Super Bowl halftime shows ranked: Prince, U2, Rihanna — and Usher on deck

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(Editor’s note: In addition to being a baseball writer for The Athletic, Levi Weaver previously was an accomplished singer, songwriter and musician who played approximately 1,000 shows in 43 states and 10 countries.)

Here is a brief list of things that didn’t exist on Jan. 27, 1991:

  • Sonic the Hedgehog
  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
  • “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
  • Websites

When attempting something so foolhardy as ranking every Super Bowl halftime show from 1991 to the present, it’s not really fair to compare them as if they existed at the same time. So, I did my best to weight context when making these rankings.

I started with 1991, as it would be wildly unfair to compare 1989 — when an Elvis Presley impersonator did card tricks meant to be viewed through 3-D glasses — with the biggest stars in the world playing football’s grandest stage. Here’s the rubric I used:

Music (1-10): Instrumentation, vocal performance
Staging (1-10): Combination lighting/stage presentation and choreography
Set list (1-5): Did they play the hits and keep the energy high?
Memorable (1-10): Ten points means we’re still talking about it; one point means the same thing, but for all the wrong reasons.
“Vibes” (1-12): The most important (and least tangible) element … did it work?
Geographic relevance (1-3): Did they incorporate a local act? Or, did the locale contribute to the performance at all?

The most a halftime show can score is 50 points. Here we go:

In 1992, organizers had yet to learn that the Super Bowl could have much better production value. But this one was so bad it prompted organizers to shake things up the following year — bringing in Michael Jackson and changing the halftime show forever.

Gloria Estefan’s performance was fine, but she didn’t even appear until late in the 13-minute show, after a snowflake army’s rendition of something called “Winter Magic,” followed by children rapping about Frosty the Snowman.

I now believe that this is the video they show performers when asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to lip-sync it?”

The “Indiana Jones”-themed set looked very expensive, and the costumes certainly were more involved than anything we’d seen before. But there was far too much bad acting: A faux Indiana Jones (not Harrison Ford) steals the Super Bowl trophy, and there is a fight scene, replete with movie sound bites playing. The whole thing felt like a half-baked promo put together by studio execs.

Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett deserved better, but both felt very shoehorned in, as if the organizers would have preferred not to include musical guests at all. They wrapped with “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from “The Lion King,” and mercifully, that was the end.

The halftime show sponsored by House of Blues. We could have had Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, The Meters, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Instead, this show kicked off with another marketing scheme for an upcoming movie about a blues band (from Chicago).

James Brown was good (albeit lip-synced, as evidenced here and elsewhere). ZZ Top were solid. Good choices, but sullied by the blues headliners.

It should have worked. The halftime show was emerging from the “apologize for 2004 by booking older acts” era, and the presentation was decidedly modern — futuristic, even. All it lacked was an act that could sing on pitch. Fergie’s mic was cut for the first few seconds, but in retrospect, I’m not sure turning it on was the best remedy.


Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas and guitarist Slash at the Super Bowl XLV halftime show in 2011. (Paul Spinelli / Associated Press)

I will say that this performance sounded like a group of college friends on a very fun night out at a karaoke bar. Slash did fine in his cameo, and Usher was … well, he did the splits, so that was something. But aside from a flashy stage presentation, it was largely only memorable for unfortunate reasons.

I absolutely hated this show in real time.  So, I did my best to watch it with fresh eyes for this list.

I still hate it.

From the intro where Bruce Springsteen barks at us to “put the chicken fingers dowwwwn” to having a referee throw a delay of game flag just before Steven Van Zandt hollers, “It’s Boss tiiiiiiime!” … it’s just all so very cringe.

The E Street Band is made up of some brilliant musicians, and Springsteen is a great songwriter. That should boost them higher on this list, but for me, none of that was able to shine through the cheesiness of the presentation.

27: Diana Ross (1996): 25 points

It’s honestly remarkable how many of these feel like an attempt to correct a mistake made the year before. A year after the “Indiana Jones” debacle, organizers went back to a more traditional on-field setup, with marching band members in formation as Diana Ross blasted through a medley of her numerous hits from a bare-bones stage.

