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The History of the Super Bowl Halftime Show

by Scott Kacsmar
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Rihanna Super Bowl Halftime

The most-watched event each year is the Super Bowl, and people have very different reasons for what makes them watch. Some just want to see the game, some want to see the commercials, and some care most about the Super Bowl halftime show, which usually features a big star in the industry these days.

R&B singer Usher is going to be the halftime performer at Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas. Last year it was Rihanna who put on a show in Arizona. This has become the standard, but it was not the case for the first several decades of the Super Bowl.

Instead of Usher or Rihanna, viewers were often treated to the Grambling State University Marching Band. When have they ever topped the Billboard chart or had a music video dominate the airwaves at MTV or the streams on YouTube?

No disrespect to marching bands or drill teams, but it is good to know your history and that things were not always on this level of spectacle for the halftime entertainment. We look back at the evolving history of the Super Bowl halftime show, which you can bet on at top sportsbooks.

The 1960s: Humble Beginnings

Superbowl I Halftime

Did you know the Super Bowl wasn’t even called the Super Bowl until Super Bowl III in the 1968 season? The first two games, both won by the Green Bay Packers, were referred to as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. That’s a mouthful.

The halftime shows during this era were strictly about marching bands, even including some local high school bands in Florida.

  • I (1967): University of Arizona and Grambling State University marching bands
  • II (1968): Grambling State University marching band
  • III (1969): Florida A&M University band

The 1970s: Themes Take Over (But No Disco)

With the NFL and AFL merging for the 1970 season, the Super Bowl did take on more prominence. The expanded league now had as many as 28 teams in the decade, including some very impressive runs of winning from the Steelers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Raiders, Rams, and Vikings.

Music in the 1970s also became timeless, and it would have been cool to see a live set from someone like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. Even the Bee Gees at the height of disco and their Saturday Night Fever would have made sense, but the halftime shows in the 1970s usually stuck to a theme such as paying honor to a local legend based on where the game was held.

  • IV (1970): Tribute to Mardi Gras (game in New Orleans)
  • V (1971): Southeast Missouri State marching band and Anita Bryant
  • VI (1972): Salute to New Orleans’ own Louis Armstrong featuring Ella Fitzgerald
  • VII (1973): Happiness Is (theme) with the University of Michigan marching band
  • VIII (1974): A Musical America (theme) with University of Texas Longhorn band
  • VIX (1975): Tribute to Duke Ellington with the Grambling State University marching band
  • X (1976): 200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute to America’s Bicentennial
  • XI (1977): It’s a Small World (production by The Walt Disney Company)
  • XII (1978): From Paris to Paris of America with Tyler Apache Belles, Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt
  • XIII (1979): Salute to the Caribbean with various Caribbean bands

The 1980s: The Decade of Excess (Just Not at the Super Bowl Halftime Show)

The 1980s were a very creative time in the arts with so many sci-fi films and blockbusters, music videos becoming popular thanks to MTV, and people started playing Nintendo at home.

But while the NFL was hosting a lot of blowouts by the NFC in the Super Bowl that decade, the halftime shows continued to largely be theme-based and filled with marching bands.

  • XIV (1980): A Salute to the Big Band Era (Grambling State University marching band returns)
  • XV (1981): Mardi Gras Festival for New Orleans (Southern University marching band and Helen O’Connell)
  • XVI (1982): Salute to the 1960s and Motown (game held in Michigan)
  • XVII (1983): KaleidoSUPERscope (Los Angeles Super Drill Team)
  • XVIII (1984): Salute to Superstars of Silver Screen (The Walt Disney Company production)
  • XIX (1985): World of Children’s Dreams (featuring Tops of Blue)
  • XX (1986): Beat of the Future (cover versions of current songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” and “The Power of Love”)
  • XXI (1987): The World of Make Believe – Salute to Hollywood’s 100th Anniversary (The Walt Disney Company production)
  • XXII (1988): Something Grand (featuring Chubby Checker and The Rockettes)
  • XXIII (1989): 1950’s Rock and Roll (Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D)

The 1990s: Michael Jackson Changes Everything

Michael Jackson Super Bowl XXVII

With Super Bowl ratings staying stagnant under 80 million, some changes were made in the 1990s to spark more interest. Kids were getting more interested in music at an earlier age thanks to innovations like MTV, music videos, compact discs, and the Walkman.

For Super Bowl XXV, the NFL had New Kids on the Block perform, who were the major boy band at the time. But for Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, the NFL pulled out all the stops by getting Michael Jackson, the biggest music star in the world, to perform a 5-song set in the Rose Bowl to rave reviews.

It took 27 Super Bowls, but the NFL finally had its big moment with a halftime show thanks to Jackson’s performance. Ratings hit 90 million for only the 2nd time in Super Bowl history at that point.

