything (very) wrong with the New Kids on the Block, but it should be noted that there’s a very specific reason why this particular performance is kicking off this list: it’s the first time that the Super Bowl’s halftime show was aimed squarely at a contemporary audience. For the first few years, it was all about marching bands, and upon entering the ‘70s, viewers could find themselves treated to songs by anyone from Carol Channing and Ella Fitzgerald to Andy Williams and Anita Bryant. And don’t even get us started on Up with People, who kept popping up as halftime entertainment as late as 1986.

So while it would be inaccurate to say that the New Kids truly rocked the house when they delivered their medley of “Step by Step” and “This One’s for the Children” while surrounded by a mixture of little children and Disney Characters, at least it was something viewers might’ve conceivably heard on the radio at some point in the previous year. Mind you, the producers, apparently unable to believe that the audience might actually want something wholly contemporary, decided to end things by then shifting into the perpetually-excruciating “It’s a Small World After All” to close things out, thereby taking what was only a semi-pleasant moment and concluding it with the worst earworm imaginable. But at least it was a small step – a very small one – in the right direction. - Will Harris

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Michael Jackson (1993)

Never one to do things by halves, in 1993 the King of Pop (TM) pretty much reinvented just what a halftime show should be, and what it could do. Decked out in full sub-military regalia, he kept the screaming crowd waiting for over two minutes (a long time in television, folks) before smashing through a medley of classics including “Billie Jean”.The climax was full-on batsh*t lunacy: a rendition of “Heal the World” surrounded by thousands of children dressed in what appeared to be varying national costumes, all paying homage to a massive inflatable globe on the halfway line. It was mad as cheese, obviously, but also, in its own way, brilliant. - Dominic Utton

Bruce Springsteen (2009)

“Ladies and gentlemen, for the next 12 minutes we’re going to bring the righteous and mighty power of the E. Street Band into your beautiful homes! I want you to step back from the guacamole dip! I want you to put the chicken fingers down and turn your television all the way up!” Now that, kids, is how you make an entrance. Springsteen had allegedly been asked to take control of halftime festivities several times before 2009 – and when he finally relented, he showed why he’s the Boss, with a typically electrifying, fully live performance that included “Born to Run” and climaxed with “Glory Days”. Sadly the NFL won’t allow us to share the full performance, but here’s a taster at least. - D.U.

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Dr Dre & Friends (2022)

A star-studded cast of rappers including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent took over the Super Bowl for a full 15 minutes in 2022. The game was played just a few miles from the Los Angeles neighborhoods where many of those musicians grew up and to celebrate the city’s heritage, a life-sized South Central-style streetscape was erected on the field. When Michael Jackson first made the Super Bowl must-watch TV in 1993, viewers could have never imagined that gangsta rappers would someday take the mantle - Jay-Z's talent agency Roc Nation, which has handled the Super Bowl’s halftime shows since 2019, certainly had a hand in this. The company was hired as part of an effort to smooth over the Colin Kaepernick anthem kneeling flap. - Noah Zucker

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Aerosmith & N’Sync with Britney Spears (2001)

Kicking off with a mockumentary featurette starring Ben Stiller as Timothy Swackhammer, Halftime Coordinator (“I consider myself a pageant piston, if you will”), Adam Sandler as choreographer DJ “Stanley Steamer,” and Chris Rock either as himself or some approximation thereof, NSYNC began the show with “Bye Bye Bye,” after which Aerosmith delivered their epic Armageddon ballad, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Then it was a shift back to NSYNC for “It’s Gonna Be Me,” with Steven Tyler suddenly belting out the title of the song, at which point Aerosmith kicked into “Jaded,” which continued until right after Justin Timberlake stole the mic to sneer, “And I’m the one who jaded you!” From there it was straight into the grand finale: a performance of “Walk This Way” which featured the two headliners along with guests Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly. If you were a diehard fan of any of the artists, you may well have walked away disappointed, but for casual music fans – and make no mistake, that’s the demographic at which halftime shows are squarely aimed – it was one long musical mashup that was ultimately a whole lot of fun. - W.H.

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Madonna (2012)

You know what we said about Bruce Springsteen knowing how to make an entrance? Three years later Madonna showed how it’s really done: as “Vogue” played she was literally carried across the pitch Cleopatra-like on a throne pulled by a cohort or so of what appeared to be camp Roman Legionnaires. Hey, that’s showbiz, right? Of course the real meat came later, once she’d been joined by fellow dance-filth merchants LMFAO for a “Music”/”Sexy and I Know It” mash-up, before M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj ramped up the sauciness still further. The whole thing was completely outrageous and threatened to provoke a storm of protest before Madge rescued it all with a joyous rendition of “Like a Prayer” with CeeLo Green to round things off. Wonderful from start to finish. - D.U.

