In its 47 years, the Super Bowl halftime show has become something of a definitive stage for American entertainment; a pop-cultural barometer, albeit a wildly unreliable one. It has created larger-than-life onstage moments that have inspired millions and ruined careers and prompted legislation. This Sunday, Beyoncé will take the stage at the Superdome in a halftime show that, for once, promises to be pretty damn good. Which is great, because as we learned this week at the YouTube HOF, when it comes to Super Bowl halftimes, sometimes we’re lucky, and sometimes the Black Eyed Peas are there.
Michael Jackson, Super Bowl XXVII (1993)
Tess Lynch: This is one of the few halftime shows I remember from my childhood. In 1993, Michael Jackson hanging out with all those kids during his performance of “Heal the World” didn’t seem the least bit sinister (the first allegations of sexual abuse against him came soon after). Sure, he’d started to get pretty weird-looking, but our relationship to Jackson and his stardom hadn’t grown cynical yet. When he stood perfectly still on the stage before beginning his set, the camera revolved around him, and I remember weighing how strange he’d made his face look — I was 10, and had no idea about the reasons behind or methods used to create that angular white mask — with how cool I thought he was. Something about that was awe-inducing (the mystery of celebrity!) and hospitably inclusive for a Super Bowl halftime show (songs I knew! A performer I really cared about! I could pretend to have watched the football part!). Wearing my 2013 glasses, this clip is even more interesting than it was in 1993: The shit hit the fan for Jackson almost immediately after this, and never really quit hitting it.
Jonah Keri: If there’s another person on Earth who’s as nerdy about sports as I am, while growing up with a group of friends as completely indifferent about sports as mine were, I’ve yet to meet him. My buddy Dave in particular used to throw fits whenever I’d suggest going to a game of any kind. He even objected to hitting the downtown dive bar with recycled beer, 99-cent spaghetti, 9-cent wings, and sports on in the background, because … actually, I have no idea why he never took to lousy Expos games and potential food poisoning.
But boy, Dave could sure throw a Super Bowl party. Starting around Grade 8 and continuing every year through university, Dave’s parents’ house was the place to go to watch the big game. Even when we were kids, he’d pull in 15, 20 people, none of them with remotely as much interest in the actual game as I had. Everything else you’d come to expect from a great Super Bowl party? Yes. Food was abundant, drinks were delicious, with all manner of soda in the early high-school years, onto the strong stuff later. What really made Dave’s parties stand out, though, was the group’s collective ability to master Super Bowl gambling. Sure, we had the usual ridiculous prop bets for game-winning safeties and touchdowns of 90 yards or more. But the most popular bets by far had nothing to do with the game itself. We bet on Spuds Mackenzie appearances. We bet on Bud Bowls. We bet on … lots of Anheuser-Busch stuff, come to think of it.
The best of the best were the halftime props. And the best of the best of the best was Michael Jackson. Moonwalks, spins, “hee-hee”s, whatever you wanted, you could get action on it. Crotch grabs inevitably got the most action, because like all other teenage boys, we were idiots. I won’t spoil the crotch-grab count in this clip, because suspense is fun and because the whole video warrants watching as a piece of nostalgia that will seem like a century ago if you’re over 35. Suffice it to say, with no DVR technology to work with, hellacious fights would break out over MJ stats, as we all stared intently at the TV, desperately trying to parse the spins from the shuffles, much less the elusive shuffle-spin-grab combo.
My youth was definitely not wasted.
Britney Spears, N ‘Sync, Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly, Super Bowl XXXV (2001)
Katie Baker: There are few silences as deafening as when a room full of mostly 16- and 17-year-old boys feasts its collective eye on an at-her-absolute-peak Britney Spears. It was January 2001, I was a senior in high school, and the Baltimore Ravens were up 10-0 at halftime over the New York Giants. Trent Dilfer and Kerry Collins were the quarterbacks, Sean Payton was the Giants’ offensive coordinator, and Ray Lewis would later become the game’s MVP — causing many to tsk “but, but, that murder trial!” — but no one was thinking about that at this point, there was only Britney Spears, and her peroxide and stomping and impossible stomach.
It was a strange and glorious time. About a year before, Us Weekly had rebranded from an Entertainment Weekly–style industry mag to a glossy weekly tabloid; the Britney-Justin industrial-virginal machine was one of its first big cash cows. MTV was still marginally about the music, man, and produced what was at the time the most expensive Super Bowl show, with Aerosmith and Nelly and Mary J. Blige and N ‘Sync, who had then pulled ahead in the harmonizing race with the Backstreet Boys. An opening skit featured Ben Stiller, who was then in between Meet the Parents and Zoolander. The ensemble version of “Walk This Way” was something that I downloaded on Napster. A later foray by MTV yielded Nipplegate and a huffy statement from NFL executive vice-president Joe Browne that “It’s unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime.”
