The 5 Best Super Bowl Halftime Performers Ever

Prince performs during the Pepsi Halftime Show at Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears on February 4, 2007, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Prince performs during the Pepsi Halftime Show at Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears on February 4, 2007, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

With Super Bowl LI and a performance from Lady Gaga upon us, it’s time to go to the videotape and determine with scientific accuracy which past halftime shows were very good, and who was very bad. (Left Shark falls somewhere in between.)

We don’t count performances before the modern era, which began with 1991’s nod to New Kids on the Block. Previous to their performance, the Super Bowl halftime show featured a lot of marching bands and performances from Up With People!, who may have done a wonderful job in 1982 with their “Salute to the 1960s and Motown” or in 1986 with their “Beat of the Future,” but I don’t want to encourage those kinds of choices in the future. Especially when many legends are still potentially semi-living. We need Tina Turner, not Up With People’s “Tribute to Sexually Ambiguous Rockers of the 1970s.”

Let’s all be grateful that there won’t be any more tributes to the Big Band Era now that its fans are either dead or in places where they’re not in control of the TV remote. Laugh all you want, but it comes to us all.

Let’s get to the best!

5. Super Bowl XXXVI, New Orleans: U2 (2002)

Only Bruce Springsteen could’ve handled running the halftime celebration post-9/11 with as much diplomacy and success. But Springsteen’s music is best when it’s joyful, whereas U2’s works best when it’s tapping into the serenity of the soul. In this context, with the names of the fallen scrolling on a screen behind them, Bono and Co. made “Beautiful Day” sound like a promise to be kept. I say this as a complete non-fan who doesn’t care much for their solemnity, but here it was necessary.

4. Super Bowl XXX, Tempe, Ariz.: Diana Ross (1996)

Diana Ross’s medley of soul hits — “Stop in the Name of Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Baby Love,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Will Survive” (sorry, Gloria Gaynor) — was a solid selection of tunes everyone knows, but it was her decision to leave the stage via helicopter that made it a night to remember.

3. Super Bowl XXVII, Pasadena, Calif.: Michael Jackson (1993)

This is where the modern era truly starts. Sure, New Kids on the Block provided a current name in 1991 and Gloria Estefan was more culturally relevant than Carol Channing in 1992, but Michael Jackson was the World’s Biggest Musical Star, and his halftime performance increased TV ratings so substantially that the Super Bowl Honchos running the show decided to ride the pyrotechnical wave we currently enjoy where people stick around for the show. Not sure “We Are the World” or the “children’s choir” was a good idea, but “Billie Jean” was worth it.

2. Super Bowl XXXIX, Jacksonville, Fla.: Paul McCartney (2005)

After the “wardrobe malfunction” of the previous year, the Super Bowl Committee for Wardrobe Malfunctionless Performances saw to it that they hired a performer who would keep his clothes on. Preferably someone older and safer and without breasts to bare! Sure enough, Beatles/Wings reservist Paul McCartney stuck to the music, and while I would’ve chosen four different tunes, the fact that Macca has too many songs to choose from says he deserved the job. He did get to sing about “California grass,” but at this point it refers to the lawn in a boomer retirement village.

1. Super Bowl XLI, Miami Gardens, Fla.: Prince, Florida A&M University Marching 100 Band (2007)

How Prince’s people coordinated with Mother Nature, Inc. to have it rain during “Purple Rain” will certainly be a fascinating chapter in Prince’s eventual tell-all autobiography due in 2032, but for now we just have video proof that Prince went beyond what a halftime performer is contracted to do. He came. He played. He conquered. That even people who hate him on principle (not me) had to admit he was good tells you something: He was very good.

Related: 7 Super Bowl Halftime Performers That Time Forgot