The Super Bowl halftime show wasn’t always the event it is now

Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Credit: Alex Brandon

Credit: Alex Brandon

Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Since there have been Super Bowls, there have been halftime shows. Marching bands and tributes to the music of years past dominated the mid-game break from 1967 through the ‘70s and ‘80s. It wasn’t until the ‘90s that contemporary pop stars and major league legacy acts turned them into cultural moments.

In 1991, New Kids on the Block headlined the Super Bowl XXV halftime show, but no one at home saw it live. Instead, ABC aired a special report on the first Gulf War. A tape-delayed version aired later. But the thing most non-football fans will recall from that year’s game is the national anthem. That was delivered by Whitney Houston.

The following year was something of a throwback, with a tribute to the Winter Olympics starring Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano, with a nod to pop in the form of Gloria Estefan. But the next one was a doozy.

Michael Jackson’s mid-game set at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, was the one that really changed the way we think about the Super Bowl halftime show. Because of the limited amount of time alloted, he performed a set that included bits of “Jam,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “Heal the World” and “We Are the World.” It turned the halftime show into a phenomenon. In the 31 years since, that performance is still considered among the best Super Bowl halftime shows.

The following year, the halftime show paid tribute to country music with a lineup that included Clint Black, Tanya Tucker and Georgia’s own Travis Tritt. The rest of the ‘90s would offer varying degrees of quality, from celebrations of “Indiana Jones” and The Blues Brothers to Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder.

It wasn’t until 2002 that another artist took the spotlight alone. U2 had recently finished a hugely successful tour and used a version of the same set they’d taken on that tour. During “MLK” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the band paid tribute to the victims of 9/11, which had happened just five months earlier.

Since then, the Super Bowl has brought in some of the biggest stars of the day (and some enduring legends). Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, Bruno Mars, Madonna and, in Atlanta in 2019, Maroon 5 with Travis Scott and Big Boi.

The one that many consider the pinnacle, though, was Prince’s 2007 appearance in the (purple) rain. A Miami rainstorm might have meant disaster for most artists, but not for Prince. After opening with “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby, I’m a Star,” followed by covers of “Proud Mary,” “All Along the Watchtower” and the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You,” he launched into “Purple Rain” in the torrential downpour. It was a magical moment that is regularly touted as the best Super Bowl halftime show ever.

Of course, halftime hasn’t been without controversy, most notably in 2004. That was the year we all learned the phrase “waldrobe malfunction” following a performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.

What will our memories be of this year’s performance, as Usher takes the stage and brings a bit of Atlanta to Las Vegas? We’ll find out Sunday.

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