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U2 (2002)

The U.S. was not in a good way when the 2002 Super Bowl rolled around mere months after 9/11 had rocked the nation. U2, an Irish band, seemed like a strange fit for the moment, but they ended up doing an amazing job. “We see our music as defiant joy,” Bono said during an interview at some point after the game.He and the band performed “Beautiful Day” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” on a heart-shaped platform erected in the middle of the Louisiana Superdome. At one point in the performance, Bono pulled back the lapel of his jacket to reveal that it was lined with an American flag. The show also included a giant screen where the names of those who died on 9/11 were projected for the whole nation to see. (Tedious copyright laws mean you’ll have to head to YouTube for the full experience, but here’s “Beautiful Day” anyway.) - N.Z.

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Coldplay, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars (2016)

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is arguably the least cohesive collection of halftime performers in recent Super Bowl history. Coldplay kicked things off with the trifecta of “Viva la Vida,” “Paradise,” and “Adventure of a Lifetime,” and while they did a fine job of entertaining the crowd, the subsequent performances by Bruno Mars and Beyonce were so formidable that when Chris Martin suddenly appeared to bob up and down between them to contribute vocals to “Uptown Funk,” viewers were a wee bit shocked, because it was, like, “Oh, right, Coldplay’s still here!” But at the conclusion of that tune, Martin danced his way over to the piano to plink his way through the opening of “Clocks” before the whole lot of them launched into a medley containing bits of “Fix You,” “Up and Up,” “Midnight,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Independent Women Pt. 1,” “Purple Rain,” and U2’s “Beautiful Day,” with the latter two tracks being teased over clips of previous Super Bowl halftime performances. So, no, it doesn’t all hold together very well, but each part manages to be remarkably entertaining in its own way. - W.H.

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Janet Jackson & Justin Timberlake (2004)

Did you remember that 2004’s halftime show was introduced by Jessica Simpson? You didn’t? Well, then did you remember that it started out with a version of OutKast’s “The Way You Move” by the Spirit of Houston and Ocean of Soul marching bands? No...? Okay, but did you remember that Janet Jackson’s nipple popped out during the last moments of her performance of “Rock Your Body” with Justin Timberlake? Ah, there we go. In fact, that’s pretty much all anyone remembers about the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show... unless you’re a Janet Jackson fan, of course, in which case you remember that they kept forcing her off the stage in favor of performances by P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock. That’s not to say that they didn’t provide a solid collection of major chart hits by artists who were all arguably at the top of their games, but... did they really need to be there? Looking back, it seems insane that they hired someone with as many hits as Janet Jackson for the halftime show and then only sporadically gave her a chance to shine. - W.H.

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Paul McCartney (2005)

So, after Nipplegate, to make sure we all forgot what we saw/didn’t see, the NFL, the show’s producers and the show’s sponsor went with a safe choice and picked Paul McCartney for Super Bowl XXXIX. While the 78,000 at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida were slightly above “meh” with the game tied 7-7, McCartney was on fire with what would be for him, a normal concert anywhere on the planet, albeit an abbreviated four-song set: The Beatles “Drive My Car” and “Get Back”; the explosive (literally) “Live and Let Die” and the magnum opus that was “Hey Jude”. The band – McCartney, guitarists Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. – had finished up a European summer tour in 2004, culminating in the historic performance in June at the Glastonbury Festival. But McCartney was not a stranger to the Super Bowl stage. In 2002, he was one of several artists to play the pre-game ceremony, sprinting up to the stage to play his 9/11 tribute “Freedom.” – Amy Hughes

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The Rolling Stones (2006)

Come on! What would life be if there wasn’t controversy about The Rolling Stones performing live? No matter that McCartney had deemed half-time safe again. Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan on February 5 was a powder keg of the old guard versus, well, the old guard. The television executives at ABC and the NFL wanted no screw-ups and apparently sexually explicit lyrics from any of the three songs – “Start Me Up,” “Rough Justice” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” were going to cause a problem with a capital P. Oh, and Mick Jagger might swear. In the end, the compromise of putting the sound on a five-second delay and blipping off Jagger’s mic at key nano-moments so sensitive ears couldn’t detect any naughty words, was the solution. But the stage design of the iconic licking tongue that rolled back to reveal a couple hundred mosh pit revelers? That stayed. - A.H.

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Prince (2007)

Let’s just take a moment to consider Prince’s 2007 halftime show setlist. “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Baby I’m a Star”, “Proud Mary”, “All Along the Watchtower”, the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You”, and finally “Purple Rain”. I mean, seriously? What else do you need to know? There wasn’t too much in the way of gimmicks (give or take a full-on marching band or two), but then who needed them when you had His Purple Majesty in his absolute pomp, careering through 12 minutes of guitar-shredding, funked-up, irresistible magic that, for this critic’s money, hasn’t been topped before or since. - D.U.

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