The Biggest Super Bowl Halftime Shows, Ranked
It's that time of year, when America's favorite unofficial holiday gives the nation license to drink irresponsibly on Sunday night and turn into marketing experts. That's right, it's the Super Bowl and we definitely watched it along with all the ads. Who won again? Baby Nut? Just kidding, Kansas City Chiefs fans!
Fortunately for you, Americans can't enjoy a sport merely for competition's sake: It has to be big, it has to be bold, and it has to bring tons of smoky-hot garlic flavor. Wait, no, that's Guy Fieri, though the Super Bowl has a similar sense of swagger. The event has morphed from its humble beginnings as the 1967 championship game into the brash spectacle of ceremony, celebrity, and product placement it is today. The halftime show is an essential part of this spectacle, and each year's performers -- including Jennifer Lopez and Shakira in 2020! -- must necessarily come from the small pool of the most famous people alive.
It wasn't always this way. After 1992's impossibly awful "Winter Magic" theme (complete with kids "rapping" a Frosty the Snowman song), the NFL stepped up its game. The following year, Michael Jackson changed the halftime show forever, adding his trademark showmanship and a badass moonwalk to make a one-sided game watchable. But with 2020 in the books, which of the 28 most recent halftime shows is the best? And what's the worst? Let's get into it, and this is now updated to reflect J. Lo and Shakira's performance.
28. Phil Collins + Christina Aguilera + Enrique Iglesias + Toni Braxton, Super Bowl XXXIV
The setting: Atlanta, Georgia; January 30, 2000
The game: The St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans, 23-16.
The show: It truly sucks. Walt Disney used its ABC subsidiary synergistically to promote a "Millennium celebration" that's as childish as, well, Disney World, except Edward James Olmos narrates as you ride Space Mountain. Hopefully the resulting radio waves from this broadcast don't find their way to an alien civilization.
27. The Blues Brothers + ZZ Top + James Brown, Super Bowl XXXI
The setting: New Orleans, Louisiana; January 26, 1997
The game: The Green Bay Packers beat the New England Patriots 35-21.
The show: Yep, they thought the Blues Brothers captured the spirit of the times in 1997. Not even James Brown can save this disaster, which is inadvertently funny, not least because Jim Belushi opened the show instead of the Godfather of Soul.
26. Patti LaBelle + Indiana Jones & Marion Ravenwood + Teddy Pendergrass + Tony Bennett, Super Bowl XXIX
The setting: Miami, Florida; January 29, 1995
The game: San Francisco 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26.
The show: Disney used to treat the Super Bowl halftime show as a marketing platform to promote rides. A diva like Patti LaBelle deserves better than a knockoff Indiana Jones, and the impressive choreography does little to make you forget that you're watching a weird advertisement for an Indiana Jones attraction you'll (probably) never see at Disney World.
25. Maroon 5 + Travis Scott + Big Boi, Super Bowl LIII
The setting: Atlanta, Georgia; February 3, 2019
The game: The New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3.
The show: In case you didn't already know this, Adam Levine, judge on the reality competition The Voice, does not have a good voice. Like, it is painfully bad. Add to that the controversy over the NFL's treatment of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which reportedly caused several big-name artists to back out, and the result was a below-average concert that couldn't transcend its political backdrop. Not only did Maroon 5 sound like they should've considered playing with a backing track, but they didn't even perform "Sweet Victory" from SpongeBob SquarePants, as many fans hoped. Not even Big Boi's giant fur coat could save this show.
24. The Black Eyed Peas + Usher + Slash, Super Bowl XLV
The setting: Arlington, Texas; February 6, 2011
The game: The Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25.
The show: Did the sound guy have a stroke right before the Black Eyed Peas descended onto the Tron stage, or do they just have no clue how to perform stadium shows? Perhaps the Peas should've pumped up the volume on the backing track, because those live vocals sound like they're coming from a karaoke bar underwater. The entire show comes off as both high-budget and exceedingly amateurish, and when Slash and Usher show up, they only add confusion to a baffling performance.
23. The Who, Super Bowl XLIV
The setting: Miami, Florida; February 7, 2010
The game: New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17.
The show: Rock bands rarely age well, but The Who, in particular, haven't held up, with half of their original members deceased and Roger Daltrey's vocal cords run through a paper shredder -- and let's not talk about Pete Townshend. "Baba O'Riley" still rules, at least.