It was very straightforward, inoffensive and a reasonable marriage of old-style choreography with a big star at the center, but none of it felt very inventive or up to the scope of the event. The exit via helicopter was a nice touch, I guess.

26. The Who (2010): 26.5 points

Sorry for getting in the music production weeds here, but I think I have a theory for why this set fell flat. They mixed a rock and roll band like a pop act: The vocals were way too prominent over the instrumentation. Given how much effort it took Pete Townshend to hit the high notes on “Teenage Wasteland” and how half-baked Roger Daltrey’s harmonica solo sounded, it was a particularly egregious decision.

At their best, The Who were at the forefront of the rock and roll revolution. Here, they come off as an anachronism on a futuristic light-show stage.

The idea — celebrating 40 years of Motown — was solid. Mixing artists from the heyday of Motown (The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas) with current artists (Queen Latifah, Boyz II Men)? I was interested, but it’s not a good sign when notes from a halftime show include, “It was fine.”

I like all of these acts. It was like seeing a living museum of the Motown era, with a modern wing for the kids. There’s value in that!

But was it entertainment value? Not to the level you’d expect from a Super Bowl halftime show.

This one scores high in stage presentation. The set looked closer to an Olympics opening ceremony than anything previously seen at a Super Bowl. Throw in the Disney orchestra, and the whole thing felt very grandiose.

Unfortunately, once the artists took the stage, it started to feel very not-so-grandiose. The Super Bowl halftime show should be a party, not an emotional final scene of an inspirational film. When Edward James Olmos’ narration starts — he even used the phrase “the tapestry of magic”— it’s apparent: They want us to feel things.

Just play the hits! Do the drum thing from “In The Air Tonight.” It’s so simple!

A much better set list, but somehow, the sum was less than the parts. I can’t knock Shania Twain’s performance at all. Gwen Stefani was a bit pitchy from all the running around and dancing, but it was still pretty good. The Police should have gotten a longer set, and Sting’s attempt to replicate Nelly’s half-jersey from a few years prior wasn’t great.

Overall, it lacked elements that would have made it memorable.

I tried to rank on the merits of performance alone. Starting the show in a small club atmosphere below the stadium was a nice touch. But then, Justin Timberlake goes into “Rock Your Body” (the offending song from 2004 … more on that later), omitting the final line with a “hold up, stop.” And later in the set, “Cry Me a River” — written about Britney Spears — also hits differently, knowing what we know now.

It’s a shame, because devoid of context, this was an objectively brilliant performance. There was even a tribute to Prince, with a shot of Minneapolis lit up in purple!

This is murky, and again, I really tried to rank on the merits of the performance — even though I know full well what everyone remembers. I think this was an objectively better halftime show than the Rolling Stones. But the metrics are the metrics, and everyone talked about this for the wrong reasons.

Even before “the incident,” this halftime show already had a different vibe than any we’d seen before. We even got our first curse word in albeit a fairly tame “ass is bodacious” line by Nelly. In retrospect, hearing “I am getting so hot; I’m gonna take my clothes off” feels more like an omen than a singalong. Kid Rock even references “topless dancers” and “methadone clinics” in “Bawitdaba.”

It was a modern, slightly more tawdry halftime show! And then …

It’s a shame that the show as a whole is more or less forgotten thanks to controversy. Janet Jackson deserved better.

This was the second year of the “vintage acts” era. It’s nowhere near “Winter Magic” bad, but after 2004’s controversy scuttled a blossoming multiple-megastars-on-stage-at-once trend, it was a bit of a letdown to see a shorter version of a standard show from a band whose peak was 25 or so years prior — even if they are one of the all-time great touring acts. As Mick Jagger said before launching into “Satisfaction”: “This one, we coulda done at Super Bowl I.”

If they had, it would be much higher on this list.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is a good example of how a band doesn’t have to be the biggest act in the world to succeed on a large stage. Swing music was going through a renaissance around this time, and they kicked off the show with a fun (if a bit dated) vibe.