Good thing they got this one in before the ban. It is well worth your 10 minutes, if you’re into Britney — a woman who famously wore nothing but sparkles and/or a boa constrictor and yet never looked better than in that cutoff football jersey — or, alternately, if you like footage of a young Timberlake ripping off hand pyrotechnics. At around the 8:50 mark there’s also a hilarious use of EyeVision, the 360-degree Gap-ad technology debuted at that game. (The NYT‘s description of it as a “robotically controlled system of 33 cameras that created panoramic replays” sounds like the editor in Almost Famous describing a mojo.) I graduated high school and went to college and Timberlake sang “Cry Me a River” and Britney went off the deep end; Aerosmith and Mary J. Blige would remain more or less the same. But we’ll always have that night when all of them gathered on that stage down in Tampa as the world watched and gawked. Of course it was Tampa.
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004)
Amos Barshad: It lasted less than a second, but the flash of Janet Jackson’s bare nipple at the 2004 Super Bowl — a.k.a. Nipplegate — led to reverberations felt throughout the country. Most immediately, it coined a new phrase, “wardrobe malfunction,” one dependably still trotted out wherever unexpected live flesh goes. It gave fodder to the FCC, which levied heavy fines, and moral values watchdog groups, which basically fell to their knees and wept for the good old days when America was decent, dammit (and also, you know, openly racist). It exposed us again as a country with confusingly twisted ideas of what’s profane and what is not: Says Wikipedia, “Only about 50 Canadians complained about the incident to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.” It also greatly affected the sight of butts on TV. Wikipedia again: “[Soaps] are known for ‘love in the afternoon’ and regularly feature romantic couplings; shortly before the Super Bowl … As the World Turns and Guiding Light had gone as far as featuring rear male nudity during sexual scenes. After the Super Bowl … FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps stated that it was time for a crackdown.” With all that considered, it’s actually a pretty insightful moment, the kind of thing you’d want to take a long, hard look at if you were trying to explain and understand America. Or, as this heroic YouTube uploader put it, “Janet Jackston Tits During Superbowl.”
George Burns and Mickey Rooney, Super Bowl XXI (1987)
Sean Fennessey: If the 2004 halftime show is the turning point in America’s Youth Crisis — not simply that exposed, studded Janet nipple, but a lineup that included a heroballin’ Diddy, height-of-his-powers Nelly, and “Cowboy”-era Kid Rock in his pre-country-rockin’ days — then 1987 is something like the inverse. During this Disney-laced tribute to 100 years of Hollywood, George Burns and Mickey Rooney are the two biggest stars, barring a singing Goofy. Burns, then 91 years old, flirts with Snow White, and then cracks, “Pretty girl. Little too old for me.” Burns! It’s not all stodgy nostalgia — the Footloose theme and Flashdance‘s “What a Feeling” are performed by a smiling battalion of marching band theme park actors to give the kids something to bop to. But it’s odd to think of a time when the halftime show wasn’t a laser-targeted, sponsored ray gun of corporate synergy. This is an old-fashioned, let’s put on a really big show production — like what happens when a state fair director gets his first big budget. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, I’m just saying that when Beyoncé is making your knees quake on Sunday, imagine what it must have been like when Mickey Rooney did the same.
Disney’s “Salute to the Stars of the Silver Screen,” Super Bowl XVIII (1984)
Michael Weinreb: I would refer you, first, to Part 1 of this documentary, in which the show’s organizer explains, “I didn’t want it to be so clean and so pure that the football fans would say, ‘Aw, now come on, that’s enough of that.'” And this sort of hyper-progressive visionary conception is how one winds up with the rare artistic perfecta of shirtless, oiled bodybuilders in magenta suspenders preening while a monkey rides an elephant.
Madonna, MIA’s middle finger, and a cast of thousands, Super Bowl XLVI (2012)
Mark Lisanti: Let’s not talk about Madonna, or her entrance on a golden, angel-winged throne pulled by two-dozen lurching centurions, or her twirling b-boys in alabaster tracksuits, or the acrobatic, Roman Richard Simmons doing impossible things on a trampoline wire, or those LMFAO goofballs just goofballin’, or the obligatory squad of cheerleaders, or the barbarian boasting of Nicki Minaj, or human cannonball Cee Lo’s marching band, or the ten-thousandth choir Madge has temporarily employed for a “Like a Prayer” rendition. All of that was just lovely, really.
Let’s talk about how MIA gave America the finger. She gave America the finger! “Fuck you, America!” said MIA’s angry finger, extended in general defiance of the 114 million pairs of American eyeballs watching the Madonnified halftime spectacle in a mixture of confusion and fascination. “If there were an apple pie handy, hoo boy, you have no idea what we might do.” And then MIA caged her angry bird, danced a little more, and we all went on with our lives.
