Two years ago, we ranked 25 Super Bowl halftime shows. Then, as happens every year, there was another one. So we revisited the list. And now, we’re doing it again!
The Weeknd will perform at halftime of Super Bowl 55. How will his performance stack up to past shows? Read the list and make your predictions now!
Superbowl kickoff is scheduled for 3:40 p.m. PT/6:40 p.m. ET. The game will air on CBS, but you can watch the game live for free with a free trial of Hulu Live or with a free trial of FuboTV.
The Super Bowl halftime show hasn’t always been a concert featuring the world’s biggest pop stars. In the early years, the ’60s and some of the ’70s, the shows were mainly marching bands and Al Hirt. In the ’70s and ’80s, the shows were thematic, like “A Salute to the Big Band Era” and “Salute to Caribbean.”
There were groups and individuals who showed up sometimes on the shows — Up With People and Al Hirt feature heavily. But it was the ’90s when the Super Bowl halftime show as we know it now really caught on.
These shows feature big names of the day, or else nostalgic favorites. These short national concerts, in the middle of the culmination of a season of men bashing their skulls into each other, are perfect annual snapshots of our culture. And, in a surprise twist for me, a non-football watcher, a lot of them are really fun to watch!
So, here are 26 of them, ranked from very bad to very, very good.
26: Justin Timberlake, 2018
Somehow, after decades of over-the-top hopeful dance numbers about world peace, gender equality, American pride and racial unity, Justin Timberlake in 2018 decided to go with the theme “Justin Timberlake” in 2018.
First of all, Justin didn’t deserve a second chance at this. If he had even an ounce of self-awareness, he have featured Janet Jackson as a guest and faded into the background. Instead, he played some very bad music from his very bad newest album, mixed in with his hits, while wearing what can only be described as dirty pants.
Justin did not have a single meaningful guest. Instead, he went with a lot of back-up dancers dressed like they were in a middle school production of “Godspell.”
He also went with a Prince tribute that made me say, out loud, “Take his name out of your mouth, Justin.”
Possibly worst of all, though, this show was boring. Let’s come together as a country and demand no more Justin Timberlake Super Bowl halftime shows, OK?
25: Maroon 5, 2019
When you compare Maroon 5u2032s outrageously boring performance with Justin Timberlake’s, Maroon 5 comes out marginally better — at least Adam Levine doesn’t have a history of ruining Janet Jackson’s career at a Super Bowl halftime show. At least Maroon 5 had Travis Scott, SpongeBob SquarePants and Big Boi instead of no real guests. At least Adam Levine took off his stupid clothes and gave us something to talk about.
Otherwise, the choice to have Levine strip and sing songs no one has cared about for 15 years was perplexing. Even I, a person who watched and wrote about this halftime show for work, was totally unable to remember a single element of the “show” except for Levine’s naked torso covered in very new looking tattoos.
So: one of the worst of all time certainly, but no one is as bad as Justin Timberlake.
24: N’Sync, Britney Spears and Aerosmith, 2001
Come with me on a journey into pre-9/11 America. The Super Bowl halftime show was a chance for all of America to see hot groups like N’Sync and Aerosmith share a stage with Britney Spears.
In what is probably his top Super Bowl halftime show moment, Justin Timberlake shot fireworks out of his gloves.
Britney Spears was painfully skinny, and when she sang with Justin Timberlake, I wished I could jump through time and tell her to drop him now before he writes mean songs about her.
Mary J. Blige was completely under-utilized here and was basically a back-up singer, which was embarrassing.
Though the stage is full, there was far too much Timberlake to make this a good halftime show.
23: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, 2004
If only Janet Jackson had said no to sharing a bill with Jessica Simpson, Kid Rock and Justin Timberlake.
Because when she came on stage, as usual, she killed it during her 2004 halftime show appearance. She sang (OK, probably lip-syncs) the hits and danced like the Jackson she is. There was a drumline. A song about fighting all the world’s problems.
And then, darkness descended … one Justin Timberlake, come to wreck her career.