But what I really want to talk about is this: Stevie Wonder was driving a car. (Let’s throw it to Shaquille O’Neal for conspiracy theory story time.)

Wonder’s set was uncharacteristically shaky — some echo issues that were out of his control and one botched high note — but still good. It was Estefan who stuck the landing. The Latin-infused set was a perfect fit for Miami. Overall, pretty good for the era!

Adam Levine’s vocals are a big part of what makes Maroon 5 such a good band, so it was a bit disappointing for them to be just OK in the first half of the show. The falsetto in “She Will Be Loved” and “Moves Like Jagger” was strong — less so in “Sugar.”

I can’t decide how I feel about the “SpongeBob SquarePants” introduction of Travis Scott. My gut says “bad,” but my heart tells me to stop being old and grumpy. My bigger issue was if you’re going to have to bleep out half of Scott’s performance, maybe just go with someone else? Points for getting Big Boi for an Atlanta Super Bowl, but otherwise (beyond Levine taking off his shirt) this was a fairly forgettable show.

17. Tom Petty  (2008): 32.5 points

It feels a bit grim for Prince and Tom Petty to have played in back-to-back halftime shows, given that the two passed away a little over a year apart in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Following Prince probably hurts Petty’s ranking here. Not his fault, just a tough draw.

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Tom Petty was the headliner during the Super Bowl XLII halftime show in 2008. (Ben Liebenberg via Associated Press)

It was a pretty good show by a great artist. Very few bells and whistles, just the hits. Get in, get out, passing grade, on to the next.

A Beatle? Playing Beatles songs? On a stage that actually took some effort to construct? Big pyrotechnics? Seems like a winning combination. I’m even almost inclined to forgive an emotional ballad here, since an entire Super Bowl crowd singing along to “Hey Jude” is a moment that those in attendance surely haven’t forgotten.

Unfortunately, it is painfully obvious that 2005 marked the beginning of a seven-year era of halftime shows that seemed designed to apologize to the public for the controversy of 2004. The goal appeared less to take the halftime show to new heights and more to simply avoid an international incident. Mission accomplished, but in context, it was a little boring compared to what it could have been.

Country music was having a moment in 1994, and this lineup worked great for a Super Bowl in the south (Atlanta). Clint Black had bigger hits, but going with “Tuckered Out” before handing it off to the inimitable Tanya Tucker was a pun I can appreciate. The Judds had broken up four years prior, so it was cool to see Naomi join her daughter Wynonna on stage for “Love Can Build a Bridge” (though “Rockin’ With the Rhythm” would have been better, in my opinion).

While the music was solid, the production value was pretty mid for the first three performers, until the younger Judd took the stage to a sea of sword-length glow sticks that really emphasized the stadium-show feel. I’m not sure they could have done much more, though. Too many bells and whistles would have felt inauthentic.

2001 marked a sea change between safe and middle-of-the-road to “let’s find the biggest stars of the day — and then add some other big stars.” Great in theory, but going back and forth between NSYNC and Aerosmith for the first half was vibes whiplash. Fortunately, it improved when the collaboration got started with “Walk This Way.”

I would have loved to have seen Run DMC here, but Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige filled in brilliantly. Nelly’s half-Ravens/half-Giants jersey was something we’ll all remember.

It was at this point I realized that I prefer when the Super Bowl is not on the west coast, so that we get a nighttime show instead of a mid-afternoon festival feel. Organizers did a good job employing a lot of bright colors and flowers into the staging, but it didn’t feel like a real party while the sun was up.

I mean no offense to Coldplay when I say this: Their performance was exactly a Coldplay show, and they’re one of the biggest bands of this millennium. But when Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars hit the stage, the energy level soared. Mars is just suited for this stage. So is Beyoncé, and the dance-off mash-up between the two was the sort of pairing the halftime show should strive for.

12. Lady Gaga (2017): 36.5 points

The choice to pair “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land” as an opener was not only low-energy, but a weird pairing. Woody Guthrie wrote the latter as a clap-back at what he felt was misguided levels of patriotism by Irving Berlin. I get why one might have felt we needed some healing and unity in January of 2017, but this felt forced and ill-advised.

