The Best And Worst Super Bowl Halftime Shows Ranked

Ah, the Super Bowl. The one time each year Americans come together as a big, happy family over a greasy paper plate of chicken wings and pretend to understand the difference between a tight end and a first down. One is a… play? Or something? Let’s be honest— unless you are Uncle Nicky, who is still crying over that brutal Steelers loss, you are just here for the halftime show. But did you know that the Super Bowl halftime show how is still a relatively young tradition? That’s right— people used to actually watch the Super Bowl for the game.

Up until the 1990s, the gloriously gluttonous production that rallies Americans around the television for roughly twelve minutes a year took a totally different form. The performances were mostly fringe-clad college bands playing odes to America or Disney performers singing nostalgic tunes– the first Super Bowl Stage was not even built until 1986, according to The Washington Post. Today, the Super Bowl halftime show is practically its own event. After all, how many other football games have even the staunchest sports haters rushing into the room to watch the mid-game entertainment? And as with all live entertainment, these mid-game spectacles have been both disastrous and delightful. Here’s our list of the most memorable shows, ranked from “cringe-inducing” to “show-stopping.”

New Kids On The Block got bumped for the news

The New Kids on the Block halftime show set the stage (literally) for a new genre of Super Bowl performances. The Billboard-topping supergroup, which was the biggest boy band in the world at the time, generated unprecedented buzz for the halftime show. The Disney-sponsored performance starts with Mickey and the gang strutting out to a terrifying, wordless acapella version of “It’s A Small World After All,” (which answers the burning question, “What do you see before you’re murdered on the teacup ride?”) and morphs into the expected montage of dancing children in old-timey costumes.

But wait! About a minute and thirty seconds in, something happens: a voice that we can only assume is the ghost of Walt Disney comes on the mic to announce a special treat for the “Armed Forces children” (presumably the kids of service members, not tiny super soldiers) — the New Kids on the Block! The guys awkwardly sing a few songs before we get another “Small World” rendition as the announcer tells the audience that it’s time for a “card stunt” (a tradition which UC Berkeley claims to have invented). All in all, Super Bowl XXV’s halftime had a pretty safe show, albeit one that “remains largely forgotten,” according to The Atlantic, which also points out that the show wasn’t actually played during halftime at all. Instead, ABC aired an update on the Gulf War, and a (mercifully) shortened version of the show was played after the game ended.

The Bruno Mars/RCHP mashup was a mess

While we would not call the Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show bad, the combination of the slick, poppy stylings of Bruno Mars with the grungy Red Hot Chili Peppers seemed more like a last-minute decision than a consciously crafted pairing. In keeping with some unspoken Super Bowl tradition, the 2014 show starts with (what else?) a chorus of singing children. Mars then emerges on the drums, surprising many who didn’t realize he could play the instrument. “I don’t like that Bruno Mars is a better drummer than I am,” tweeted the Mountain Goats’ drummer Jon Wurster. Mars and his band, The Hooligans, rock out in metallic gold jackets and we start to forget the Red Hot Chili Peppers are on the bill at all until Mars’ lyrics shift into a slightly doo-wop inspired version of “Give it Away,” prompting the energetic 90s legends to emerge.

This show caused an uproar on the internet, but it wasn’t all praise, as critics noted that only Mars and RHCP frontman Anthony Kiedis were actually performing their parts live. Mars closed the show crooning “Just the Way You Are” while fireworks filled the sky. The crowd went nuts, but elsewhere, not everyone was a fan. Consequence of Sound, for example, summarized it this way: “Watching the band spaz out and jump about singing a track from 1991 while this young, hot pop star did his thing was a worse matchup than Denver’s offensive line and Seattle’s all-in defense.” Ouch.

There's a reason there's only been one country-themed halftime show

In 1994, Super Bowl XXVIII’s halftime show organizers attempted to balance out Michael Jackson’s pop-filled 1993 performance with a show entirely dedicated to country music, dubbed “Rockin’ Country Sunday,” per The Buffalo News. The show, which was a fitting theme for that year’s Atlanta-based game, featured solid, predictable performances from some of country music’s biggest stars, and a truly absurd amount of line dancers that happened to be perfect for the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” era of country music.

The show ends with an emotional chorus of “Love Can Build a Bridge” and, of course, fireworks. Our favorite moment? Wynonna Judd belting out “No One Else on Earth” as baton twirlers wielding lightsabers surround the stage. Bonus points to this performance for a Stevie Wonder cameo and Travis Tritt’s spectacular mullet-and-suede-fringe combo (shown above). The twangy performance was the last time we saw a country-themed Super Bowl Halftime Show, according to Billboard, which points out that the only country artist to grace the Super Bowl stage since 1994 was Shania Twain in 2003. Why? Well, as Vulture states in its own ranking of modern halftime shows, which puts honky-tonk hullabaloo almost dead last, “a huge chunk of the audience” wasn’t familiar with a lot of the material being performed, making it “a halftime show to forget.”