Justin in his baggy pants ground all over his superior Janet, who yes, was obviously the choreographer. Do you know what else was likely choreographed? When, at the end of the show, he sang, “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” and ripped off what appeared to be the breakaway bit on Janet’s bodice.
If you go to the slowed down screenshots, you can see that Janet’s nipple is covered with a fancy pastie. This was probably planned. So why did America freak out? Why didn’t Justin stand up for Janet as her career crumbled over one breast?
It was dumb, and it was Justin’s fault, and I, for one, will never forgive him.
22: The Rolling Stones, 2006
One thing about aging rockers putting on a concert for the halftime show is that there is never the spectacle you get from pop stars like Lady Gaga or Beyonce or Madonna. Their shows have to live or die on the merits of their sound and songs. Mick Jagger’s voice isn’t what it used to be, if it ever was something you’d want to listen to.
The other issue here is, you have to play the hits. Every song should have sing-along-ability. The Rolling Stones honestly may not have enough well-known hits to even make this possible.
21: Black Eyed Peas, 2011
The Black Eyed Peas are the kind of band that was made for the Super Bowl halftime show. Their 2011 show may have struggled with some sound but also, it was 2011, so there were enough LED lights to at least begin to distract from the problems.
Things really got going in this show when Slash started playing and Fergie went into a mediocre but definitely live rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine.”
The Black Eyed Peas did two other smart things: They incorporated a marching band, a classic halftime show move that can’t fail, and they had Usher fly in from the sky. It would have helped if Usher had added something, anything, else to the show. But hey, at least they didn’t have Justin Timberlake on as a guest.
20: Shania Twain, No Doubt, Sting, 2003
The strange thing about the 2003 Super Bowl halftime show is that it featured two anthems about early 2000s womanhood: “I’m Just a Girl” and “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” But they appeared in a time when singing about oppression, for No Doubt, came with sexy baby voice and very few clothes. For Shania, singing about the female experience included a line about not being politically correct.
Sting wasn’t bad here, until he weirdly leered at Gwen Stefani, but thematically, this show was all over the place and lacked drama of any kind.
19: New Kids on the Block, 1991
New Kids on the Block were dominating American culture in 1991, so this show, a Disney-themed NKOTB extravaganza, with massive blow-up Disney characters, a castle and a bunch of charming kids that don’t look to be professionals, must have had its finger on the pulse. Now, 28 years later, the show feels almost quaint. Imagine singing “It’s a Small World” with a straight face in 2019? But back then, bucket hats were just picking up steam, and anything was possible.
18: Katy Perry, 2015
What Katy Perry lacks in singing talent, she makes up in drama. Here’s the show where she came in on a giant moving tiger and then, somehow, Lenny Kravitz was singing “I Kissed a Girl.” Plus, this halftime show brought us Left Shark.
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a woman in her 30s singing about being “your teenage dream tonight.”
Katie Perry may not have a great voice, but she was smart enough to bring Missy Elliott on stage. She knows when to lean into spectacle, and that the Super Bowl halftime show is not when you try out new material. She ran through her hits and flew around on a shooting star, which seemed chintzy and lacked subtlety when compared to other stunts, but was also pretty entertaining.
17: The Who, 2011
Sometimes a Super Bowl halftime show is just a vehicle for a concert experience in your living room that you will never have in the real world.
Most of us will never get to watch The Who play “Baba O’Reilly” live, but imagine what it was like in 2010, when a bunch of old guys blew the roof off of a song about teenage wasteland, and everyone’s conservative uncle was transported to a time when they were smoking pot at the playground. Yes, their voices weren’t what they once were, but like, is yours?
16: Paul McCartney, 2005
The naughts were another era tinged with nostalgia. Which begs the question, has American culture ever lived in the present moment? Paul McCartney, as usual, ran through his greatest hits and those of the band that brought him fame.
While I don’t mind McCartney and think he does put on a good show, I still think he should always have Ringo on stage with him. Also, Paul, would it kill you to hire a female musician?