But then, the jump — followed by the descent to the stage while Gaga kicked her legs like a frog mad about being picked up — lives rent-free in my head at least a half-dozen times a year.

Had the show started around the 1:20 mark, it would have ranked higher, as the rest of the show was vintage Lady Gaga. Bold stage choices with art-school aesthetics, massive hits, good vocal performance … and even a keytar! The show even finished with Gaga jumping off something else, this time catching a ball in the process. I could have lived without slowing the show down with “Million Reasons,” but I’d be beating a dead horse about keeping the set list peppy.

11. The Weeknd (2021): 39 points

The performance that launched a million memes. I’m a big fan of mixing in some modern artists who don’t have the decades-long cache of hits to choose from. (On that note: can we get Jon Batiste a slot next year, please?)

Performance-wise, it was good! His lower vocal register was a bit shaky, but my goodness did he blast out the high notes. Unfortunately (in direct contrast to The Who), the vocals were mixed too low. I feel like I can hear the drum cymbals above everything else for the first half of the show. But this show was more about the spectacle than the performance, and on that front, it delivered. Even the fact that he spent so long in that lit-up corridor with the masked dancers was delightfully weird.

At this point in halftime show history, the stages had been getting bigger and more elaborate each year. I thought this would be the apex, but the following year raised the bar even further (more on that later).

This is The Weeknd’s meme-generator predecessor. We still remember Left Shark almost a decade later. Also, remember Katy Perry riding in on that big robotic-looking, Transformer-Mufasa thing?

I’m not sure the second half of the show — with all the cartoonish, beach-ball mascot dancers and palm trees — would have worked for a halftime show had the shark on the left not forgotten the bulk of the dance routine. It was such a phenomenon that people tend to forget that Missy Elliott also put on a great performance of “Get Ur Freak On” and “Lose Control.”

9. Rihanna (2023): 41 points

Some important context: Rihanna hadn’t played a show in five years. It was later revealed she also was pregnant with her second child. And yet, there she was, suspended high above the field at State Farm Stadium.

If context benefits, it can also take away. If we could time-travel Rihanna back to 2006, it would have been among the most iconic performances of all time, on any stage. Floating stages? Those dancers and that choreography? The number of certified bangers she ran through? The level of creativity and spectacle would have broken our collective psyche.

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Rihanna performed during the Super Bowl LVII halftime show in 2023. (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

But in 2023? The best show in the history of the world (circa 2006) was just a good halftime show. It was good! I have no nitpicks. But was it special?

Well, it cracked the top 10, so … a little bit?

Finally, the Material Girl arrived at the centerpiece of American excess.

It was everything you’d expect from a Madonna show: hit after hit, slightly tawdry choreography, a gospel choir, centurions. Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. still were early in their careers, and absolutely held their own as guest stars, as did CeeLo Green.

A great halftime show, but I’d be remiss not to point out that M.I.A. flipped off the camera as she delivered the line “I don’t give a s—,” which caused the NFL to make the next move.

How do I put this? This is by far the most, uh, “sensual” halftime show we’ve ever seen. From Shakira belly dancing with a rope to Jennifer Lopez’s pole routine above a writhing mass of backing dancers, it was definitely pushing envelopes.

But it wasn’t all hip shaking and pelvic thrusts. The six-piece brass ensemble serving as Shakira’s backing dancers was a nice touch, and her vocal performance was one of the best we’ve seen. J-Lo’s vocal performance absolutely exceeded my expectations, as well, going full-throated rasp at times and staying on pitch. And then Shakira hopped on a drum kit and played it well? Dang.

From a talent standpoint, I can’t deduct any points at all. The Latin-influenced dance finale was a perfect ending to a set that felt very Miami. As far as the general sexiness of it all, it wasn’t obscene, but it definitely pushed the boundaries of what we could expect from a halftime show.

I had been saying for a while at this point that the Super Bowl needed a halftime show of Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe. This show granted half of my request, and I felt vindicated.

