From Strange to Iconic: The Most Memorable Super Bowl Halftime Shows

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It goes without saying that the Super Bowl is the biggest game of the year for football fans. It’s also one of the biggest betting days of the year in the United States, and it’s the last opportunity of the season for people to cheer on their favorite NFL teams. But even for those of us who don’t know the difference between a first down and a touchdown, this football championship is still one of the year’s must-see entertainment events. And that’s all thanks to the buzzworthy halftime show performances that often feature some of the biggest music artists — and sometimes the biggest spectacles — Sunday TV ever gets a chance to see.

Super Bowl halftime performances have come a long way since the first show in 1967, which involved the University of Arizona Symphonic Marching Band performing tunes like "The Liberty Bell March." Now, the shows have become full-blown concerts by some of the most elite stars in the music industry, and it’s a major accomplishment when artists are selected to perform. There have been many iconic halftime performances throughout Super Bowl history, along with some equally strange ones. Either way, they’re memorable performances people talk about still to this day — and we’re checking out some of the best.

An Era of Strange Performances Leads to Greatness

The Super Bowl halftime shows of the 1970s and 1980s were nothing like today’s performances. From 1969 to 1989, the shows had low budgets that didn’t allow for elaborate events featuring multiple pop stars. Instead, the Super Bowls of this era featured some all-out bizarre performances — especially when we look at them in the context of today’s halftime shows — including the 1977 performance of Disney’s "It’s a Small World," the 1990 combo salute to both the city of New Orleans and the Peanuts comic strip, and 1976’s oddly named "200 Years and Just a Baby" tribute to the U.S. bicentennial.

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However, the most obscure performance might just have happened at 1989’s Super Bowl between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers. The performance’s featured act? An Elvis Presley impersonator named — what else? — Elvis Presto. The NFL commissioned a magician to dress up as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and he performed "the world’s largest card trick" presented in 3D. Unfortunately, the effects only worked if home audiences had 3D glasses with which to view the spectacle. As a result, the halftime show was a sea of retro-kitsch colors and music that seemed more like a cartoon performance than a live show.

But, spending decades working out the kinks with these confusing performances as practice allowed halftime show producers to really refine their offerings, particularly in the new millennium. The result? Some total showstoppers — along with some not-so-wonderful jaw-droppers.

The Black Eyed Peas Have the Worst Performance...of All Time?

According to Rolling Stone, the Black Eyed Peas’ 2011 halftime show was the worst performance in Super Bowl history. It should have been an entertaining show for the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, but things quickly devolved into some perplexing displays. The show started out featuring performances of some of the group’s famous songs, including "I Gotta Feeling," "Boom Boom Pow," "Let’s Get It Started" and "Where Is the Love?" The group even performed their own version of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ 1987 hit song, "(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life."

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That all sounds well and good, right? It appeared to be until the performance became, to put it bluntly, disappointing and strange. No one wanted to watch a unicorn cough up blood...or watch Fergie sing "Sweet Child o’ Mine" with Guns ‘N Roses’ lead guitarist Slash.

It wasn’t a memorable halftime show, at least not in a good way. In 2019, USA Today reporter Maeve McDermott reflected back on the event, noting, "The Black Eyed Peas revealed themselves to be a woefully inadequate live act for the halftime show." That’s not the kind of review entertainers want to receive.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake Show a Little Too Much

One of the most memorable Super Bowl halftime performances of all time will likely remain the 2004 collaboration between Janet Jackson and *NSYNC singer Justin Timberlake. The show also featured Jessica Simpson, P Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock — performances that were pretty much lost to the sands of time thanks to the mishap between Jackson and Timberlake.

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At the end of the duo’s performance of "Rock Your Body," Timberlake accidentally exposed Jackson’s partially covered right breast. The incident gave birth to a new term: "wardrobe malfunction." Fines and lawsuits followed, and the performance became known as "Nipplegate." The malfunction practically terminated Jackson’s career, and it almost ended Timberlake’s fledgling solo breakaway before it got started. People will always remember the 2004 Super Bowl game for the halftime show, not the matchup between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers. Who even won?

U2 Pays Heartfelt Tribute to the U.S. in the Wake of Tragedy

The 2002 Super Bowl game between the New England Patriots and the then-St. Louis Rams was especially significant due to its arrival just months after September 11, 2001. Headliner U2 took the opportunity to pay tribute to the victims of the attacks and to highlight the resilience of the United States in a performance that Rolling Stone called "a feat" and "emotionally direct."

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The band started the halftime show with a performance of "Beautiful Day," followed by a mournful rendition of "MLK" against the backdrop of a screen with the names of the victims scrolling behind. The performance built up to "Where the Streets Have No Name," after which Bono tore open his jacket to reveal an American flag sewn inside. The show was a moving tribute that even the NFL itself has acknowledged may be "the greatest Super Bowl halftime show of all time," at least to date.

Prince Leads With “Purple Rain” in the Rain

Would you really expect Prince to deliver anything but a memorable halftime performance? During the 2007 Super Bowl game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears, Prince exceeded everyone’s expectations with show-stopping performances of Foo Fighters’ "Best of You," Queen’s "We Will Rock You," Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Proud Mary," Bob Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower" and his own famous songs "Let’s Go Crazy," "Baby I’m a Star" and the ever-iconic "Purple Rain."

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Even the rain at Dolphin Stadium couldn’t stop Prince, supported by a large marching band. He sang "Purple Rain" during a literal rainstorm, leaving everyone speechless at what they were witnessing. It seemed even Mother Nature herself couldn’t resist participating in such an enthralling and unforgettable performance — one that news outlets often cite as the best halftime show ever. When even the AARP ranks Prince above U2, there’s really no arguing it.

What Can We Look Forward to This Year?

The 2021 Super Bowl, scheduled for February 7 at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, will highlight the ever-funky and always impeccable The Weeknd during halftime. The artist is known for blending a wide range of musical styles to create his own unique fusion of contemporary R&B, falsetto singing and jazzy bops you can’t resist dancing to.

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Fans can expect an R&B halftime show, most likely incorporating bright lights and some fast-paced entertainment spectacle. "We all grow up watching the world’s biggest acts playing the Super Bowl and one can only dream of being in that position," the artist said. "I’m humbled, honored and ecstatic to be the center of that infamous stage this year."

The 2021 halftime show will be an especially welcome reprieve following the tumult of 2020. Fans can watch The Weeknd from home shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern.

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