In the past 24 years, the Super Bowl halftime show has morphed from marching bands and mascots to an all-out electrified spectacle

By Nate Jones
February 02, 2014 10:30 AM
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

On Wednesday, the Internet was fooled by a hilarious fake single from 2014 Super Bowl halftime performers Red Hot Chili Peppers called "Abracadabralifornia". The Chili Peppers’s real performance alongside Bruno Mars can’t possibly be that bad – in fact, given the halftime show’s recent track record of success, it will probably be pretty good!

Still doubtful? Look at our list of the 12 most memorable Super Bowl halftime shows ever (and then see how many of them happened within the last 10 years).

In its early, more innocent days, the Super Bowl was content to have college marching bands and Up With People entertain the local crowd at halftime. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that the NFL realized the potential windfall that turning the halftime show into a capital-E Event could bring. New Kids on the Block kicked the trend off in 1990, but progress moved slowly – the boy band still had to share the stage with an “It’s a Small World” routine straight out of the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The King of Pop’s performance in 1993 pushed the Super Bowl halftime show into the full-on spectacle we know and love today. That said, the performance looks a little creaky now: The whole thing takes place in daylight and MJ shamelessly lip-syncs, plus the routine’s emphasis on children is slightly disconcerting considering the later allegations against Jackson. But the landmark nature of the performance, plus MJ’s raw star power, grants it a spot on this list.

Three years after Jackson entered his performance via catapult, his Wiz costar exited her own Super Bowl show by climbing onto a helicopter and lifting off right there like she was the president of the United States. Before that, the 51-year-old former Supreme led a nimble nostalgia trip through the Motown era, complete with multiple costume changes and a version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that ended with Ross rising up until she was at the peak of a sparkly gold mountain.

This performance’s inclusion on this list is solely on the merit of James Brown and should not in any way be considered an endorsement of the Blues Brothers as a performing entity, nor of the film Blues Brothers 2000.

If Spears hadn’t gone and danced with a snake at the VMAs a few months later, this star-studded collaboration would have been the go-to example of our culture’s pre-9/11 silliness. There was no compelling artistic reason to force a group of aging rockers to partner with the biggest boy band of the moment, much less bring in a pop princess, an R&B legend and a St. Louis rapper to sing brief snippets of “Walk This Way” – but the NFL had the money to do it, so they did it. Like putting pineapple on a pizza then dipping it in ranch dressing, the result was incomprehensibly enjoyable.

Only a few months after September 11, in a Super Bowl starring the then-underdog Patriots, U2’s Super Bowl halftime show took on an appropriately mournful, yet cathartic air. Gone was the neon and confetti of the year prior; in its place was a minimalist stage and a scrolling list of all the victims of the attacks. In any other time and place, Bono raising up his jacket to reveal its American flag lining would have been horrendously cheesy, but in that moment, it felt right.

After Nipplegate, the NFL went for a string of classic rock Boomers who were sure to keep their areolae safely hidden under guitar straps and jackets. First up was Sir Paul, who delivered the same solidly professional show he’d been putting on for 40 years, with bonus points for throwing some non-obvious Beatles songs (“Drive My Car,” “Get Back”) into the mix.

The logic was sound: Once you’ve done the Beatles, why not get the Stones too? For a band that, as the pre-show montage aptly demonstrated, had been around longer than the Super Bowl itself, the Stones played a limber set. Mick Jagger showed off moves that would make Jim Harbaugh cry.

The diminutive, sexually-ambiguous Minnesotan might have seemed an odd fit with the NFL’s macho image, but he delivered one of the all-time classic halftime shows. Performing in the middle of a Miami monsoon, Prince did it all: every major hit, a few covers, a marching band and – finally – a silhouetted guitar solo during “Purple Rain” that reminded us that, oh yeah, he can shred too. If you’re worried about Bruno Mars on Sunday, this should calm the nerves.

The moment Bruce slammed his crotch into an unfortunate NBC cameraman may have done more than anything to kick off our current GIF-aissance, and it serves as a fitting summary of the Boss’s halftime show: Silly, unselfconscious and delivered with the widest of grins. “Dad-rock” may be a pejorative, but Bruce that night was everything you want in a paterfamilias.

More than other veteran halftime performers, Madonna spent a fair amount of her set plugging her new material – which resulted in an M.I.A. micro-controversy that’s best forgotten. (LMFAO’s brief appearance actually was forgotten.) But the Material Girl finished strong, with a choir-and-Cee-Lo-assisted version of “Like a Prayer” that was positively religious.

Did she actually cause the power outage that hit the Superdome in the third quarter? Probably not. But you would be forgiven for thinking so after a halftime show that brought the raw power of infinity Beyoncés to the stage. Just a few weeks into 2013, Bey proved that it truly would be The Year of Beyoncé.

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