The Super Bowl's best halftime shows

Originally Published: February 4, 2010
By Kelley Carter | Special to Page 2

In the early days of the Super Bowl, halftime shows were a chance for folks to take bathroom breaks, reload their plates with food, or pretty much do anything but watch what was happening on TV. Why? Halftime at the Super Bowl was nothing more than a regular college football halftime show, just with a larger audience. The first halftime celebration back in 1967, for example, featured both the University of Arizona and the Grambling State University marching bands.

No doubt that was a thrill for the students who got to perform, but thankfully the late '80s and early '90s ushered in an era of more high-profile performances.

I've gone back over all the Super Bowl halftime shows and came up with the dozen most memorable ones -- for better or worse.

[+] EnlargeNew Kids On The Block Super Bowl XXV
Gin Ellis/NFL/Getty ImagesYes, New Kids On The Block actually performed at a Super Bowl.

It was an ambitious show, to be sure. The year was 1991, and the folks behind the show rightly decided to tap into the fan sensation that was New Kids on the Block. They partnered up with Walt Disney World to produce a 25-year tribute to the Super Bowl, and featured NKOTB (they performed "Step By Step" and "This One's For The Children"), Disney characters, Warren Moon (huh?) and 2,000 local children. The problem? The folks at home never actually saw this show. It was pre-empted by ABC News for coverage of Operation Desert Storm. If you wanted to see New Kids, you had to wait until the postgame show to watch an edited version.

It was like CBS knew that no one would be watching their halftime show this year. Can't imagine how this show got green-lit in a board room, but somebody thought it'd be super-fun to have a Winter Magic-themed halftime show featuring Gloria Estefan and Olympic figure skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill. No surprise when they lost a good chunk of viewers (about 25 million) who smartly ventured over to Fox to check out a special episode of "In Living Color." Guarantee no one remembers that halftime show, but everybody remembers Jim Carrey as Fire Marshal Bill. "Let me show you something!"

It's even more touching now that he's gone, but perhaps one of the most special Super Bowl halftime shows was the spectacular that Michael Jackson put on this particular year. It was the first time the Super Bowl ever had one solo halftime performer, and MJ turned it out. The show opened with his body doubles entering the Rose Bowl from each corner, and for the finale he sang his heart-grabbing single "Heal The World" with a chorus of 3,500 kids. This was the year the halftime show really turned the tide -- Jackson was signed because of waning ratings in previous years.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jackson
Steve Granitz/WireImageMichael Jackson's Super Bowl performance was one of the most memorable of all time.

If you like your entertainment a little country fried, then you likely never left the couch when the big game was held at the Georgia Dome. The halftime show gathered the best in country music at that time -- Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt and The Judds -- and they twanged out for 12 minutes. And even though it might not have had universal appeal, it still was an A-list showing of what a Super Bowl halftime show could be and the type of rock-star talent that should be taking on these shows.

You bet your bippy that Diana Ross deserved to headline her own Super Bowl halftime show. The OB (Original Beyoncé), Ross became the face of Motown and for more than two decades contributed to the sound track of our lives -- music that is still very relevant in 2010. She didn't disappoint in her halftime show, cranking out a medley of familiar tunes -- the same ones that get the "Soul Train" line started at weddings near and far.

It's a touchdown anytime the music that changed the world is presented on a stage. Rightly, the halftime producers this year noted that Motown Records was turning 40 and turned this show into an anniversary-marking event. They mixed old-school and new-school folks like Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Queen Latifah together to churn out a walk down memory lane.

In an effort to entertain a hodgepodge of music fans, this year's halftime celebration featured a cross-section of musical talents. Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton and an 80-person choir joined forces to create a 10-minute show that also featured 125 drummers and percussionists, a full orchestra, puppets and a wicked pyrotechnics display.

[+] EnlargeBono
Kevin Mazur/WireImageBono and U2 paid tribute to the lives the United States lost on 9/11.

This was the first Super Bowl halftime show that I initially didn't really get. On the surface, the producers wanted to create a kings of rock and pop show, but the people they chose left a lot of folks (including me) scratching our heads. To introduce the show, they had funnymen Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock do a prerecorded skit (which was hilarious), and then the musical acts were Aerosmith, 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly. Most of the folks on that billing weren't even on the music charts at the time. Still, they actually pulled it off. Love her or hate her, I gave Britney props for jumping up on stage and going note-for-note with Steven Tyler during "Walk This Way."

Bono on a stage, with the backdrop of a very emotional year in American history (9/11 had happened just a few months earlier) provided one of the most heart-grabbing Super Bowl halftime shows ever. In the middle of the show, on a giant video screen (and in the middle of spot-on deliveries of U2 tunes like "Beautiful Day"), scrolled the names of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives that frightful day. It was an amazing and extremely appropriate performance.

The wardrobe malfunction -- or as we've later come to call it, the Real Reason Men Sprung For TiVo -- makes this year's performance the most talked-about halftime show of all time. You had a mix of entertainers as wildly diverse as Jessica Simpson, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, P. Diddy and Kid Rock run through some of their best-known hits. It would have been an amazing show on its own -- I mean, Kid Rock was rocking an American flag as his outfit. But then Nipplegate happened -- with everyone trying to figure out if gold, star-shaped nipple shields would be the new hip thing in fashion -- and that effectively ruled out contemporary performers taking the stage in future shows. Or maybe it just meant that MTV will never have anything to do with producing a halftime show again?

[+] EnlargePrince
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaPrince thrilled the Super Bowl audience in 2007.

As a Detroiter, and a certified Detroit-aholic, I still take offense regarding this halftime show. The pulse of that city throbbed in the year leading up to the big showdown in Motown, and we were waiting with baited breath to find out who'd be taking the stage in our fair city. I happened to be a Detroit-based music critic at the time and was certain the organizers would smartly pick from the bevy of Motown greats to remind the world of our empirical standing as music makers. Imagine our disappointment when it was announced that the Rolling Stones would be performing that year. Nothing against Mick Jagger and the boys -- I've seen Jagger shimmy-shake and Keith Richards prove that age ain't nothing but a number live several times, and they almost always have delivered a four-star concert -- but this just shouldn't have been their year. It should have been a year when Stevie, Smokey, Diana, the Temps and the Tops recreated an old-fashioned Motown Revue.

OK, so the Super Bowl Powers That Be redeemed themselves with the Purple One the following year. They paired the rock 'n' roll wild child with Florida A&M University's famed Marching 100, and turned out a 12-minute medley of tunes that reminded us why we can't change the channel when "Purple Rain" is on. Prince also surprised and delighted us with a good Bob Dylan cover, and killed the guitar solo on a Foo Fighters cover. Oh, and he did this all in the rain. Holla.

Kelley L. Carter is a freelance entertainment reporter. She can be reached at

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Kelley L. Carter is an Emmy-winning entertainment journalist who has written for publications including USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, Vibe and Essence magazines. She also regularly provides expert pop culture and entertainment commentary for outlets including CNN, E! and the TV Guide Channel.