22. Coldplay + Beyoncé + Bruno Mars + Mark Ronson, Super Bowl 50
The setting: Santa Clara, California; February 7, 2016
The game: The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers, 24-10.
The show: Chris Martin's voice doesn't quite carry throughout the stadium, let alone resonate on television, and the bizarre halftime show retrospective montage at the end does no one any favors. Like the goofy frontman himself, this halftime show was bland as a gluten-free cracker, and not even Queen Bey could save it.
21. The Rolling Stones, Super Bowl XL
The setting: Detroit, Michigan; February 5, 2006
The game: Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10.
The show: Oof. Points to Mick Jagger for introducing "Satisfaction" by accurately pointing out the Stones could've played it at Super Bowl I. But that's pretty much the only high point.
20. Lady Gaga, Super Bowl LI
The setting: Houston, Texas; February 5, 2017
The game: The New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28.
The show: Lady Gaga was fine. She had all those drones, which teased a visually impressive staging, but came off as disconcerting given the weirdly apolitical stance Gaga took in opening the show with a patriotic song medley. Otherwise, the show was largely unmemorable, the standard big-budget stadium spectacle at which Lady Gaga excels.
19. Justin Timberlake, Super Bowl LII
The setting: Minneapolis, Minnesota; February 4, 2018
The game: The Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots, 41-33
The show: The nipple-exposer himself is (bringing sexy) back! Sorry. The show kicks off with Jimmy Fallon taking a swig from a Pepsi that's probably filled with whiskey, and from there we're off into sterilized stadium-pop heaven. While Timberlake delivered a requisite Prince tribute in the recently departed's home state, his version of "I Would Die 4 U" sounded particularly uninspired, as though he were merely fulfilling an obligation. The one thing that would have made his performance absolutely legendary is if he'd invited Janet Jackson to perform with him, but Roger Goodell would sooner admit that NFL owners blackballed Colin Kaepernick than let that happen. Also, JT ends the show by saying, "Super Bowl selfies!" which, holy shit, these are the end times.
18. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Super Bowl XLII
The setting: Glendale, Arizona; February 3, 2008
The game: New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, 17-14
The show: Petty plays as though it's just a regular old concert, which isn't a terrible thing given some of the atrocities on this list. The Heartbreakers are high-floor, low-ceiling, like a running back who never gets hurt.
17. Madonna + LMFAO + Nicki Minaj + M.I.A. + CeeLo Green, Super Bowl XLVI
The setting: Indianapolis, Indiana; February 5, 2012
The game: The New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, 21-17.
The show: It's a bit culturally slapdash -- are those... Roman soldiers pulling a throne with sphinxes on it? -- but the show's slack-line dude deserves an award for whatever kind of awards slack-line dudes can win. By the time Nikki Minaj injects some life about midway through the show, it feels like it's lasted half an hour, and you probably never thought you'd have to tolerate LMFAO ever again. Halftime show producers should find a way to include CeeLo in every Super Bowl going forward, if only to make him wear insane costumes.
16. Bruno Mars + Red Hot Chili Peppers, Super Bowl XLVIII
The setting: East Rutherford, New Jersey; February 2, 2014
The game: The Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos, 43-8.
The show: Like Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars is an ideal Super Bowl halftime performer: He's used to playing stadium shows, he's exceedingly inoffensive, and all his songs sound like vague covers of older tunes you can't quite place. The late inclusion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers arose from the fear that Bruno Mars wasn't a big enough name in 2014 (pre-"Uptown Funk"!), but they didn't add much beyond their usual energy to an already energetic artist.
15. Stevie Wonder + Gloria Estefan + Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Super Bowl XXXIII
The setting: Miami, Florida; January 31, 1999
The game: The Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19
The show: Remember the swing revival? It was so powerful that it got Big Bad Voodoo Daddy a place on the same stage as Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan at the Super Bowl. What a shame, because Stevie and Gloria prove why they're legends during a show whose theme was "Celebration of Soul, Salsa, and Swing." Two out of three ain't bad.
14. The Temptations + Smokey Robinson + Martha Reeves + Boyz II Men + Queen Latifah, Super Bowl XXXII
The setting: San Diego, California; January 25, 1998
The game: The Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers, 31-24.
