The evolution of the Super Bowl halftime show

(updated February 6, 2021).

For a non-sports fan like me, the most exciting part of watching the Super Bowl is always the halftime show. When thinking about my favorite halftime shows throughout the years, I started to wonder when and how they became such a fundamental part of American culture. This led me down a rabbit hole of watching every Super Bowl halftime show available on the internet. I believe I have now earned at least a PHD in halftimes. Here is what I have learned.

The very first Super Bowl took place on January 15th, 1967, with a halftime show featuring the Three Stooges with The University Of Arizona and Grambling State marching band. I thought this was such an odd departure from today’s mega star line-ups, but quickly found out that up until the 1990’s the Super Bowl halftime shows primarily consisted only of marching bands, drill teams and jazzy tribute groups like “Up With People”. They were not all all the over the top extravaganzas we consider normal today.

Carol Channing performs at the 1972 halftime

In 1972 Ella Fitzgerald and Carol Channing became the first celebrity singers to ever appear in the halftime show. I have yet to find any video footage of these performances, but i’d like to imagine that Channing sang a fabulous verson of “Hello, Football!”. Next came Andy Williams singing about maralade, molasses and honey in 1972, and it was all downhill from there. In 1973 the big act was Miss Texas playing a fiddle with the University of Texas Longhorn band. Another boring decade of themed halftime shows featuring college marching bands followed.

In 1987, the halftime celebrated the 100th anniversary of Hollywood. George Burns introduced the show, while hitting on a Disneyland cast member dressed as Snow White. This was followed by Mickey Rooney dancing around in a band leader uniform and some fabulous DANCING GAY COWBOYS SINGING FOOTLOOSE! In 1988 Chubby Checker and the Rockettes performed, but did not top the dancing gay cowboys. The most surprising act in this decade was an Elvis impersonator in 1989, performing a tribute to 1950’s Rock N’ Roll. I guess they totally gave up on booking celebrities that year.

The 1980’s in halftime shows were very disappointing overall, especially considering all of the great hair bands, punk and pop music that was happening at the time. Where was the Queen, Journey, Bowie, Quiet Riot with Cyndi Lauper halftime of my fantasies!? Having been born in 1984 I had just kind of assumed that had all happened at some point, but I was SO WRONG.

In 1990,the halftime was (an almost unbearable to watch), salute to The Peanuts cartoon and New Orleans. It was clear that after this travesty someone on the production team decided it was time to step it up. In 1991 the show featured its first pop act ever, New Kids on the Block. This halftime show opened with all of the contents of Disney’s It’s A Small World ride being puked onto the field. About ten minutes in, NKOTB busted out of a cardboard castle to sing Step By Step. The halftime show would never be the same.

New Kids 1990

In 1992 Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill ice skated on a giant snowflake, the USA Olympic hockey team held up sparklers for what seemed like a really, really long time, and Gloria Estefan rose onto the field on the Statue of Liberty’s head.

1993’s show with Michael Jackson marks the year the halftime started to become iconic. This opened with a bunch of MJ doubles popping up on all sides of the stadium before MJ himself pops out of center stage. He then stands frozen and in total silence while the crowd loses its shit for two straight minutes. Watching this is a master classs on stage presence and how to make an entrance. This performance was a game changer in Super Bowl ratings, and at the time was the most watched television event in history. Lady Gaga’s halftime show would go on to take that title in 2017.

Though the NFL does not pay anyone to perform on the show, Michael Jackson was an exception. In exchange for his performance, they agreed to make a large donation to his Heal The World Foundation, as well as give the foundation free commercial time. His performance reinvented the halftime show and helped create the over the top, pyrotechnics extravaganza that we know today. After this it was game on for every performer who followed to try and top it.

1993

With this massive increase in viewers came a deliberate effort by the NFL to snag the biggest acts possible for the halftime. Boys II Men, Gloria Estefan, The Blues Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle and Tony Bennett were just a few of the performers to headline in the 1990’s. Diana Ross created another iconic moment this decade, when in 1996 she had a helicopter land on the field to fly her out for her grand exit. Only a true diva can pull that off.

1996

The 2000’s brought us halftime shows with NSYNC, Aerosmith, Christina Aguilera, No Doubt, Sting, Britney Spears, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen & Shania Twain to name a few.

The two most memorable performances in this decade were the post 9/11, U2 show, as well as 2004’s now infamous performance featuring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (which we now refer to as “nipplegate.”) Nipplegate marked the first time that the NFL had ever had any sort of scandal associated with its previously squeeky clean halftime show. The FCC received over 540,000 complaints, which led to CBS being fined $550,000.00 for the “unplanned” wardrobe malfunction. All for less than 3 seconds of showing a woman’s nipple on TV, when no one would bat an eye over a man doing the same. The most significant impact of this was that the NFL didn’t hire another female halftime performer for seven years after the incident.

“nipplegate” 2004

In the 2010’s we started to see the production design of Super Bowl halftime shows get even more innovative and flashy. Despite this, there were only a handful of unforgettable performances this decade. Beyonce took things to a whole new level in her 2013 show, with stage effects that raised the bar for all future performers. Her costume paid tribute to Michael Jackson’s iconic halftime performance 20 years prior. Lady Gaga took halftime technology to a new heights in 2017 by using 300 Intel shooting star drones and creating the effect of dropping in from the roof. Next to Michael Jackson, this was the best entrance in Super Bowl history. Madonna also made an impressive entrance being dragged in by 100 man slaves, as did Katy Perry in 2015 on her massive golden lion puppet.

Madonna (2012), Katy Perry (2015) and Lady Gaga (2017)

Post Lady Gaga, the 2010’s halftime shows started to go downhill again with forgettable, medicore performances by Justin Timberlake and Maroon 5.

The first halftime of the 2020’s featured Shakira and JLO. I loved this one, especially for the message it sent about immigration. Apparently America hasn’t become much less squeamish about women’s bodies since 2004’s nipplegate, because this performance drew over 1,300 complaints to the FCC from people who thought the performance was overly sexual.

Despite its slow start, the Super Bowl halftime show has evolved into an iconic cultural moment, embedded into Americana. Reflecting on these performances gives us some insight as to where we were as a country each year. Both the halftime show and America have gone through many changes. Some years are better than others, but they will always be around and come back strong.

Click here for a detailed list of every Super Bowl halftime performance ever.

Renée is a writer, artist, fashion & costume designer & fashion history expert. Shop: leapdayrenee.com. Social: @reneenicolegray

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