Ever since Michael Jackson seriously changed the game with his 1993 performance, the Super Bowl halftime show went from being a mid-game break to one of the must-see annual musical events in pop culture; a pop-rock concert that, in sheer viewing numbers, is one of the biggest stages on the planet.
A list of all the performers who have taken to the field confirm this; from legacy acts like Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and Prince to contemporary radio-royalty like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, the best halftime shows have become something of a mini-compendium of pop music history.
That said, some performances have of course been better than others – some have had scandalized wardrobe malfunctions and others have been just plain awful. Starting at the dawn of the new millennium, we’ve taken a look at every Super Bowl halftime show and ranked each one from worst to best. From the iconic to the laconic, see our list below.
19. 2000 – Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton
You know how Disney World has at least 2 or 3 ‘rides’ that involve sitting on a boat moving at 2 mph while you look at decades-old animatronics singing something random? And you only went on it to appease your grandparents who needed a break from walking or to ride something that your kid brother is actually tall enough for? Imagine that in halftime show form and you have exactly whatever bizarre spectacle Disney produced for the 2000 Super Bowl. None of these performers are even singing their own songs, instead opting for original material that celebrates our calendar hitting the year 2000. It is so foul that it isn’t even enjoyably bad – it’s just… bad.
18. 2010 – The Who
Goodness, where to begin? We’ll say this for The Who, this performance does not come close to tarnishing their venerable contributions to rock and roll. But viewers at home forced to take an extended bathroom break after indulging in too much bean dip and hot wings were probably treated to a more pleasant sonic atmosphere than listening to Roger Daltrey screech his way through “Baba O’Riley.”
17. 2011 – The Black Eyed Peas, Usher, Slash
The unexpected rise of The Black Eyed Peas to the very top of pop culture thanks to their mega, mega 2009 hits spectacularly imploded with this fiasco of a halftime show. And why Slash joined them for an impromptu rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is a true mystery for the ages.
16. 2014 – Bruno Mars, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Many immediately cried foul when Bruno Mars was announced as the headliner for the 2014 Super Bowl; he doesn’t exactly carry the chops or have the back catalogue of hits of say, [insert name of any other halftime show performer]. Those complaints were valid, but to his credit, Bruno manages to stay afloat. Red Hot Chili Peppers were an utterly baffling pick for his artist-assist, but that kind of sums up this whole set: utterly baffling.
15. 2003 – Shania Twain, No Doubt, Sting
We’re not exactly sure how this trio of performers was put together, but the most rational way seems to have been someone from the NFL drawing names out of a hat and saying ‘sure, let’s go with these three.’ How else can you justify with Shania Twain performing a five-year old hit next to No Doubt playing a 12-year old hit before duetting with Sting on a 23-year old hit? It’s confusing, to say the least.
14. 2005 – Paul McCartney
Considering Paul McCartney was a member of the biggest band in the history of human civilization, you would think he would know how to put on a more exciting stage show. But he doesn’t. It’s not bad per se, but it is definitely worthy of a naptime playlist.
13. 2006 – The Rolling Stones
The Stones, bless them, have become infamously hit or miss in their live performances in the sunset of their now six-decade career. Their halftime show was a miss only in that they (rightfully) left many incensed that their big gig consisted of only three songs. Still, Mick’s got the moves and Keith’s got the skills.
12. 2018 – Justin Timberlake
It makes sense that days after releasing the most uninspired, lackluster release of his career that Justin Timberlake would give the most uninspired, lackluster performance of his career. Sure, the Prince projection was a cute idea being the game’s location in the Purple One’s hometown of Minneapolis, but the fact that Timberlake – a lifelong showman – would get upstaged by that is inexcusable.
11. 2002 – U2
Being tasked with a performance designed as a tribute to the most devastating terrorist attack in modern history could not have been the easiest thing to translate into a half time show, but this kind of set-up is tailor-made for a band like U2. At the time it was surely cathartic for the nation to grieve to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but now, one wouldn’t refer to it as a ‘fun watch.’
