The Super Bowl is such an inflated spectacle that more often than not it seems the actual event — a football game — can become an afterthought.
There are the myriad prop bets on everything from the duration of the national anthem to who the MVP will thank first; the pricey commercials (that apparently warrant their very own highlight pack the following day); the food millions consume at their viewing parties; and, of course, the halftime show.
The musical acts are often negated by the sheer size of pro football stadiums — not exactly an ideal venue to appreciate live music — and the subsequent reality that, because of the logistics of putting on an elaborate live act, the music often takes a backseat to glorified dance routines, strobe lights, and unabashed lip-synching.
Sometimes that’s OK — entertainment is entertainment — and other times it naturally leads to a bloated show that’s difficult watch. But sometimes an artist’s talent is so impressive they find a way to thrive anyways — we want to see Michael Jackson play his greatest hits and dance his ass off in front of the world, even if all the audience at home can hear are the screaming fans watching in person.
But before we get to the best, here are some of the worst Super Bowl halftime shows.
The Who (2010)
This hurts. This really hurts. The Who are one of my favourite bands — I got my hands on the album Tommy when I was a wee lad and it opened up a whole new world of musical expression to me — and absolute icons of rock and roll performance (See: Woodstock).
Watch this performance on mute, and you’d think it was delivering everything you’d want from a halftime show featuring a renowned band at the tail-end of their careers. Roger and Pete brought energy to their performance. But, alas, when more than a 100 million tuned in the volume was likely cranked. And what we heard was a band that just … didn’t sound good. My theory: frontman Roger Daltry had trouble hearing himself through the monitors — the biggest recurring issue playing in open-air stadiums.
The result was a band that sounded out of sync, harmonies that were out of tune, and an act that ultimately did a disservice to one of the all-time greats.
The Blues Brothers (1997)
You may have surmised by now that I love the Blues Brothers. The Saturday Night Live performance by cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the subsequent film classic, and smash-hit album and live show that followed. All classics that embodied an era.
But this was no Blues Brothers. The revived act, as seen in the unfortunate sequel Blues Brothers 2000 starred younger Belushi, Jim, in place of his brother who had died 15 years earlier. Oh, and John Goodman joined the band, for some reason.
You know it’s bad when even ZZ Top can’t right the ship. I’m OK with a 45 -ear-old Akroyd awkwardly trying to move and act like his younger self. And I understand that Jimbo was simply paying tribute to his older brother, introducing the act to a new generation of prospective fans. But all it did was remind us of how much more dynamic and, well, better the original Blues Brothers were. And I don’t think that was the goal.
Christina Aguilera, Enrique Inglesias, Phil Collins and Toni Braxton (2000)
It takes a special kind of mess to turn a solid formula for an all-ages live show — vibrant, colourful production filled with orchestras, larger-than-life puppets, the vocal stylings of Christina Aguilera, Phil Collins and Toni Braxton — into something boring enough to put viewers to sleep.
The Black Eyed Peas and Slash (2011)
The sharp visuals (neon green dancers!) and vanilla, universal catchiness of some Black Eyed Peas tunes should have been enough to make this work. But when you bring Slash, one of the planet’s coolest humans, up from under the stage to play the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” riff only to have it butchered by Fergie … that’s how you wind up on the wrong side of this list.
Now onto the top five.
5. Tony Bennett, Patti Labelle, Miami Sound Machine (1995)
I didn’t expect to like this. Tony Bennett? Fine crooner, but maybe not the most mesmerizing halftime act. And Bennett singing The Lion King’s “Circle of Life”? Again, on paper, not a great idea.
Yet, this was a surprisingly fun show that also featured Patti Labelle, the Miami Sound Machine, and an Indiana Jones live-action scene and a set that looked like Steve Martin’s “King Tut” skit on SNL. Hey, at least they went for it.
4. Diana Ross (1996)
Let’s just get this out of the way first: At the close of this performance, a helicopter flies into Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium, and when it lands, Ross — still belting it out — sits on the side, legs dangling over the edge and holding onto a pair of straps for dear life, and is airlifted out while still belting it out. And that’s how the show ends.
An incredible Super Bowl moment that reminds us why we’re oh so thankful that YouTube exists.
The 10 or so minutes that preceded that moment were solid, mainly because of Ross’s showmanship and the quality of her song catalogue, but also because she exhibited more aerial manoeuvres, like standing in mid-air on a faux-rocket floating platform. Good stuff.
3. Beyonce (2013)
No explanation required. Beyonce is awesome, and so was this performance. Few can command a stage like she does — and wasn’t it nice of her to bring her old friends back to enjoy the ride?
Upon watching that again, yeah, it should probably be higher.
2. Aerosmith, N’SYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Nelly (2001)
This seems to be the most popular format: Open with a huge pop act of the time (in this case, N’SYNC, whose performance of “Bye Bye Bye” was thankfully cut short after around one minute), and then bring out the icons and surprise guests, each showing off their own songs and skills, before getting together for a collaboration at the end.
But really, this act ranks so high because I can only think of one or two bands better equipped to perform at a show as massive as the Super Bowl than Aerosmith. This is not up for debate. Steven Tyler was brought to Earth for moments like this. Bonus points for potentially introducing “Walk This Way” to a third generation of fans.
1. Prince (2007)
I think (hope) that this is a universal selection. The dude did a killer rendition of “Purple Rain” in the pouring rain (!!!), showed off his under-appreciated guitar chops, and made history in the process. Shortly after Prince passed away in 2016, I wrote about this performance:
Met with a torrential downpour ahead of halftime — a dangerous proposition that would have many musicians, particularly guitarists, postponing or cancelling outright — Prince was asked by a halftime show producer if he wanted to continue with the show. Prince’s response? “Can you make it rain harder?”
The stormy atmosphere certainly contributed to the vibe of the show, which included everything from Prince classics like “Purple Rain” to covers of “All Along the Watch Tower,” “Proud Mary” and more. So what separates Prince from the 49 other halftime shows we’ve seen? The combination of showmanship and musicianship that he’ll be remembered for. The production value was, as is always the case at the Super Bowl, massive and over-the-top, but when you strip it down we were really just watching Prince on stage with his guitar and a pair of backup dancers.