Super Bowl Halftime Shows: An Unintentional History Lesson

Because it is Super Bowl Sunday and we love themes here at Living the Fest Life – this evening we are going to take a look at the place where music and the NFL overlap, the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Interestingly, the Halftime Show (which began in the 1960s) spent much of its history in a form we wouldn’t recognize today. From the 1960s through 1990 – the Halftime Show featured a theme and performances by collegiate marching bands. I guess themes are something LTFL and the NFL have in common.

However, beginning in 1991, the network began bringing in live musical performers in an effort to keep the audience from being drawn away by other networks during halftime. In 1991, the theme was “Small World” and it was a tribute to 25 years of the Super Bowl sponsored by Disney and Coca-Cola. The Halftime Show featured New Kids on the Block and Disney Characters. In 1992, Gloria Estefan was the primary performer in the Halftime Show, joined by figure-skaters Bryan Boitano and Dorothy Hamil, the US Olympic Hockey team, and the University of Minnesota Marching Band. In case you couldn’t guess, the theme was a celebration of the 1992 Winter Olympics.  This seemed like it could be a real winner, except FOX ran a special live episode of In Living Color precisely at halftime, drawing away 22 million viewers according to Wikipedia.

As a result, the idea was pitched that the Halftime Show should exclusively focus on featuring live performances from contemporary and popular modern musical artists – with the production quality boosted. So we can thank In Living Color for the modern version of Halftime Shows we know today. In 1993, the Halftime Show was for the first time without both a theme and without a collegiate marching band, featuring a lengthy and dramatic performance by Michael Jackson. I don’t know about you, but I actually can vividly remember the Michael Jackson Halftime Show and the crazy stuff they did with the whole stadium participating. It is one of my earliest Super Bowl memories.

In 1994, the theme was back and the genre was . . . country. Yes that’s right folks, apparently they chose to follow up on the epic Michael Jackson show with “Rockin Country Sunday” featuring: Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, and The Judds – who were joined during the final song by other Atlanta natives, including Stevie Wonder.

My intention at this point, was to shift over and do one of two things: (1) highlight artists who have performed in Halftime Shows and headlined festivals or (2) talk about the best Sunday festival lineups. But frankly, looking a little bit more in depth at how the Super Bowl Halftime Shows have evolved is turning out to be a lot more interesting than either of those things – but I promise a festival connection is coming.

In 1995, someone decided to let Disney be in charge again and we ended up with an Indiana Jones theme. However, the performers were Patti Labelle and Tony Bennett – the ended with a duet of “Can you feel the love tonight” which might make me stop complaining about Disney being in charge. At the same time, the whole thing seems confusing and not really fitting with Indiana Jones.

In 1996, Radio City Music Hall produced the Halftime Show and the performance was called “Take me Higher.” It was a tribute to 30 years of the Super Bowl and was just a great, big, amazing Diana Ross concert. Not much more to say about that – epic.

1997 was a Blues Brothers Bash – don’t hate me, but that sounds just awful. It featured the Blues Brothers – for those of you too young to know what that means, they were Dan Akroyd, John Goodman and John Belushi – and the concept was created as part of a Saturday Night Live Sketch. I was also wayyyy too young for all of this, but I do know from watching Roseanne that John Goodman can sing the blues. They were joined by Z.Z. Top and James Brown. Oddly, this Halftime was sponsored by Oscar Mayer – and it is the first time I remember seeing the Oscar Mayer Wiener Truck and hearing the Oscar Mayer song. My dad told me that one of our relatives was somehow affiliated with this and may have traveled around in the wiener mobile, but now that I am grown that seems like something he made up to mess with me.

The 90s finished off with the 1998 Salute to Motown Halftime Show featuring Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, Queen Latifah and the Temptations (OMG that sounds amazing why do I have zero memory of this) and the 1999 Celebration of Soul, Salsa and Swing – which had Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder and two acts I have never heard of before.

In 2000, someone let Disney back at this again and we had a Halftime theme of “Tapestry of Nations.” Do you ever read something like that and think what does that even mean, but also you know so you feel like gagging at the same time. Ok, maybe that’s just me. In any event, it featured Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton and an 80 member choir. There was tons of Disney music, but given the talent it sounds like it could have been pretty amazing or at least weird.

The next Super Bowl Halftime is one that I know you all remember. Please tell me you do and that I am not old. It was called the Kings of Rock and Pop and featured Aerosmith, NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly. The show concluded with the group performing Walk this Way, and I may or may not have illegally downloaded that on Limewire. This also brings my first festival connection – as Nelly was at Austin City Limits this year.

The 2002 Halftime Show was a somber tribute to those who lost their lives in the attacks on 9/11 and featured an appropriately somber and powerful performance by U2. It also featured one of the last themes we would see – more on that later.

Given the huge emotion of the 2002 show and the major controversy of the 2004 show, the 2003 Halftime Show is kind of lost in the mix. It featured an interesting trio: Shania Twain, No Doubt and Sting. If the random assortment of acts didn’t tell you this – I will – there was no theme.

I know you probably only kept reading to get to this point and we are finally here. The big one, the nip slip, the controversy.

In 2004, someone (either genius or idiot) decided it would be a great idea to let MTV produce the halftime show. Frankly, it probably was a really good idea and would have brought real life to Halftime. MTV brought us our last known theme – Choose or Lose – named after the network’s campaign with the same name. It was aimed at encouraging young people to register to vote in the upcoming election, which featured none other than Bill Clinton. Who knew that Janet Jackson’s nipple was actually not the most sexually controversial thing about this halftime show. The show began with a message that we should all “Choose to party” aptly delivered by Jessica Simpson. That was followed by performances by Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock. The final song, yes we are finally here, was a duet of Rock your Body – performed by Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson – and ended with Timberlake ripping off part of Jackson’s costume and showing her nipple like 100 billion people on live television. This incident created many years of debate as to whether it was an accident, a wardrobe malfunction, or an intentional publicity stunt. I don’t know if we actually know the definitive answer on that, and I actually don’t care. The fact that the whole world freaked out about seeing a nipple for a second seems like a big waste of time.

