FOR MANY, the Super Bowl is the culmination of sporting excellence and the hotly anticipated conclusion to a close-fought NFL season. For others, it’s merely a chance to see a big-name artist give the performance of a lifetime in front of a colossal audience. The Super Bowl has transcended its status as ‘just a football game’ to become a cultural phenomenon, with various highlights outside of the game itself drawing in millions of viewers worldwide.
This year, R&B icon Usher is taking the reins as halftime headliner. Details on what to expect are scant at the moment. Although, the singer has hinted that his show will honour African-American artists of the past.
No matter what Usher pulls out, he’ll have a hard time upstaging some of the more iconic halftime shows. Over the years, a number of performances have made an impact that extends far beyond the moment itself, offering a soundtrack to the audience’s bathroom breaks, some of them are still influencing pop culture today. Let’s delve into some of the best Super Bowl halftime shows of all time.
What are the best Super Bowl halftime shows of all time?
10. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (Super Bowl 38, 2004)
Without question, this is the most famous halftime show of all time, but for all the wrong reasons. Don’t get us wrong, the vocal aspects of JJ and JT’s halftime show at Super Bowl 38 were fine, but they’re not what made this performance famous—infamous may be more appropriate here. An unfortunate wardrobe malfunction turned a middling halftime show into one of the most memorable cultural moments of the 2000s. Such were the aftershocks of the incident, that the NFL made certain there was no chance of a repeat over the next few years, with half time shows almost invariably featuring old men. No, we’re not kidding. In the years following what has come to be known as nipplegate, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who were the halftime performers. It’s safe to say that the NFL made a concerted effort to stay family friendly.
9. The Rolling Stones (Super Bowl 40, 2006)
The Rolling Stones‘ electrifying halftime performance during Super Bowl 40 came at the height of the show’s rock ‘n’ roll era and stands out as its best moment. The legendary band tore through a setlist of pure hits, with ‘Start Me Up,’ ‘Rough Justice,’ and ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ As you’d expect, Mick Jagger was a highlight, utilising his trademark swagger to hype up the crowd. The Stones’ halftime show was a perfect blend of new and old, reminding viewers the band is one of the greatest of all time—and that they hadn’t lost their touch.
8. Madonna (Super Bowl 46, 2012)
Madonna’s halftime performance during Super Bowl 46 was grandiose to say the least. The show showcased the queen of pop’s enduring influence on music and fashion with a series of memorable moments. From her dramatic entrance atop a golden throne to her high-energy choreography carried out to hits like ‘Vogue’, Madonna lived up to the hype. The show also had plenty of star power in reserve, with LMFAO (the most quintessentially 2012 music group imaginable), Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., and CeeLo Green all making guest appearances.
7. Lady Gaga (Super Bowl 51, 2017)
Lady Gaga’s halftime show during Super Bowl 51 was approached with some apprehension as fears the singer would get ‘too gaga’ were impossible to ignore. Gaga kept it mild by her standards, although she did begin by descending onto the stage from the roof of Houston’s NRG Stadium. A crowd-pleasing medley of hits including ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Born This Way’ followed. But the show’s highlight came during a high-flying rendition of ‘Bad Romance’, as Gaga soared above the crowd suspended only by wires.
6. U2 (Super Bowl 36, 2002)
By modern standards, U2’s halftime show was relatively tame, but for a post-9/11 world, it was perfect. In the emotionally charged aftermath of the September 11 attacks, U2 delivered a stirring halftime performance. Against a backdrop that scrolled through names of the victims, the band performed ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ in a message of hope and unity. U2’s performance was touching, and also profoundly anti-war, a rarity in the States at the time, and an accomplishment unto itself by American standards.
5. Bruno Mars (Super Bowl 48, 2014)
Bruno Mars’ halftime performance was pure entertainment. Mars delivered a high-octane, genre-blending performance filled with funk, soul, R&B and pop in a tribute to classic Motown hits. Compared to the performers of years prior, Mars had nowhere near as much star power, but he stuck the landing with a performance that combined new and old-school. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers were also there that year, and they were fine, but, surprisingly, it was Mars who stole the show.
4. Shakira and Jennifer Lopez (Super Bowl 54, 2020)
Latin music and culture reigned supreme in 2020, with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez supplying a pulsating halftime show during Super Bowl 54. This was at the height of the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick controversy, and the league had trouble booking a big-name entertainer for the halftime show. The fact it secured both Shakira and J Lo was unbelievable, but also incredibly controversial: why did these two incredibly famous women need to share a stage? Weren’t they capable of their own solo shows? Either way, they rocked it, and their performance will go down in history as one of the best.
3. Beyoncé (Super Bowl 47, 2013)
As if it wasn’t already clear to a mass audience, Beyoncé’s halftime show really cemented her status as one of the most talented artists of the 21st century. ‘Crazy in Love’ and ‘Independent Women’ were a smash, but reuniting with Destiny’s Child on stage to perform ‘Single Ladies’ took the cake. Beyoncé was the first woman of colour to perform the half time show since Janet Jackson (a nine-year gap), so not only was the performance wildly entertaining, it set a precedent to be followed by future halftime shows.
2. Michael Jackson (Super Bowl 27, 1993)
If Michael Jackson’s performance at Super Bowl 27 was only remembered for revolutionising the very idea of what a halftime show could be, it would still rank high on this list. But in addition to being the halftime show that proved halftime shows could be more than a bland marching band demonstration, MJ capped off his late-career resurgence with one of his best ever musical performances. Amidst a sea of flashing lights and pyrotechnics, Jackson belted out ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Black or White’, and ‘We Are the World’. The show’s climactic finale saw Jackson silhouetted against a backdrop of over the top fireworks, solidifying his claim to being the greatest entertainer of all time and creating the blueprint that every halftime show has since followed.
1. Prince (Super Bowl 41, 2007)
Prince sang ‘Purple Rain’ in the rain for crying out loud! Of course it’s number one on this list. The weather in Miami did not follow the script during Super Bowl 41, but a thunderstorm wasn’t going to stop the best halftime show of all time. Performing in a relentless downpour, Prince’s setlist included covers of Foo Fighters, Queen and Bob Dylan songs, as well as his own most famous number. Prince’s magnetic stage presence turned what could’ve been a disaster of a show into one of the most memorable performances in Super Bowl history—who even won the game that year? The only question Prince’s performance left was whether it could ever be topped. So, will it? Doubtful, in our esteemed opinion.