- Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The Super Bowl is the most-watched television event in the US, which means whoever performs during the halftime show is playing the biggest stage in the country.
Which makes the stakes of that short burst of entertainment relatively colossal.
The modern Super Bowl halftime show as we know it started in 1991 with New Kids on the Block (previous shows featured a theme with marching bands and various performance groups), and it’s stayed relatively consistent since: A pop star (or stars) takes over the field with props, backup dancers, probably pyrotechnics, and possibly even a live band, and goes through a rundown of their hits in a handful of minutes.
But the quality and tone of the shows have been all over the map, from the save-the-world vibe of early years with NKOTB and Michael Jackson, to Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate and Katy Perry’s campy Left Shark.
Not all of them proved to be timeless. We revisited all the halftime shows since 1991 and ranked the best:
5. Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (1999)
Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy? Eclectic, sure, but that was the point. They’ve all had long, consistent careers because they’re consummate professionals, which is what defines this show. Wonder and Estefan give some of the best live singing the game has seen. And you could do worse for backup than Voodoo Daddy and jitterbug and salsa dancers sprinkled throughout the field. This is one joyous party.
4. Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers (2014)
Bruno Mars started out by impressively whaling on the drums, then broke into his hit “Locked Out of Heaven,” and the rest was history. Mars threw the crowd a curveball when he rocked out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a collaboration featuring their song “Give It Away.” Even non-fans had to love it. The combination of his Temptations-inspired attire and polarizing voice created a performance for the books.
3. Michael Jackson (1993)
As he did with his music videos, Michael Jackson brought cinematic showmanship to his Super Bowl halftime show, and just the right amount of corniness, including MJ decoys popping out of Jumbotrons. He also knew how to hold a pose for just long enough (which is a pretty long time, turns out). Michael Jackson was one of our greatest entertainers, and he delivered.
Now please enjoy this GIF of “Michael Jackson” “popping out” of a Jumbotron:
2. Beyoncé (2013… and 2016)
Whatever you make of her image and music, we can all agree Beyoncé knows how to make the most of a moment. After her elaborate and meticulously executed 2013 halftime performance (complete with Destiny’s Child mini-reunion), she came back last year and proved that a Beyoncé/Coldplay/Bruno Mars collaboration is something we all actually needed. Yes, Coldplay was technically the headliner, but Beyoncé stole the biggest TV event of the year with the just-dropped “Formation,” the performance of which generated massive pushback from people who believed her statement was anti-police.
1. Prince (2007)
Only Prince would launch his Super Bowl show with an extremely phallic male-symbol stage jutting down the field, a powder-blue suit on his body, and a bandana on his head. Prince brought rock-star energy to the game the likes of which it had never seen and hasn’t seen since – with nods to Jimi Hendrix and Foo Fighters, actual rain, and guitar licks that earn their spine chills along the way – before the “Purple Rain” coda brought everyone to an emotional climax. He may have waited over a decade, but The Purple One finally bested MJ himself.