clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Super Bowl Halftime Show: A Brief History

The Super Bowl halftime show has gone from very humble, understated beginnings to the very non-humble, flamboyant Madonna, in the span of its 45-year history. Once the venue for marching bands, the halftime show has moved on to Up With People, country music tributes, hip-hop, soul, Motown, a tiny purple-clad Midwesterner and wrinkly classic rock. The NFL has clearly created a monster, by turning a routine, time-filling, low-key show into a spectacularly stunning show-business extravaganza.

It all began on January 15, 1967, when assorted college marching bands, a high school drill team and trumpeter Al Hirt entertained fans at halftime of the NFL-AFL Championship Game (retroactively known as Super Bowl I) at the LA Coliseum. The next few years were more of the same, but with a Carol Channing thrown in here (1970 and 1972) and a Woody Herman and Andy Williams thrown in there (1973). The Grambling State University band jazzed things up a little in 1975 with their tribute to Duke Ellington, and things took an ugly turn in 1976, when Up With People were introduced to the Super Bowl, honoring our country's bicentennial. But the mild-mannered show continued in the same vein for the next decade, with more marching bands and more Up With People. Sure, occasionally George Burns, Mickey Rooney and Chubby Checker would join the festivities. There would be someone or something named Elvis Presto. Disney would step in to produce a show (with New Kids on the Block as their chosen entertainer). And in 1992 Gloria Estefan paid tribute to "Winter Magic" and the Olympics. But viewers weren't tuning in solely to watch the performers. The game was still the thing (along with the marathon pregame shows).

But everything changed on January 31, 1993, during Super Bowl XXVII (when the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills). That's when Michael Jackson came along with his "Heal the World" theme. Performing "Billie Jean," "Black or White" and a few other songs, surrounded by a large gathering of children (really? no red flags went up there? nobody raised their hand and said, "You know, this may not look appropriate given the rumors and allegations against this particular performer"), Jackson made the halftime show a ratings smash, and turned the unspectacular into a true spectacular. Huge ratings? Just for the halftime show? A light bulb went on over the heads of the powers that be, and a marching band and Up With People were never seen or heard from again. Instead, the likes of Clint Black, Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, the (sort of) Blue Brothers (Dan Ackroyd, John Goodman, Jim Belushi), James Brown, a tribute to Motown with actual Motown artists (Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, the Temptations), Chaka Khan, Phil Collins, Aerosmith, Britney Spears and U2 (with a tribute to 9/11 victims) all took the makeshift stage. Goodbye Miss Texas 1973 playing the fiddle, hello ZZ Top.

The most infamous halftime-show moment came in 2004, of course, involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. As they were performing a version of "Rock Your Body," one of Jackson's breasts was briefly exposed, and the terms "wardrobe malfunction" and "nipplegate" entered our country's lexicon. CBS was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the FCC, the halftime show is now shown on a slight delay, the league has cleaned up the resulting shows and there's a million(give-or-take)-word Wikipedia entry on the incident. Since the Jackson-Timberlake snafu (or maybe it was all planned), the league has played it safe, with mainly senior citizens, such as Paul McCartney (which would have been impressive if he and his three friends played in 1967), the Rolling Stones (or if they performed in 1969), Tom Petty (how about 1979?), Bruce Springsteen (1976?) and the Who (1971?), performing, with an occasional Prince or Black Eyed Peas sighting (trivia: the Black Eyed Peas and Shania Twain are the only two acts to perform at both the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup).

This year, at halftime of Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, Madonna is scheduled to sing "Vogue," "Music," "Give Me All Your Luvin'" and "Like a Prayer," with guests LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. and Cee Lo Green. But you never now -- maybe Mickey Rooney will show up. And it's only a matter of time until the NFL presents as its halftime show, "A Tribute to Super Bowl Halftime Shows."