For the NFL’s most important game, the halftime extravaganza is a show within a show. Even if the game itself is a snoozer, the halftime entertainment usually gives everyone something to talk about the next day. While it may seem like an institution as old as the big game itself, it was not until the 1990s that broadcasters realized it was an opportunity to pack some extra fun into the night. Many of the performances stand out for their excellence. Some others do not. Here are the 4 most memorable Big Game halftime shows.
2004—Janet Jackson & Justin Timberlake
“Memorable” does not always mean “best”. It can also mean “controversial”. That certainly was the case in 2004 when Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake teamed up for the 2004 Big Game show. This was the performance that introduced the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” to the American vocabulary. After some suggestive dance moves, part of Jackson’s costume was pulled off and “Nipplegate” began. Was it an accident or intentional? We may never know. We do know the half second of exposure led to a legal battle over censorship, thousands in fines, a five-second broadcasting delay for all future halftime shows, and the creation of YouTube.
Jackson and Timberlake were a difficult act to follow. The NFL wanted no surprises at 2005’s Big Game, but it still wanted a big show to draw in non-football fans. It found a safe choice in Paul McCartney. Sir Paul did not disappoint, opening with the Beatles song “Drive My Car”. He then treated viewers to a fireworks-laden performance of “Live and Let Die”. McCartney finished with the iconic “Hey Jude” and got the entire stadium—not to mention the crowd at home—to sing along.
1991—New Kids on the Block
In 1991, broadcasters decided to have a big-name act as the halftime entertainment. In an effort to appeal to a wide variety of viewers including tweens, New Kids on the Block was hired to perform with characters from sponsor Disney. It sounded like a winning formula, but things went bad quickly. Most people did not see the performance at halftime. The Gulf War had just started, and ABC News preempted the halftime broadcast with an update on Operation Desert Storm. Viewers at home did not see the performance until after the game. When the television audience finally saw the show, instead of a medley of New Kids’ hits, it was treated to a salute to global peace and togetherness. Which felt odd, considering the aforementioned Gulf War. At least everyone got to see a mind-blowing version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Whitney Houston.
After some fumbles, broadcasters finally got the formula for a good Big Game halftime show: popular musicians and special guests performing for about 15 minutes in a huge, over-the-top spectacle, usually involving explosions. The first show of the new era was Michael Jackson, and some fans think it was last great TV performance of his career. He opened with drama, standing still for about 90 seconds before launching into a medley including “Jam”, “Billie Jean”, and “We are the World”. It was the performance of an artist in the middle of resurgence shortly before his ultimate fall, criminal allegations, and early end.