Still, I would sing along to all these songs with zero reservations. And there were plenty of fireworks, which added back some drama missing without dance numbers.
15: Bruno Mars, 2014
Bruno Mars has energy, he has pizzaz, and he makes you smile, gosh darn it! Here’s a guy not afraid to put on a show during which he will sing, he will dance, and he will even do splits.
At one point, Bruno brought on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the show feels like something hatched up at an L.A. party in a fancy house in the hills where you wouldn’t even be let up the driveway. What do these bands have in common? Who cares! Anthony Kiedis doesn’t have a shirt on!
The Super Bowl halftime show should really have at least one schmaltzy moment that makes you feel like the world isn’t burning to the ground in front of your eyes, and Bruno came through with service members dedicating a song to their loved ones. A solid performance.
14: Up With People, 1982
In 1982, America failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean Americans weren’t a little bit high on gender and racial equality, and probably marijuana. That year’s Super Bowl halftime show perfectly encapsulates a culture striving for something like equity through massive dance numbers, pop music and a stage full of men in vests playing guitar.
The high point of this show was when the 1980s crowd gets nostalgic about 1960s folk music.
13: U2, 2002
After 9/11, for a while, you couldn’t have an event or a show or anything without acknowledging that horrible day. U2, even though OK, they aren’t American, were a perfect band to deal with this during the Super Bowl halftime show. They were already dramatic in a way that draws you into their orbit of extreme emotion. Looking back, I bet as those names scrolled through on the giant screen, American living rooms were filled with teary-eyed people.
America needed that catharsis over and over again. Maybe we still need it.
12: Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, The Judds, 1994
If you can’t find joy in this extreme country music lineup, with a whole field full of line dancers, then you probably weren’t alive in 1994. So many vests, so much fringe. It was a different time. At the end of this show, everyone got on stage and sang “Love Can Build a Bridge,” and that everyone included Stevie Wonder and Naomi Judd.
11: Lady Gaga, 2017
Lady Gaga literally rappelled into her show, after doing a medley of America songs. Love her or hate her, she is definitely entertaining. Her outfits, her voice, her songs about getting too drunk at the club. It’s not hard to watch her with some interest.
She ended the show by jumping off the risers, catching a football in midair. This is halftime, America.
10: Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, The Temptations, Queen Latifah, 1998
The late ’90s were another American era full of nostalgia, and this “Tribute to Motown” show was the perfect mix of retro music and ’90s boys in baggy pants and girls in crop tops dancing in unison.
The most perfect late ’90s moment in this show came when Queen Latifah sang her cover of “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which is actually called “Paper.” What a time to be alive.
9: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, 2009
What’s more American than Bruce Springsteen demanding you put the chicken fingers down so he can sing about New Jersey for 12 minutes?
Bruce Springsteen is always having the best time when he performs and the thing is, we all have the best time listening. He doesn’t do the spectacle, but almost everyone can sing along to every one of his songs.
This halftime show was essentially a Springsteen concert for everyone, and that’s a good thing.
8: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 2008
In terms of 12-minute concerts for the country, Tom Petty in his full beard stage put on a great one. Tom Petty was a national treasure, and he died way too soon, so, as much as I think football should be outlawed unless they can deal with their brain injury problem, I am grateful to Super Bowl for giving us another opportunity to see this great band have the time of their lives playing the songs that are absolutely part of the fabric of our country.
7: Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, 1999
Sometimes the Super Bowl halftime show actually manages to tap into the zeitgeist, and what was more zeitgeisty in 1999 than ska and swing dancing? That’s where this show started but not where it stopped, We also got a medley of Stevie Wonder hits, and an extreme tap dance from Savion Glover, which Stevie joined in.
As if that wasn’t enough, Gloria Estefan came out singing in Spanish with a cadre of excellent dancers.
This was one of those epic shows that reflected America in 1999, when money was flowing and we weren’t in one single war. We didn’t know 9/11 was coming, or “weapons of mass destruction” or a resurgence of Nazis. You could really have fun in 1999. Give it a few years, and the vibe will be a lot less joyful. But that year … it was a heady time.
