The Super Bowl halftime show is the largest stage in the world, rocketing anyone who dares step onto its surface right to the front of the cultural conversation. In recent years, the NFL has used the halftime show as a way to reach out to demographics beyond the usual beer-and-chips crowd, and the results have often been spectacular. Many years, the halftime show gives fans who have never listened to the music of some of the world's biggest artists a chance to see what all the fuss is about. Some falter on the big stage, some survive … and a very few thrive. Let's remember some titans:
Honorable Mention: Katy Perry (Super Bowl XLIX, 2015): The choreography for Katy Perry's spectacle was so magnificently weird that it would deserve a spot on this list if she just stood mute as she rode in on a gargantuan golden tiger-robot-thing and strode through dancing chess pieces. But then Left Shark joined the party, dancing to a beat only it could hear, and everything kicked up five notches.
10. Michael Jackson (Super Bowl XXVII, 1993): By the early 1990s, the Super Bowl halftime show had grown stale and silly, and needed a heavy dose of star power. Enter: Michael Jackson, a few years past his 1980s peak but still able to command a stadium to the extent he could stand still for several minutes before the music even started. Jackson's worst showmanship instincts were at play here — though he kicked off with "Billie Jean," he wasted time with inconsequential piffle like "Heal the World" when literally anything else out of his repertoire would have hit harder. The mix is terrible — the audience drowns Jackson out — but it was worlds better than the showy talent-show silliness of the previous quarter century, and it paved the way for superstars to own halftime.
9. Lady Gaga (Super Bowl LI, 2017): It takes real courage — and presence — to command the Super Bowl halftime show all by yourself, and Gaga did exactly that in all her glorious Broadway-robot-space-alien weirdness, diving off the roof of the stadium and leading a pulsing cast of thousands through a frantic, chaotic explosion of color, flame and sheer exuberance. Halftime show ante: raised.
8. Madonna (Super Bowl XLVI, 2012): Madonna was part of a line of halftime show performers a couple generations past their pop-culture primes, but while some proceeded through a rote recitation of their classic hits, Madonna decided to stage an entire over-the-top extravaganza of garish costumes and spectacular dance numbers, drenched in sexual innuendo that had parents all over the country scrambling for the remote. Plus, M.I.A. flipped off the camera, a bit of goofy defiance that likely cost her a bit of money in the undisclosed settlement she reached with the NFL.
7. Jennifer Lopez & Shakira (Super Bowl LIV, 2020): There was a brief period when the NFL catered almost exclusively to its older male fan base, rolling out comfortable classic rockers to drench the night in nostalgia. Those days are past; the NFL knows it's already got those fans roped in, so now it can try to expand the tent with more spectacle — like this glorious, frenetic tribute to Latin culture. Between Shakira's hips and Jennifer Lopez's ageless dancing athleticism, nobody paid much attention to their guacamole during this halftime show. (They threw in a little Led Zeppelin for the classic rockers, too.)
6. Diana Ross (Super Bowl XXX, 1996): Granted, you'd be right in wondering whether Diana Ross was the right person to perform a halftime show in the 1990s. But this particular show set the standard for spectacle, with Miss Ross making multiple costume changes, including an enormous golden dress, before she literally takes off, still singing, hanging out the window of a helicopter that lands on the field. Now that's how you make an exit.
5. U2 (Super Bowl XXXVI, 2002): U2's heart has always been in the right place, as they're all too often happy to tell you. An Irish band was a curious choice to play the first Super Bowl in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the uplifting chords of "Where The Streets Have No Name" (and the cheering fans) were a strange counterpoint to the scrolling names of those lost in the attacks. But at its best, rock can be a transcendent experience, and U2 edged up to that peak on this night.
4. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar (Super Bowl LVI, 2022): The NFL gave Dr. Dre the keys to the house, and all Dre did was throw one of the greatest parties the game has ever seen. Dre and his collaborators whipped up a concise history of hip-hop, tucked anti-authority messages in amongst the beats, and wrapped it all in one of the most gloriously garish sets the Super Bowl has ever seen. What separates this from the ridiculous over-the-top halftime shows of years past is the sense that everyone involved was staying in the pocket, performing with effortless cool. One for the ages.
3. Bruce Springsteen (Super Bowl XLIII, 2009): Everybody remembers the slide, where Bruce slid crotch-first right into your living room, but here's what accompanied it: simply the finest rock show ever to grace the Super Bowl. For a guy accustomed to holding the audience in the palm of his hand for four hours, 12 minutes was nothing, and Springsteen wrung out the crowd and left them gasping for breath. The Boss owned the night with little more than a few fireworks and the healing power of rock n' roll.
2. Beyoncé (Super Bowl XLVII, 2013): Every once in awhile, the best remind you why they're the best. This was Beyoncé's night to do exactly that. Old-school NFL fans who hadn't listened to new music since David Lee Roth left Van Halen were treated to a look at the heat Queen Bey could bring … and got their eyeballs singed. A performer at her absolute peak delivering on the biggest stage imaginable. No wonder the lights went out in the third quarter; Beyoncé took the power with her.
1. Prince (Super Bowl XLI, 2007): The standard by which every halftime show will be judged, now and forever … and to date, nothing has ever come close. The consummate showman on the biggest stage on earth, executing brilliance with every note. Prince wove funk, rock, blues and even marching bands into a magnificent gumbo, concluding with an epochal "Purple Rain" guitar solo … and he did it all in the rain. Of course. This is the pinnacle of what the halftime show has ever been, and will ever be.
This year's halftime show will be headlined by Rihanna. Will she have what it takes to land on this list? We'll find out soon enough.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.