The show: This is gonna sound crazy, but sometimes the most compelling performances happen when talented musicians get to do what they do best, instead of, say, promoting a new amusement park ride. Boyz II Men suck some of the air out of the stadium, but the celebration of Motown is largely well conceived and well executed.
13. Jennifer Lopez + Shakira, Super Bowl LIV
The setting: Miami, Florida; February 2, 2020
The game: The Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20
The show: J. Lo brought a stripper pole, Shakira played the drums, and Alex Rodriguez went nuts for it. Lots of dancing and costume changes and children brought on stage to sing. A-Rod loved it!
12. Paul McCartney, Super Bowl XXXIX
The setting: Jacksonville, Florida; February 6, 2005
The game: The New England Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-21.
The show: In the wake of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's "Nipplegate" brouhaha, the NFL decided to get back to good-old-fashioned conservative values. So they tapped a former LSD user and counterculture icon to sing pretty songs at halftime. The Beatle certainly does his job with pinpoint precision: Who doesn't love a good "Hey Jude" sing-along? Most important for the league, however, was that no one saw Sir Paul's nipple.
11. Shania Twain + No Doubt + Sting, Super Bowl XXXVII
The setting: San Diego, California; January 26, 2003
The game: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders, 48-21.
The show: It's easy to forget that Shania Twain was a force as a performer. She doesn't rely on too much flash during her halftime show, but her stage presence jumps off the screen. Then there's No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani, dressed in 2003 clothes and proverbially leaving it all out on the field until Sting enters the picture, because Sting is everywhere at all times and cannot be killed with conventional weapons. Don't sleep on these early 2000s performances!
10. Aerosmith + 'N Sync + Britney Spears + Mary J. Blige + Nelly, Super Bowl XXXV
The setting: Tampa, Florida; January 28, 2001
The game: The Baltimore Ravens beat New York Giants, 34-7.
The show: A sneaky top-10 entry! Chris Rock gets to say, "This is way too white for me!" and even if you're tired of the Sandler/Stiller schtick, the bit holds up decently enough for mass-appeal shlock almost two decades old. The main crime of the halftime show itself is that it's comically dated, apparently taking place before live autotune technology had been perfected. But as far as crossovers go, the mix here works, largely because Aerosmith solely exists for collaborations, tie-ins, soundtracks, and faux nostalgia. Justin and Britney, too!
9. Clint Black + Tanya Tucker + Travis Tritt + The Judds, Super Bowl XVIII
The setting: Atlanta, Georgia; January 30, 1994
The game: The Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills, 30-13.
The show: In the mid-'90s, country music became the massive arena rock commodity it remains to this day, so showcasing the genre at a Super Bowl in Georgia made sense. It's a tight show, even if the names Clint Black and Travis Tritt don't mean as much as they once did, and it receives an emotional kick in the pants when Stevie Wonder, Ashley Judd, and (yikes!) Joe Namath join for the finale. Laugh all you want, but this is infinitely more watchable than septuagenarians trotting out their old hits.
8. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Super Bowl XLIII
The setting: Tampa, Florida; February 1, 2009
The game: The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23.
The show: "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! And what I wanna know is: Is there anybody alive out there?!" So The Boss commanded and queried at the beginning of the E Street Band's electric performance in Tampa, when one of the group's marathon concerts was condensed into 12 minutes of pure energy, complete with the 59-year-old Springsteen pulling off a knee slide into the cameras.
7. Katy Perry + Lenny Kravitz + Missy Elliott, Super Bowl XLIX
The setting: Glendale, Arizona; February 1, 2015
The game: The New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks, 28-24.
The show: Left Shark forever!!! Katy Perry's sense of gaudy, over-the-top staging should inform all halftime acts, but sadly, not everyone possesses the audacity required to ride in on a giant mechanical lion. And while Lenny Kravitz clearly has a friend in the NFL offices who owes him a major favor, Missy Elliott gives a pleasantly game performance.
6. Beyoncé + Destiny's Child, Super Bowl XLVII
The setting: New Orleans, Louisiana; February 3, 2013
The game: The Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31.
The show: Damn, Beyoncé and Destiny's Child sure know how to put on a show... it's like they're professionals or something. With lighting and graphic work that elevate, rather than distract, from the performance, you'll have to decide for yourself if this had anything to do with the infamous power outage in the third quarter. Major props to the rest of Destiny's Child for entering the stage via trapdoor in the same move Michael Jackson rolled out 20 years earlier.