6: Diana Ross, 1996
This Diana Ross halftime show was a real extravaganza. It had dancers, children holding hands, costume changes, fireworks, a gospel choir and so many hits.
Everyone here was having the time of their lives, including the audience and probably the at-home audience too.
When Diana descended from her pedestal wearing a skintight plum-colored jumpsuit and started singing “I Will Survive,” even as the wind whipped her hair in front of her face, well, this was the America I, for one, wanted to live in.
A helicopter landed on the field. No one cared about peak oil or climate change, and Diana was escorted onto the helicopter and flew off, hanging out the side of the helicopter. Take that, Justin Timberlake.
5: Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Beyonce, 2016
It was a smart move by the Super Bowl halftime show producers to bring these three together for the Super Bowl’s 50th anniversary, even though Beyonce clearly should have headlined and not Chris Martin.
Still, Mr. Coldplay is infectious, and the graphics on the stage and the umbrella dancers are charming, and Bruno Mars is exactly the kind of cotton candy singalong music you want in a Super Bowl halftime show. Plus it’s very entertaining to watch him dance.
But it’s Beyonce, who marches out and brings the whole thing down with “Formation.” Somehow, the No. 1 American in America created a musical number during the most mainstream event possible that was about oppression and racial justice and was beautiful and catchy too.
For the Super Bowl’s history of pop singers trying to bring the people messages of hope and equality and world peace, this message about reality was revolutionary.
Of course, the show wasn’t all a reminder of our divided, racist nation. When the three stars came together to sing, you could almost believe football would unite the world instead of tearing us apart.
The show ended with the crowd spelling “Believe in love.” Those were the days, huh?
4: Madonna, 2012
A Super Bowl halftime show should be too much. It should be extra extra extra. So obviously, Madonna’s was a good one. A graphic stage, slack line stunts, a Roman theme, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., Cee Lo Green? Check, check, check, check, check, check.
At one point, Madonna climbed on one of LMFAO’s shoulders. What’s not to love?
One of Madonna’s talents is finding the most amazing backup dancers. The whole spectacle here is worth watching over and over again, whenever you are feeling sad. And then, it ended with a life-affirming rendition of “Like a Prayer” and the words “World Peace.” Football! Super Bowl! World peace!
3: Beyonce, 2013
In 2013, Beyonce was on top of her game, where she remains, honestly, and production values were turned up to 11. At one point, there was a guitar with fireworks shooting out of it. At another point, she was dancing with herself replicated behind her. Oh, and she reunited Destiny’s Child.
After watching a lot of halftime shows, and since Prince is dead, I think the only conclusion a reasonable person can draw is Beyonce should do all Super Bowl halftime shows. In fact, cancel the football game, and let’s have a national Beyonce Appreciation Day, where she throws a concert and it is aired live on every TV station simultaneously all day.
2: J-Lo and Shakira, 2020
There was dancing, light bondage, a pole routine, a horn section that was probably not playing their horns, and Bad Bunny. The 2020 show was such a fun party, it immediately became a classic, even though some people got upset and called the show “too sexual,” as if the year before a man hadn’t taken the majority of his clothes off on stage.
The show ended with Shakira and J-Lo shaking their hips triumphantly and joyously, unaware that a virus was rampaging around the world and would soon change almost every detail of life as we know it. Oh, to go back to a time when our biggest worry was if J-Lo and Shakira were too sexy for national television.
1: Prince, 2007
At this point, everyone has seen Prince sing “Purple Rain” in the rain. Apparently, in the 40 previous years of the Super Bowl, it never rained. But maybe Prince summoned the water from the sky, who knows? It doesn’t matter if it was divine intervention or just the whims of the weather, the whole show was iconic: his stage in the shape of a symbol, the two dancers spinning around him, “All Along the Watchtower,” his classic Prince smirk.
Prince didn’t need to come in on a monster lion or drop in from the sky. Prince was the monster lion. He was an angel, dropped from the sky.