Our Favorite (Black) Super Bowl Halftime Shows
Michael's spectacle, Diana's helicopter ascent & Prince's solo star power
This week on the podcast, we examined the Black history of the Super Bowl — namely how Black artists and marching bands have shaped the halftime show for decades. From Ella Fitzgerald to Michael Jackson, Beyoncé to Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige.
Continuing that thread, we each decided to pick our favorite halftime performance of all time. Coincidentally, they’re all from Black headliners.
Nnamdi wrote about Michael Jackson’s iconic, first-of-its-kind halftime show production.
Noah reflects on Diana Ross’ underrated performance.
Avery recounts Prince’s legendary concert in the rain.
Ep. 77: The Black History of the Super Bowl Halftime Show
The Legend Behind the Modern-Day Halftime Show
Michael Jackson invented the modern-day Super Bowl Halftime Show, so it's only fitting that’s where we start.
Pre-Jackson, halftime shows leaned more towards parade-style productions, complete with marching bands (several from HBCUs), tumblers and massive floats. While it could make for a nice visual, it wasn’t enough to sustain ratings during halves. In 1992, the year before Jackson, a new episode of Living Single managed to snag *and keep* about 17 million viewers. To ensure that never happened again, the NFL decided to go big – booking the world’s biggest pop star as a surefire way to enhance ratings.
Jackson, at the time, was the perfect face for the league. Remember, this was roughly 8 months before allegations of child sex abuse were made against him. The pop icon was instead lauded more for his philanthropy, as the founder of the “Heal the World” Foundation and donating millions of his own tour revenue to causes like an inner-city counseling program for kids. All that to say, the man was loved. So loved, that viewership went up by 12 million thanks to his performance.
Think of everything that comes to mind when you picture a halftime show now – huge sets, complete with massive video displays; hundreds of dancers and fans crowding the field; a stunt or two to really get the crowd hype. That all dates back to Michael Jackson. He first appears on a video monitor, before ascending to the top of a massive display amid a spray of fireworks. With Power-Ranger-esque sound effects bubbling in the background, he’s then transported to the center of the field, where he remains for two minutes – completely silent. Just soaking up the stadium’s energy. It’s theatrically dramatic. He spins through “Jam,” and hits you with “Billie Jean,” before swooning into the year’s most popular song “Black and White.”
The real highlight comes when Jackson weaves his philanthropy, social commentary and artistry together with a performance of “We Are The World.” As he begins the song, audience members, who apparently were given color codes sheets of paper, turn them upside down revealing cascading drawings of children. Now you either see this one of two ways – impressive considering the amount of logistics it must’ve taken to create that installation, or worrying considering the allegations that’d pop up a few months later. Reach your own conclusion.
At the time, though, Jackson’s philanthropy, which focused heavily on ending child poverty, made the spectacle feel admirable rather than perversive, even as it ended with hundreds of children surrounding him through a performance of “Heal the World.”
All in all, Jackson’s performance set the bar that Halftime Show performers still try to reach today. And few artists have managed to live up to it, even as technology has lent them more artistic credence. Weeks after Jackson’s performance, he would go on to be awarded the “Legends Award” at the 1993 Grammys (introduced by his baby sister and future halftime show headliner Janet Jackson.) Regardless of your thoughts on the man, it’s a title more than apt for the performer.
Y’all hear about this?
Beyoncé, Billie Eilish and Questlove nominated for Oscars
Kanye West Threatens to Pull Out of Coachella Unless Billie Eilish Apologizes for Something She Didn’t Do
Why Diana Ross has the most underrated performance in Super Bowl halftime show history
While Michael Jackson’s 1993 halftime performance set the benchmark for what an exciting and energetic Super Bowl halftime show should look like, I would argue that Diana Ross’ 1996 halftime performance was just as significant.
First, nobody in the history of mankind (outside of maybe Beyoncé) can match MJ’s stage presence. I mean for the first two minutes of his performance, he just stands there and does nothing and the audience in the stands and on the field go nuts. Not many artists have that ability.
This is what makes Ross’ performance that much more impressive. She’s not MJ, she’s not a dancer, she doesn’t have the same stage presence, style, or attitude. But, she was still able to put on an enjoyable performance that the crowd was excited about.
Ross stuck to what she knew, being a diva. At 49-years-old, Ross looked stunning in the shiny red dress she wore most of the show. She had dozens of backup singers and hundreds of dancers on the field to do what she couldn’t. While performing in the middle of the show, she would do an entire outfit change, with no problem at all! A true diva.
One of the things I loved most about the performance was her ability to still engage with the crowd even though it’s such a huge venue. She would point her mic into the crowd and encourage the crowd to sing along. It worked!
She sang classic R&B ballads like Stop In “The Name of Love,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “Baby Love.” But also switched up with pop bangers like “I Will Survive” and “Take Me Higher.” The latter being her last song of the set.
And I would argue, her exit may be the most epic and big as any in Super Bowl halftime history. She left on a helicopter, with her feet hanging out and waving to the crowd. She was flying into the air before the likes of Lady Gaga did so 24 years later.
As she left the stadium, the words, “a true Diva knows how to make a Grand Entrance AND an even GRANDER EXIT” came on to the screen.
She set a standard for artists who are not dancers or exceptional performers and made it known that even if you don’t have the dance moves, you still better come with it when it comes to the Super Bowl halftime show.
Now on the 97 Demo Mix:
Songs from: Saba, YG, Dr. Dre, Weezer and more
Why Prince’s halftime show is the greatest
Picking the best Super Bowl halftime show is hard, from legends like Beyoncé, U2 and Michael Jackson, there are almost too many good ones to choose from. However, I think that Prince’s show is the greatest of them all for three reasons, one of which was not in his control.
On reason this concert is so great was the fact that he didn’t solely perform his own songs, while not really having a guest performer, other than the Florida A&M University band. He opened his set with a short cover of “We Will Rock You” by Queen, before moving into a stretch of his own classic songs. Then he played “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “All Along the Watchtower” originally by Bob Dylan and later, perhaps more famously, by Jimi Hendrix, and finally “Best of You” by Foo Fighters. Hearing one of the great rock stars of all time cover some of the greatest rock songs of all time on a stage that was just becoming legendary, is just a crazy experience. If you watch this halftime show knowing nothing about it, this might be the thing that blows your mind when you watch it.
Another thing that made this performance so legendary is the solo star power of it all. Many of the most memorable performances since this one, and even prior to this, speculation would be on who would be a special appearance or the memorable part of it was the special appearance. Prince didn’t need any of that. The only separate performer from him was the Florida A&M University band. This performance feels like a performer capping off or taking a victory lap on one of the most legendary careers in music history. The sheer amount of hits he could have pulled from kept everyone on their toes, and he delivered… all by himself.
Finally, the element that was out of his control. The garnish on this performance. The proverbial parsley on what would have been an incredible performance even without it. The rain! The freaking rain! I’m sure this threw off all the logistics of what they wanted to do, and I’m sure that everyone involved in the production was scared, but you couldn’t tell. Prince stayed as cool as ever. He performed “Purple Rain” in the freaking rain. He performed an iconic guitar solo that has still rung in my head hours after watching it again. It doesn’t get better than that. The spectacle of it, the grandiose of it, the rock ‘n roll of it all… it’s irresistible. It’s something that may have made the performance more incredible as every year passes.
There have been amazing performances at the Super Bowl since this one, but to me, this is the bellwether. This is the performance that every other performer is chasing on this stage. This is the performance that has defined what the Super Bowl has become after. It was a legendary musician giving a legendary performance under legendary circumstances and helped prove this stage as a legendary stage.
Tweet of the week: