The early Super Bowl halftime shows mostly featured college marching bands Up With People. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it became customary for the halftime show to feature A-list stars, performing a 12-minute stadium concert before a worldwide audience.
The best Super Bowl halftime shows have mostly been in the last 20 years, featuring big stars. On Sunday, the halftime show will feature Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar, taking the stage at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. If the performance includes the use of the phrase “smoke weed every day,” I’ll consider the performance a success.
Here are the best of the shows; pretty much all of these halftime shows can be watched in full on YouTube.
1. Prince (Super Bowl XLI)
Even before Prince died in 2016, his halftime show, performed in 2007, was the consensus best of all time. As rain poured down in Miami, Prince started with “Let’s Go Crazy,” cycled through a couple of surprising covers, before closing, naturally, with “Purple Rain.” It was all, of course, performed on a stage in the shape of his symbol.
2. U2 (Super Bowl XXXVI)
This bowl, in New Orleans, is remembered as the post-9/11 Super Bowl, and as the first championship that Tom Brady and the Patriots won. But it also featured one of the most memorable halftime shows, with U2 performing in front of a large scroll of those killed in the attacks.
3. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Super Bowl XLIII)
Bruce performed the halftime show for the first time in 2009 at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, therefore rendering him unavailable for the New Jersey Super Bowl five years later. The band, which knows its way around a stadium show, played one then-new song, “Working on a Dream,” and several old ones, including “Glory Days.”
4. Michael Jackson (Super Bowl XXVII)
The best Super Bowl halftime show of the previous millennium featured Michael, at the Rose Bowl, during his “Dangerous” era in 1993. He did break out some older stuff though, including “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” along with “Black and White” and “Heal the World.”
5. Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Super Bowl XXXIII)
The 1999 halftime show, in Miami, combined two big stars from decades past with the bad that was at the heart of the brief late-’90s swing-dancing craze. But then Stevie busted into “Sir Duke” and all was forgiven.
6. Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz (Super Bowl XLIX)
This performance, at Arizona’s stadium in 2015, featured Perry’s blend of colorful costuming and fun pop songs, but the show is remembered for two words: Left Shark. Originally meant as part of a beach tableau in the desert, the shark’s dance moves instantly made him the most iconic background dancer in Super Bowl history.
7. Beyonce and Destiny’s Child (Super Bowl XLVII)
This Super Bowl, at the Superdome in New Orleans, was the year the lights went out during the game, but they stayed on for the halftime show, featuring a medley of Beyonce’s hits as well as a reunion with her former group Destiny’s Child.
8. Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, and Kid Rock (Super Bowl XXXVIII)
Not the greatest Super Bowl halftime show, but certainly the most historically significant. The “wardrobe malfunction” incident, in which Janet Jackson’s nipple was exposed for a couple of seconds, not in closeup, and at a time when almost no one had an HDTV, was the primary culture war conflagration of 2004. Prior to that, the show was a hodgepodge of popular acts at the time, as was customary during the days when MTV produced the show in years when CBS had the game. The resulting backlash to Jackson was so egregious that they’re still making documentaries about it.
9. Justin Timberlake (Super Bowl LII)
This show, held at Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium during the Eagles-Patriots matchup in 2018, also caused controversy amid rumors — whose truth is still unclear, all these years later — that a hologram of the then-newly deceased Prince was going to make an appearance. That didn’t happen, but Timberlake performed an engaging medley of his own hits, in addition to a Prince tribute performance of “I Would Die 4 U.”
10. Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers (Super Bowl XLVIII)
Sure, it led to controversy after someone noticed that Chili Peppers bassist Flea’s bass wasn’t plugged in. But this 2014 performance, held in the cold weather of New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, was underrated, featuring two very different acts who each brought their own thing to the proceedings.