A brief history of Super Bowl halftime shows
Somebody told me Justin Timberlake performed at halftime of the Super Bowl. I don’t remember it and yet I watched the game. And that I think was the biggest problem with Timberlake’s performance — it was finally overshadowed by the game itself.
From what I remember, Timberlake was wearing a pretty statement-less outfit and started with some really bad audio on a very unfamiliar song and then made one very awkward kid’s day by taking a selfie with him. (Like that’s not getting old).
And that’s perhaps the problem — the Super Bowl performers are getting old and beyond risk taking mold. A mold Timberlake himself broke with the infamous WMF — Wardrobe of MalFunction. Timberlake was sufficient but his performance hardly stacks up to the best of the Super Bowl. A platform that has taken some strange turns through the years and often times garnering far more of our collective attention than the reason for the day.
Ups and Downs of Halftime Shows
As far as best ever goes, I have to give a shout out to the Purple wonder.
As Prince was getting an appropriate and fitting shout out from Timberlake (how did they turn the whole city purple?), I was fondly remembering a rain soaked Big Game in Miami as my beloved Bears were facing the superior Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts. As a sleeting rain prevailed, Prince slashed through with blazing guitars and little in the means of pyrotechnics or showmanship other than to prove he was indeed one of the premiere showman of his time.
His performance ranks no. 1 to me personally since I was there, especially when compared to the only other Super Bowl I attended. In that brutal mauling of the Patriots by the all powerful 1985 Bears, something ridiculously called Up With People bored the you know what out of us.
That “show” at SB XX wasn’t the end all it should have been. As the NFL geniuses at the time followed up with George Burns and Mickey Rooney singing “Cheek To Cheek” — I wish I was making this up.
It all came tumbling down the following year when, get this, Elvis Presto didn’t quite steal the show but definitely the producers money with 1950s era songs in a show called “Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D.” We were all bamboozled that year. Thank goodness the game carried the day as the San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana snapped victory from the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mainstream meets risk
The Super Bowl performance showed some steady improvement entering the 1990s, with its true rebirth at the Rose Bowl in 1993 when Michael Jackson performed “Billie Jean,” “Black or White” plus a memorable “We Are The World” with a children’s choir that shot the game’s ratings through the roof. It is still considered one of the most watched events in American television history and set the stage for the halftime extravaganzas we now consider part of the fabric of our culture.
There were still some stumbles as the NFL tried to figure it out (think Miami Sound Machine), but inconsistency soon gave way to a wild ride of performers that once included The Blues Brothers teaming up with ZZ Top and James Brown.
It was in the new millennium that mainstream met risk as the NFL invited a range of performers from Phil Collins to a bizarre mash up of Aerosmith, Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige. That rough mix was transformed in 2002, when single artists were given the stage and complete artistic control (until of course Timberlake caused a media sensation with Janet Jackson).
U2 started a nice run of performers that included Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and then the infamous Prince performance at Dolphin Stadium. For the past few years, it’s almost always been more about the show than the game and though I love the musical aspect of the affair as much as anyone, I’m also quite pleased when the game carries the day.
Tom Genes is a musicologist and organizes the annual Cover Rock Festival in Avon, returning June 22-23 with tributes to America’s best rock ’n’ roll bands.