After a short intro with Mars playing a drum solo, it was time to party. Pedal down, start to finish. Mars’ persona and catalog are uniquely and perfectly suited for this occasion. The goal of his career seems to be getting everyone on the dance floor and having the night of their lives. It’s a true talent to be on the world’s biggest stage and still make the audience feel like the experience is about them.

No offense to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who are consummate performers and did nothing wrong, but I would have been fine to let Mars just do the whole thing. Still, the chaotic mash-up of the two acts was a spectacle and deserves credit for working well as a one-off.

Imagine that the only halftime shows you’ve ever seen involved marching bands or children rapping about snowmen. And then one of the most transformative artists of all time starts his performance by defiantly posing on the stage in silence for a minute and a half.

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Michael Jackson headlined the Super Bowl XXVII halftime show in 1993. (Al Messerschmidt via Associated Press)

It’s incredibly rare for something from 1993 to hold up more than 30 years later, but this performance does. The production value (by 1993 standards, anyway), the musicianship (bonus points for guitarist Jennifer Batten’s glam-rock hairstyle adding to the message that this was something different) … it absolutely changed the Super Bowl halftime show forever. And even though it’s clearly dated, it holds up.

The only real deduction comes from shifting gears to an overwrought rendition of “We Are The World” when “Thriller,” “Bad” and others were right there for the taking.

I’m going to get roasted for putting this ahead of Michael Jackson, but with points for stage presentation and set list, that’s how it shakes out. Beyoncé’s vocals were flawless, and the stage and lighting were immaculate, with video screens allowing Beyoncé to serve as her own backing dancer(s). Oh, and Destiny’s Child reunited after a seven-year (!) hiatus. They kept the tempo up throughout, and from beginning to end, this was a flawless halftime show: a megastar, a reunion, a high-energy set and a beautiful stage.

Also, it wasn’t until Beyoncé asked the crowd to put their hands together that I realized there hadn’t been much crowd participation in these shows. It’s a small thing, but it played well.

This one had it all, with one exception: a moment that transcended the performance and elevated beyond greatness and into magic.

3. U2 (2002): 48 points

There were no guest stars for this one, which felt exactly right. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other band that could handle the emotional gravitas of a Super Bowl that came less than six months after 9/11. U2 managed to pull off the impossible — performing a touching tribute to a moment at the time still too big and too new to fully process, but doing so without sacrificing an ounce of showmanship or delving into jingoism.

The band opened with “Beautiful Day” before going into “MLK” as a large banner featuring the names of those who died in the attacks rose behind them to the top of the stadium. They wrapped with “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I remember audibly gasping as the banner fell at the end.

It was the one halftime show where it was perfectly fine to be emotional.

This lineup, in Los Angeles, had Dr. Dre kicking off proceedings sitting behind an all-white mixing board as a hat tip to the number of hits he has produced. It had a stage that was a map of Los Angeles, replete with vintage cars and houses with rooms. It had Anderson .Paak and band members playing along with the tracks. It had dancers. This is the greatest stage design in halftime show history, hands down.

But a great stage is nothing without a performance to match, and among these legends, there were more than enough hits to make a set list that featured no weak spots. The spectacle was surreal levels of perfection. Kendrick Lamar was the newest name among these stars, but he absolutely showed he belonged, delivering a sharp performance with memorable choreography. The staging and upside-down 50 Cent were the most tweetable images of the night, but Lamar’s performance was underrated.

Finish it with Dr. Dre playing the piano on “Still D.R.E.,” and it’s the second-best Super Bowl halftime show of all time.

1. Prince (2007): 50 points

(The stage) was slippery to begin with, and when it rained on it, it was treacherous.

The deluge began about 30 seconds before Prince took the stage, and organizers asked Prince if he wanted to cancel it to safety concerns. Prince, per Super Bowl halftime show producer Don Mischer, answered the question with a question: “Can you make it rain harder?”

When he launched into the guitar solo of “Purple Rain” as the heavens poured forth, it was one of those moments that nobody ever could have planned. Not just an all-time halftime show, but an all-time rock and roll performance.

It was transcendent, and it’s the one halftime show I’ve watched on multiple occasions since.

(Top photo of Prince: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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