Thursday December 17th, 2015

From Bruce to Katy, the best Super Bowl halftime shows of all time:

10) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band | Super Bowl XLIII, 2009

After bidding the planet to “Step back from the guacamole dip” … and “turn your television ALLLLLLL the way up!” the Boss brought it, with a strong, four-song medley including “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Born to Run” and “Glory Days.” True, Springsteen carried a bit too much momentum into his trademark cross-stage knee slide, resulting in an uncomfortable close-up shot of his groin. And the stripe-shirted ref who came on stage at the end of the show, flagging the band for delay of game, was just … odd. By the standards of Springsteen shows, it was good. By Super Bowl halftime show standards, it was very good.

9) Beyoncé | Super Bowl XLVII, 2013

After coming onstage accompanied by … a Vince Lombardi pep talk (!?!) Beyonce brought frenetic, irresistible energy; she was, the New York Times effused, “a human pneumatic drill of intensity”—and that was before she was joined on-stage by former sidekicks Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. That’s right—it was a Destiny’s Child reunion, highlighted by a highly caffeinated rendition of “Single Ladies.” Yes, the show generated—and expended—plenty of power. No, it didn’t cause the 34-minute blackout that followed.

8) Rolling Stones | Super Bowl XL, 2006

Seldom has a 63-year-old summoned so much energy for a 12-minute performance. Strutting, bopping, chicken-dancing his way across the hastily assembled stage—a gigantic tongue—Mick Jagger proved that he and the Rolling Stones were still the masters of stadium rock. Criticism of the show was reserved for the censors, who remained, two years post-Nipplegate, on high alert.

7) Katy Perry | Super Bowl XLIX, 2015

How about that 26-foot long, 16-foot high, golden animatronic lion, rearing up on its hind legs—while Katy Perry gamely hung on—at the end of her anthem, “Roar”? Another highlight: Perry and Lenny Kravitz teaming up for “I Kissed A Girl,” which raised eyebrows in middle America—a good thing. And while the dancing sharks distracted from her otherwise splendid “Teenage Dream,” they did result in some excellent memes.

6) Paul McCartney | Super Bowl XXXIX, 2005

How would the NFL cleanse the nation’s palate a year after “wardrobe malfunction” entered the lexicon? Early money was on the aggressively bland troupe, Up With People. Concluding, apparently, that Americans had already suffered enough, Commissioner Tagliabue signed off instead on 62-year-old Paul McCartney, whose performance was rollicking, high-energy, comfortable, familiar and, most importantly, G-rated. Subsequent halftimes showcased the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who—a span that might fairly be described as AARP With People.

5) Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake | Super Bowl XXXVIII, 2004

(Editor's note: We chose not to embed video of this halftime show given the explicit ending.)

Lest we forget, the show leading up to the nipple—to be precise, Janet Jackson’s right breast was adorned with a star-shaped nipple-shield—was fairly kick-ass. This was an MTV production and it was edgy, interesting and superbly choreographed: sort of post-apocalyptic Cirque du Soleil. Jackson’s performance of “Rhythm Nation” flat-out rocked. Then, Justin Timberlake joined her onstage for his hit single, “Rock Your Body”—at the end of which he yanked off a section of her leather bustier, unleashing a puritanical backlash that resulted in the FCC fining CBS $550,000 (a penalty thrown out on appeal), and Janet Jackson being blacklisted by Viacom, parent company of CBS and MTV. Subsequent halftime shows were safer, more sanitized, less interesting.

4) Tribute to Mardi Gras | Super Bowl IV, 1970

Before Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In the World, there was Tommy Walker, a former child actor, WWII vet and USC Trojans’ kicker, who went on to work for Walt Disney, and pioneered the Super Bowl halftime show. Before pop stars, rock bands and the WTF? years of Up With People, Walker produced three groundbreaking, imaginative, epic shows. His best work was arguably this tribute, featuring 20,000 balloons, 3,000 pigeons, 37 muskets and three cannons (used in an on-field re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans). Yes, there was music: a “Battle of the Horns” between Al Hirt and Doc Severinsen, the Southern University marching band, Lionel Hampton and a jazz funeral procession with members of local second line clubs strutting across the field. While he might shudder to see what it has turned into, Walker’s spirit remains at the heart of halftime.

3) U2 | Super Bowl XXXVI, 2002

Commissioner Tagliabue, we have a problem. Janet Jackson had been scheduled to headline this show, yet another tribute to Mardi Gras, but cancelled. Like many performers in the months after 9/11, she wasn’t touring. Tasked with finding her replacement was John Collins, the NFL’s top marketing executive, who had a “Eureka!” moment at U2 concert at Madison Square Garden. During an encore, the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed six weeks earlier scrolled slowly across the domed roof of the arena. Collins knew whom he wanted for the upcoming halftime. U2 got on board. Stunning in its impact at the Garden, the name-­scrolling was exponentially more powerful as Bono belted out “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The next day Collins got a note from U2’s manager: “I almost feel sorry for whoever’s next.”

2) Michael Jackson | Super Bowl XXVII, 1993

Clobbered by counterprogramming the previous year, the NFL shot the moon, reeling in the King of Pop, who loved the idea that his performance would be seen in 120 nations. “Michael worked harder than anybody [who’s done the halftime show], before or since,” says Jim Steeg, a producer and impresario who helped grow the Super Bowl into the colossus it is today. Steeg remembers seeing Jackson still rehearsing his act at 7 p.m. the night before the game, in a tent outside the Rose Bowl. And it showed. Jackson, rocking a bandolier-draped frock coat on loan, apparently, from Muammar Gaddafi, was sensational. True, it bogged down slightly in the end, with his treacly, on-the-nose “Heal the World.” Still, the final moments of that show were the most-viewed in the history of television at the time.

1) Prince | Super Bowl XLI, 2007

Dearly beloved, Prince’s seven-song set, culminating with an electrifying rendition of  “Purple Rain”—just as it started raining at Dolphin Stadium—set a new standard for roman-numeraled intermissions. Covering songs by Bob Dylan, the Foo Fighters and CCR, he exhibited amazing range, showmanship, vocals and virtuoso guitar work. It wouldn’t have been Prince without a bit of shock value: a silhouetted shot of the neck of his guitar generated complaints from some conservative quarters—it struck some as phallic. For the most part, the show drew justifiable raves.

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