When someone's career dies, that's not good, right?

Although probably not the best halftime show musically (not to knock the poetic stylings of Kid Rock), the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show is definitely the most memorable football-adjacent memory for anyone born after 1995. Yes, there was some great singing, dancing, rapping, and outfits (notably Jessica Simpson in those rockin’ sequin cowboy boots and signature Daisy Dukes and Kid Rock’s controversial flag poncho, which earned him a scolding from the VFW), but let’s be real — the star of the show was Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction.”

According to the BBC, Justin Timberlake was supposed to rip away a panel on Jackson’s chest to reveal a red lace bra (choreographed, of course, to the words “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song”), but Jackson’s bare breast was revealed instead. The incident, dubbed “Nipplegate” by the media,  effectively ended Jackson’s career. According to Vox, she was blamed for the accident by MTV, blacklisted by Viacom, and given a hefty fine. Years later, fans still blame Timberlake for allowing Jackson to take the fall. Unlike Jackson, he was not asked by CBS to release an apology, despite his role in the scandalous incident that practically invented the five-second delay (and reportedly gave the founder of YouTube his idea for the website).

While Jackson’s career eventually recovered, the specter of the 2004 show still overshadowed Timberlake’s dismal return to the stage in 2018. 

The pop-rock-rap melange that shouldn't have worked, but kinda did

Some years, it seems like the folks that coordinate the Super Bowl halftime show just serve us a big bowl (pun intended) of superstar stew in hopes we will like someone on the stage. That is not always the best approach, but as we move down our ranking from the shows that flopped to the shows that flashed, we have to say that the throw-it-all-at-the-wall strategy worked out surprisingly well in 2001, when dad-rock staple Aerosmith was joined by a cast straight from the Billboard Top Ten. 

Super Bowl XXXV’s halftime show was peak 2001, starting with a campy intro, featuring Ben Stiller giving a locker room pep talk to the performers, introducing the group as “Aerosync … super-duper supergroup that’s about to rock it hard core.” The two bands then sprinted onto the field, and the energy was palpable as the audience cheered and rabid fans held up homemade signs declaring their love for ‘NSync (sorry, Aerosmith). The show had everything — a matching-denim-era Britney and Justin strutting their stuff to “Walk this Way,” Steven Tyler doing… some sort of dance, Mary J. Blige and Steven Tyler making eyes as they crooned into a shared mic, and Nelly interrupting the whole thing with a sharp, high-energy solo.

Was the whole thing “deeply, truly messy,” as CBC described it? Yeah, but it’s obvious that they are all having a blast, and we loved every minute of it.

2015 was Left Shark's time to shine

Katy Perry and Missy Elliott brought the absolute heat to the Super Bowl XLIX halftime show with a performance that VICE writer Kat George (admittedly, somewhat ironically) dubbed “the best halftime show there ever was.” And we ignored it, because we were too distracted by a dancing shark. While the 2015 show clearly didn’t top our list, it included so many fantastic moments (the least of which was Katy Perry riding an enormous geodesic lion in a dress made of flames). But the highlight of the show was a beach-themed “Teenage Dream” performance that featured a backup-dancing Great White who did not seem to know what was going on.

Left Shark, as he came to be known, turned into a cultural phenomenon, not to mention a popular, if not cheesy Halloween costume. NPR reported that Bryan Gaw, the man behind the toothy mask, was a longtime Katy Perry backup dancer that saw an opportunity for “freedom of expression” and took it. The rest of the show was Missy Elliot’s time to shine. The Hollywood Reporter even sniped that the “Work It” emcee’s show-stopping performance made Perry look “like wadded-up bubblegum stuck to Elliott’s shoe.” Yikes. Still, we know the real star of this show was the carnivorous fish who knew how to boogie.

Diana Ross left the Super Bowl XXX halftime show like 'a true diva'

Superstar diva Diana Ross made headlines during Super Bowl XXX’s halftime show with a dazzling performance that concluded with a thrilling helicopter exit set to the tune of “I Will Survive.” But before that, Ross nailed the show with four costume changes, each worthy of its own award. We happen to think she deserves all the kudos for her stunning gold floor-length jacket alone (shown above).

The show also featured gospel singers, a card stunt that had the audience spelling out “LOVE” during “Chain Reaction,” and mid-show fireworks. The real treat, however, was in the send-off: in a move that the Chicago Tribune called “the biggest surprise” of the 1996 show, the Motown queen left the arena by helicopter, with her legs literally dangling in the air, and looking perfectly poised while being airlifted from the stadium, her voice still belting over the speakers. To drive the point home to viewers, the text over the broadcast read “a true Diva knows how to make a Grand Entrance AND an even GRANDER EXIT.” We have to say we agree!