This did not make a big star the new standard every year, but there was at least a push for more familiar voices and faces than the typical marching band shows:

  • XXIV (1990): Salute to New Orleans & 40th Anniversary of Peanuts
  • XXV (1991): Small World: Tribute to 25 Years of the Super Bowl featuring New Kids on the Block
  • XXVI (1992): Winter Magic: Salute to 1992 Winter Olympics (featuring Gloria Estefan)
  • XXVII (1993): Michael Jackson
  • XXVIII (1994): Rockin’ Country Sunday (featuring Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, and The Judds)
  • XXIX (1995): Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye (featuring Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, and live stunts)
  • XXX (1996): Diana Ross in Take Me Higher: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Super Bowl
  • XXXI (1997): The Blues Brothers Bash featuring ZZ Top and James Brown
  • XXXII (1998): Salute to Motown’s 40th Anniversary (featuring Smokey Robinson, Boyz II Men, The Temptations, Queen Latifah, Martha Reeves, and the Grambling State University marching band)
  • XXXIII (1999): Celebration of Soul, Salsa, and Swing (featuring Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Savion Glover)

There were still gimmicky shows like the Indiana Jones presentation and the collection of actors from The Blues Brothers. But even in some of the collaborative years, they brought in some big-name talent like Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, Gloria Estefan, and Stevie Wonder.

The 1990s were a step in the right direction and it really started with Jackson breaking the glass ceiling for what a Super Bowl halftime show could be.

The 2000s: How a Boob Changed Everything for Good

Justin Timblerlake Janet Jackson Super Bowl XXXVIII

Hands down, the 2000s were the most memorable decade for the Super Bowl halftime shows. It helped that the games were no longer blowouts and were still worth watching through the end. Now, you had a nice break in the middle with a halftime show worth watching too.

Music was also peaking in a way with kids downloading songs on Napster and voting for videos on Total Request Live. It was the last era you had to really commit to music fandom that didn’t involve just streaming something when you wanted to.

But tragedy also brought out the best in this decade in a weird way. The horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States led to one of the most memorable Super Bowl halftime shows ever when U2 performed in Super Bowl XXXVI as a backdrop of the names of 9/11 victims ran behind them.

Two years later, another tragedy struck in the viewpoint of some conservative mothers who were appalled when Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe and her boob was exposed during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. It caused a big stink, and that was even before social media existed.

But in a weird way, it made future NFL halftime shows better as the league was only booking classic acts the rest of the decade such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen.

Prince’s performance in Super Bowl XLI ended with Purple Rain as it literally rained, and that was maybe the pinnacle of all Super Bowl halftime shows depending on who you ask.

Thanks, Janet and Justin.

  • XXXIV (2000): Tapestry of Nations featuring Phil Collins, Toni Braxton, Christina Aguilera, and Enrique Iglesias
  • XXXV (2001): The Kings of Rock and Pop featuring Aerosmith and NSYNC with special guests Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige
  • XXXVI (2002): U2 in a Tribute to 9/11 victims
  • XXXVII (2003): Shania Twain and No Doubt with special guest Sting
  • XXXVIII (2004): Choose or Lose featuring Janet Jackson, P.Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Simpson
  • XXXIX (2005): Paul McCartney
  • XL (2006): The Rolling Stones
  • XLI (2007): Prince
  • XLII (2008): Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • XLIII (2009): Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

The 2010s: Keeping it Contemporary (and Clean)

Lady Gaga Super Bowl LI

After running the gamut of classic bands, the NFL dipped back into the contemporary talent pool in 2011 when The Black Eyed Peas headlined the Super Bowl XLV halftime show. This would be the path forward as the NFL largely has picked artists who are still very much relevant and big names in the business.

Guests also started making their way back into the shows, assuming there were strict guidelines on not ripping at each other’s wardrobes this time.

  • XLIV (2010): The Who
  • XLV (2011): The Black Eyed Peas with special guests Usher and Slash
  • XLVI (2012): Madonna with special guests LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., and Cee Lo Green)
  • XLVII (2013): Beyonce with special guest Destiny’s Child
  • XLVIII (2014): Bruno Mars with special guest Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • XLIX (2015): Katy Perry with special guests Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott
  • 50 (2016): Coldplay with special guests Beyonce and Bruno Mars
  • LI (2017): Lady Gaga
  • LII (2018): Justin Timberlake
  • LIII (2019): Maroon 5 with special guests Travis Scott and Big Boi

The 2020s: Doing It Big

The Weeknd Super Bowl LV

So far in the 2020s, the Super Bowl halftime shows have been filled with big stars and long setlists as they try to cram in as many hits as they can in a short period of time. Shakira and Jennifer Lopez did 17 songs between them in Super Bowl LIV. Consider that the likes of Michael Jackson (5 songs) and Prince (8 songs) combined for 13 songs between them in their classic sets, or that the Rolling Stones played just 3 songs in Super Bowl XL.

You can probably expect more expensive set designs and guest appearances going forward. The Weeknd is still trying to find his way out of the stage from 3 years ago.

  • LIV (2020): Shakira and Jennifer Lopez with special guests J Balvin and Bad Bunny
  • LV (2021): The Weeknd
  • LVI (2022): Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar with special guests 50 Cent and Anderson .Paak
  • LVII (2023): Rihanna

Rihanna was pregnant and still did 15 songs last year, so it’s your move, Usher.

author avatar
Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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