5. Diana Ross, Super Bowl XXX
The setting: Tempe, Arizona; January 28, 1996
The game: The Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17.
The show: Celebrating the game's 30th installment required a diva who could carry the show by herself, and Diana Ross delivered. She works her ass off (you'll get worn out watching her costume changes), though there's far less flash than in subsequent years. Still, when you've got a voice like Ross', you don't need fancy digital graphics. You do, however, need to fly out of the stadium in a fucking helicopter, which isn't just the most badass diva move ever, but also gets Ross around all that pesky traffic. It wasn't that competitive of a game, anyway.
4. U2, Super Bowl XXXVI
The setting: New Orleans, Louisiana; February 3, 2002
The game: The New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams, 20-17.
The show: When a nation needs to heal, it calls Bono. Or maybe Bono calls the nation. Or maybe, in this instance, Bono appeared as an ethereal spirit in the offices of NFL marketing honchos, peering out through purple-tinted glasses as guitars echoed gently off the walls, offering an emotional spectacle worthy of America's big game. The first Super Bowl after 9/11 went heavy on patriotism and symbolism (save for the, uh, Irish band), with the Tom Brady-led Patriots beating the heavily favored Rams. At halftime, U2 delivered the kind of bald sentimentality that both attracts and repels legions of fans and detractors, though it's tough not to appreciate the raw power of the performance when the names of 9/11 victims begin scrolling on a huge tapestry hung from the Superdome ceiling. Bono actually said, "We play 'Where the Streets Have No Name' whenever we need God to walk through the room," which is the most Bono thing he could possibly say -- that's why he's Bono and you're the sucker reading about Bono. Also... he's not exactly wrong? Goddammit, Bono!
3. Michael Jackson, Super Bowl XXVII
The setting: Pasadena, California; January 31, 1993
The game: The Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills, 52-17.
The show: The King of Pop was the only interesting part of this blowout Super Bowl, and as mentioned earlier, helped turn the halftime show into the Holy Grail gig it is today. He made the halftime show America's preeminent platform for reaching the masses, and his natural sense of spectacle was perfect for American football, as exemplified by his insane leap up from a trapdoor in the stage. That long stare, the aviators, the moonwalk -- it's easy to forget now why the king was king, but this video should remind you.
2. Janet Jackson + Justin Timberlake + P. Diddy + Nelly + Jessica Simpson + Kid Rock, Super Bowl XXXVIII
The setting: Houston, Texas; February 1, 2004
The game: The New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, 32-29.
The show: For obvious reasons, this has little to do with the actual musical performance and more to do with the puritanical imprint it left on the national consciousness, along with the immortal euphemism "wardrobe malfunction." Let's start with the periphery: What a lineup! Straight out of 2004, and somehow 1) Nelly has performed at two Super Bowl halftimes, 2) Kid Rock played "Bawitdaba," and 3) Jessica Simpson opened the show by screaming "Choose to party!" after a montage encouraging people to vote. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, is what you'll just have to keep telling yourself.
Then there's Nipple Gate, which saved this show from falling into the tenebrous recesses of pop culture obscurity. Did seeing Janet Jackson's areola do anyone lasting damage? Probably not! But it gave us an iconic moment to remember, and as we've seen, most halftime shows don't come close to accomplishing that.
1. Prince, Super Bowl XLI
The setting: Miami, Florida; February 4, 2007
The game: The Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears, 29-17.
The show: It's not even close. In driving, relentless rain, the best guitarist on the planet pulled off an insane rendition of "Purple Rain," high-heeled dancers fearlessly twirling on the slick stage around him. All of Prince's seemingly infinite talents were on display, including the ability to turn music into a religious experience -- you'd swear he personally asked the skies to open up, just to give him the kind of moment that would live forever. In typical Prince fashion, the show was a sly mix of virtuosity and in-jokes, especially his version of the Foo Fighters' "Best of You," which came on the heels of a dispute between the Foo Fighters and Prince over the former's cover of the latter's music (Prince was notoriously protective of his work). We all know who got the best of whom in the end: Prince played it better than Dave Grohl ever could, melding it with Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" to remind the world that true originality is rare, and you should think twice before fucking with Prince.