Prince, Super Bowl XLI (2007)
Andy Greenwald: Prince is a magical, pancake-eating, jump-shot taking sex elf. He looked the same in 2007 as he did in 1980 and, on the occasion of Super Bowl XLI, he treated Dolphin Stadium as intimately as he would one of his Jehovah’s Witness house calls. I remember this as being one of the few halftime shows of my lifetime to be pretty good. (That anyone remembers it at all is probably the biggest praise possible for something like this.)
“Dearly beloved,” the tiny man in the turquoise suit intoned at the start, before the legion of GoDaddy.com contest winners/roofie enthusiasts even had time to spill in from the sidelines. “We are gathered here today to get through this thing called the third quarter. If you’re out of Fritos or lite beer, now would be a pretty choice time to grab a refill.” Then he played “Let’s Go Crazy.” Later, he vamped with the Florida A&M marching band, covered CCR, Bob Dylan, and the Foo Fighters(!). Eventually he boxed up his bright-yellow phallus-strat and receded back into the paisley mists. It was time for The Artist Formerly Known as Peyton Manning to have his moment. When, in 20 to 200 years, the NFL again sends up the androgynous love symbol flare, Prince will be ready. And he’ll still look exactly the same.
The Black Eyed Peas With Slash and Usher, Super Bowl XLV (2011)
Emily Yoshida: Please cue up to 3:58 and remind yourself that this happened, that there was a time when it seemed like it would never end, and that it’s over now, and we survived it, and we even kept playing football for a couple more hours, and two years passed, and a man free fell from space, and Khloe & Lamar went on indefinite hiatus, and we all had a good laugh at that Rebecca Black video. Next time you start thinking that nothing will ever heal the hurt done to this country by the Black Eyed Peas, remember: We have time and space on our side.
Up With People, Super Bowl X (1976)
Charles P. Pierce: Once, Up With People was as synonymous with the Super Bowl as the Kilgore Rangerettes were with the Cotton Bowl. The combination of crappy covers of crappy pop songs, and the kind of insufferable enthusiasm that made them look like the Lennon Sisters on crystal meth, made UWP perfect for an NFL that, at the time, looked at the landscape of American popular culture and said, “Geez, what will make us look hip and with it? I know, let’s watch The Hollywood Palace!” I believe everything changed for the better when they let Isaac Hayes sing “Theme From Shaft” at the Oscars, but that’s just me.
Halftime In America, Super Bowl XLVI (2012)
Chris Ryan: Noteworthy as a juxtaposition to Eastwood’s performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention (from “It’s Halftime in America” to the empty chair in just a few months!), and for the fact that it was directed by David Gordon Green. Let’s get it together, America: brought to you by the man behind Your Highness.
U2, Super Bowl XXXVI (2002)
Brian Phillips: This was the first Super Bowl halftime show after September 11. U2 performed on a heart-shaped stage. They opened with “Beautiful Day,” a song about how small the world seems now and what airport architecture feels like. “Beautiful Day” always tried too hard to be an instant classic, but it was the perfect song for U2 to open with because it depicts the world in which September 11 happened. It was the surprise of laptops and cell phones and business class, combined with the faintest hint of doubt about the future. Seeing the oil fields at first light. Bono said that the song is about “a man who has lost everything, but finds joy in what he still has.” You get the feeling he lost his job, or his wife left him, and then he went for a long drive in his Lexus, and then he got out and threw his Nokia 3310 off a cliff. He stood in the wind and felt free. It’s not really worthy of September 11, but U2 always understood that the best way for a rock band to speak to public grief is to speak to private grief, only with guitars that stretch to the horizon.
After “Beautiful Day,” U2 played “MLK” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” while a giant screen behind them showed the names of all the victims of September 11. Bono screamed “America!” and ran around the heart-shaped track while the crowd went insane and the names of the dead scrolled up into the sky. U2, as a band, was essentially born for this moment. Nobody’s lip-syncing here. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is another song about escape, but it has a bigger canvas and a more equivocal story. It doesn’t mean anything; it’s a vehicle for producing chills. I’m guessing more than a billion people felt chills at the same time during this performance. It’s not really even fair to compare it to any other Super Bowl halftime show. It took place on a different plane. When I watched this live I thought I was going to pass out. The moment when the screen comes tumbling down and Bono holds open his jacket to reveal an American-flag lining is probably the high point in the history of rock music’s work in the service of public healing. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it may be the moment that most encapsulates what America was like after September 11 — the intensity of raw emotion, the need for mass spectacle, the sense that something genuine and vulnerable was coexisting uneasily with cell-phone commercials and an air of vague corporatization. (As I said: U2 was born for this.) And yet it made you feel like the top of your head had been taken off.
If your main site for negotiating cultural trauma is the Super Bowl halftime show, you are someplace weird and possibly scary as a society. On the other hand, a billion people feeling chills at the same time — how can you turn your nose up at that? Who can possibly estimate how much that helps? This is one of the things art can do. In 2002 it felt like an important one. E-Trade sponsored the performance.