Notably, YouTube’s founder claims that this incident is what led to the creation of the website. And because we are a big world of weirdos – it led to Janet Jackson being the most searched term of all time and set a ton of other records. Janet Jackson’s publicity stunt (ok ok I do actually know the outcome of the debate) had an unintended consequence – it would be followed by years of safe Halftime Shows – with performers the network could trust not to show their nipples.

In 2005, Paul McCartney was the sole halftime act. He could probably fill a million halftimes with his talent and history. Paul McCartney has performed at several festivals recently, including 2017 Austin City Limits and at our home festival – Firefly Music Festival in 2015. Notably, Firefly’s lineup leaked that year and the fact that Paul McCartney was going to be on it was like the world’s worst kept secret. For still unknown reasons, Firefly released the lineup well after the leak, with the top headliner spot blurred out. We anxiously waited for what felt like weeks, for the news to be revealed. The whole Paul McCartney lineup story could (and may eventually) be its own post, but for now we have to keep on rolling.

As I mentioned above, the Janet Jackson nipple incident – which I refuse to refer to as Nipplegate, led to years of safe old men getting the halftime slot. Paul McCartney was followed by The Rolling Stones, Price, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who. Don’t get me wrong – they are all legends and amazing performers, but this was clearly a knee-jerk response to the controversy of nipples. I’m sorry but seriously people, its a nipple – we have all seen them before.

In 2011, the network decided to snap out of it (or they ran out of old man legend bands) and tapped the Black Eyed Peas, Usher, and Slash to perform along with a number of high school drill and dance teams.

In 2012, Madonna (if anyone was going to show a nipple at halftime I honestly would have put my money on Madonna) headlined an extravaganza of a Halftime Show that also featured Cirque du Soleil acrobats, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, Ceelo Green, multiple drumlines and a 200 person choir. I think maybe this was their attempt to show us that they weren’t scared of modern Halftime Shows.

In 2013, Beyonce (our queen) led her first of two Halftime Shows. This was one of my all-time personal favorites. For weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, we heard rumblings and rumors that the Halftime Show would bring about something we had been waiting forever for – a Destiny’s Child reunion. And for once, it delivered. Bey brought out Kelly and Michelle midway through her performance and they filled my heart with DC fan girl joy when they performed three songs together. Confession: if I could only listen to one album for the rest of my life, there is no question it would be Destiny’s Child – The Writing’s on the Wall.

Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers took over the 2014 Halftime Show. Leading many of us to ask why Bruno can’t just do it every year.

2015 was the year of left shark and right shark.  This Halftime Show featured Katy Perry, Lenny Kravtiz, Missy Elliot and a marching band. Honestly, the most memorable part of this halftime show was the strange obsession with the dancing sharks. I had to look up what this was even about and apparently it all had to do with Left Shark dancing out of sync from Right Shark. The sad thing is that both Missy Elliot and Katy Perry gave us amazing performances – and we are all over here looking and shark dancers.

There were no inflatable sharks in 2016 for Super Bowl 50, instead we had Coldplay, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, and Mark Ronson – and a marching band. Coldplay was the lead headliner, but virtually everyone seems to feel like Beyonce and Bruno Mars stole the show. For his part, Mars (and Ronson) led a group of dancers dressed like Michael Jackson in a performance of Uptown Funk. One of the catchiest, most upbeat songs around. Beyonce (also dressed like Michael Jackson) then joined them onstage, performing her new at the time single Formation with her back up dancers dressed like members of the Black Panthers (or so people said). She then joined Mars and Ronson in a final verse of Uptown Funk. The performances also included a montage of clips from the previous Super Bowls to mark the 50th Anniversary.

Following the performance, ridiculous people freaked out unnecessarily about Beyonce’s performance and tried to turn it into boycott. Even crazy people should realize that you can’t boycott Queen Bey. No one turned up to planned marches and the whole thing, rightfully fizzled out quickly.

In 2017, Lady Gaga ran the show, starting her performance from the roof of NRG Stadium. In the weeks leading up to the show, people speculated about whether or not Lady Gaga would do anything overtly political or would bash the President during her Halftime appearance. She didn’t. She put on a spectacular show. She is probably one of the people at the top of my list that I would love to see at a festival at some point.

Justin Timberlake returned to his first Halftime Show since the Janet Jackson nipple incident. He’s Justin Timberlake, so of course it was awesome. The Super Bowl was held in Minneapolis and his performance included a tribute to Minneapolis native Prince, who had passed away in 2016. The tribute was gorgeous and involved the whole city appearing to turn purple in an overhead shot.  As always, there is something random that becomes memorable. In this case, it was a young fan who was attempting to take selfies as Timberlake made his entrance, only to have Timberlake drop an arm around his shoulders and lean in. The moment was endlessly amusing to the internet, who nicknamed him #selfiekid.

So now, here we are at the end of Halftime Show history, and just a few minutes away from Halftime 2019. We don’t know much about the show so far, but we do know that it will feature Maroon 5, Travis Scott and Big Boi. Travis Scott can be another festival connection for us because it seems like he’s at the top of every other lineup dropping these days. It will be interesting to see what viral moment or unintended consequence results from this year’s show and to see how such an interesting group melds into a combined performance.

If you made it this far, thanks for hanging in there and feel free to share your favorite halftime moments.

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