Did anyone expect Beyoncé's Super Bowl halftime show to be anything but iconic?

Beyoncé’s powerhouse performance in the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show had all the makings of a timeless classic: Incredible vocal performances. Exciting choreography. Leather bodysuits! It even birthed an incredibly popular meme featuring the singer in a less-than-attractive pose, which took the internet by storm after Beyoncé’s publicist requested that the “unflattering photos” be removed from Buzzfeed.

Despite the embarrassing photo gaffe, the show was Queen Bey’s coronation, letting the world know that this former girl group leader could rule the world on her own. Beyoncé herself remembers the 2013 halftime show with reverence. “It’s one of those magical performances that you can’t recreate,” she later told CBS, adding, “I wanted it to be something iconic and something that people would never forget.” The stadium even lost power after the show (which, it should be said, was not the fault of Beyoncé’s high-powered performance), providing the singer with a suitably dramatic wrap-up to an unforgettable show. It is impossible to pick a favorite moment from this one, but it’s hard to top the snappy, vocal harmony of the reunited Destiny’s Child.

Michael Jackson's halftime show was the one that changed them all

The New York Times called Michael Jackson’s Super Bowl XXVII halftime show performance the one that “redefined the Super Bowl.” While Jackson objectively put on a grand spectacle, it was perhaps even memorable because it followed the 1992 halftime show that Rolling Stone called “legendarily awful.” The megastar’s signature choreography and pantheon of hits energized audience members and viewers like never before, setting a standard for the high-profile productions that would come after it.

According to The New York Times, Jackson’s performance was the first Super Bowl halftime show to garner higher ratings than the athletic event itself, marking the Super Bowl’s transition from a football championship to a “mega-event that includes a game.” The show featured Jackson first appearing above a giant screen in a puff of smoke to an ecstatic crowd, before seemingly transporting to the main stage. Notably, Jackson did not start his show right away like other performers tend to, but rather, he spent nearly two full minutes basking in the crowd’s energy before launching into song and dance.

Jackson’s outfit, an iconic jacket-and-harness getup, even inspired Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show costume. Speaking with Essence, Beyoncé’s stylist said she modeled the outfit after Jackson’s partially because his 1993 performance “marked a change in global interest for the halftime show.” After Jackson’s legendary performance, Super Bowl halftime shows transformed from low-energy, family-oriented affairs to the star-studded spectacles they are today.

U2's Super Bowl halftime show was a healing moment

Like them or not, U2’s Super Bowl XXXVI halftime show certainly made an impact on viewers. The show occurred just five months after the events of Sept. 11, 2001 turned the world upside down, and Americans were still reeling with the incredible loss. The “meaningful, transcendent tribute,” as GQ called it, was completely dedicated to the victims of 9/11. The performance’s finale, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” included a massive screen with the names of the 9/11 victims scrolling in the background and concluded with Bono revealing American flag-themed lining of his jacket.

While such displays may seem cheesy to viewers today, GQ editor Ashley Fetters summed up the nation’s post-9/11 reception to the show: “I can’t imagine not burying my face in my hands if I watched that happen on live television today; it’s a different time, America’s an angrier place, and I’ve grown up and become an adult who bristles at these kinds of po-faced public expressions of extreme empathy. But back then, whoo, boy.” She was not alone; fans went absolutely bonkers for this heartfelt tribute (performed on a heart-shaped stage, no less) given by the talented Irish rockers.

Prince didn't need any help putting on the greatest Super Bowl halftime show ever

Prince’s Super Bowl XLI halftime show was accepted with near-universal praise– the Miami Herald called the show “halftime’s gold standard,” and it appears near the top of any ranked list of Super Bowl halftime shows (now including ours). Devoid of the event’s normal extravagance, this show is notable for its relative lack of flash (well, except for the fitting thunder-and-lightning introduction), giving the impression that there is a football game interrupting a Prince concert, not the other way around. As music critic Jon Pareles said of the performance (via Yahoo News!): “That Prince set is so wild… he’s not promoting himself, he’s just making music. It’s profound, and it’s loud, and it’s funky… it’s just one performer, shaking the entire world.”

The 2007 show is perhaps most fondly remembered as the show where nature itself became a special effect as Prince performed “Purple Rain” in an absolute downpour (on a stage shaped like Prince’s adopted “Love Symbol,” which has its own fascinating history). While the raging storm might have freaked out any normal person prancing around an open stage holding an electric guitar, Prince reportedly had the mostly perfectly Prince-like pre-show response to the weather (via Billboard): “Can you make it rain harder?”

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