10. 2008 – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Much was written about the under-appreciated quality and craftsmanship of Tom Petty when he unexpectedly passed last year. His halftime show exemplifies this view; a polished performer expertly showcasing some of the most legendary rock songs without fuss or frills. Watching a stadium sing along to “Free Fallin'” may actually be more classically American than the national anthem.
9. 2016 – Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé
Coldplay were a painfully out of touch pick for a headline performance in 2016, which is perhaps why they were joined by not one but two performers who literally just had their own solo halftime shows. No matter, as that choice saved this show from being cast into the pop culture ether. Beyoncé’s moment alone warrants its placement so high on this list, particularly for inciting such necessary discourse around the Black Lives Matter movement.
8. 2004 – Jessica Simpson, Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, Justin Timberlake
Whatever system of artist selection they were using in the early 2000s reached its zenith (and merciful end) with this absolute chaos of a line up. Good luck to whoever attempted to explain the cohesion of P. Diddy covering Notorious B.I.G. being followed up by Kid Rock doing however you want to describe what he does followed by Janet Jackson floor-stomping her ’80s hits with Justin Timberlake shimmying through his recent chart-toppers. But of course, we all know exactly how this show ended; the wardrobe malfunction would lead to a punishingly tame stretch of classic rock shows.
7. 2017 – Lady Gaga
No surprises that Lady Gaga, showgirl from the very start, delivered an overwhelmingly polished, flawless halftime show. Coming less than a month after the inauguration of President Trump, many were disappointed that the outspoken LGBTQ activist would have had a bit more to say in her moment on the world’s biggest stage, but in terms of pure entertainment, Gaga was untouchable here.
6. 2009 – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Love him or hate him, the Boss is undeniably a star. He remains one of the only rockers over the age of 50 who does not look like your dad doing karaoke on stage. When Bruce Springsteen does a slide across the stage that ends in a pelvic thrust, he looks like he is doing what he was put on this earth to do.
5. 2001 – Aerosmith, NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Nelly
The golden haze of 2000s nostalgia may provide a bit of bias, but we’ll be damned if seeing NSYNC and Britney Spears in their absolute prime didn’t make for one of the most electrifying halftime shows ever. The theme of this show was ‘kings of rock and pop,’ which makes perfect sense for the latter, but I’m not sure what planet we’re living where Aerosmith were justifiably considered kings of rock. Still, it gave way to letting Britney go all out on “Walk This Way” which is some consolation.
4. 2015 – Katy Perry, Missy Elliott, Lenny Kravitz
Katy Perry surprised everybody with the strength of this halftime performance, not only reminding us that ‘damn, she really does have a ton of jams,’ but that girl can put on one hell of a glitzy, glamorous piece entertainment. But this set is placed so high for one reason and one reason alone: the three-song Missy Elliott concert in the middle that is pure, electrifying perfection. Bonus points for Left Shark.
3. 2012 – Madonna, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. Cee Lo Green
Yes, she relied on way too many current hitmakers to bolster her standing with the youth (LMFAO ladies and gents), but even in spite of all the distractions, Madonna delivered a jaw-dropping halftime show. This is the kind of spectacle that should be used as a template for all pop stars attempting to translate their hits to the arena. It’s not for nothing that Madge is still – and always will be – the OG queen.
2. 2007 – Prince
It simply does not get more iconic than the icon that was Prince performing his iconic hit “Purple Rain” in the pouring rain; it’s a kind of living metaphor that is so unbelievably perfect it could not have been made up for fear of seeming too unrealistic. It doesn’t even matter that the Purple One only played three songs from his own catalogue, churning out a set of covers in between. This is living proof of the transcendent power of both the rock star and the rock n’ roll show.
1. 2013 – Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child
Honestly, just bow down.
Check out our recap of all the must-see commercials from this year’s Super Bowl LII right here.
- Cover Image: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images