Time, and the perspective that comes with it, changes everything. When Tom Brady and the New England Patriots beat the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams at Super Bowl XXXVI, it was an exciting upset for an underdog; 16 years later, a Pats Super Bowl victory would now be a win for the status quo.
So it goes with ranking the best Super Bowl halftime shows. Although we can make an instant assessment of their entertainment value, it sometimes takes years to recognize the full effect of the performances. For some artists, the Super Bowl Halftime show marks the beginning of an ascendant career (Bruno Mars' stunning set being the best example). But for others, a Super Bowl performance can mark the peak of their popularity (looking at you 2011-era Black Eyed Peas) or even contribute to an artist's decline (let us now pour one out for Janet Jackson).
With that in mind, we're taking another stab at ranking all of the best Super Bowl Halftime Shows (or at least those since it became a major pop music spectacle following Michael Jackson's game-changing set in 1993). Read on for the performances that left us cheering and click the links to watch the full performance on YouTube.
10. Lady Gaga - Super Bowl LI
Given her outspoken political views and history of button-pushing outrageousness, it wasn't clear what type of performance we would be getting from Lady Gaga before she hit the Super Bowl stage last year in the dawning days of President Trump. Fortunately, she put together an amazing set that synthesized her knack for spectacle (the endlessly meme'd roof jump), a stellar setlist that spotlighted her big voice and a simple but effective plea for social unity in the form of her "God Bless America/ This Land Is Your Land" intro. Like the roof jump itself, it was a well-executed plunge.
9. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Super Bowl XLII
Thanks to one of the craziest plays in NFL history, Super Bowl XLII ranks among the most memorable NFL championships ever played. The thrilling game somewhat obscured the incredible performance from the late great Tom Petty and his band The Heartbreakers. Still, it's fitting that one of America's most underrated rock artists was also responsible for one of the most underrated Super Bowl performances.
8. Aerosmith and N'Sync with special guests - Super Bowl XXXV
Justin Timberlake is set to headline the Halftime Show this year, marking the third time he's graced the Super stage. Although you undoubtedly remember his second performance, his first appearance plays like a hilarious fever dream from the dying days of the CD-era: In addition to his boy-bandmates in N'Sync (who are incredibly sharp and enthusiastic), Timberlake was joined by other early '00s luminaries Britney Spears and Nelly, along with Mary J. Blige and co-headliner Aerosmith. It doesn't entirely work, but there's an anything-goes energy (including a funny Ben Stiller skit) that makes this one of the more memorable halftime shows.
7. Paul McCartney - Super Bowl XXXIX
Paul McCartney was booked for the Super Bowl the year after Janet's Nipplegate drama and it was clear the NFL wanted to go with a safe and respectful artist. But even if his selection was for somewhat political reasons, Macca was an terrific choice; as co-author of some of the greatest songs in the history of pop music with The Beatles, McCartney knows a little something about rising to the moment.
6. Bruno Mars - Super Bowl XLVIII
Like his own music, Bruno Mars' Super Bowl performance has only gotten better with age. Although the honor seemed a bit premature at the time, questions about his career longevity have been settled in the four years since his performance, as Mars has rightly claimed his place as one of the most accomplished entertainers of his era. In a lot of respects, the Super Bowl was his coming out party, the moment when audiences realized Mars wasn't just a pop hitmaker but a hugely charismatic performer and multi-talented musician.
5. U2 - Super Bowl XXXVI
Super Bowl XXXVI was the first to take place since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and there was no band better suited for the occasion than U2. With their heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity and cathartic choruses, U2 delivered a performance than many still consider among the very best in Super Bowl history.
4. Michael Jackson - Super Bowl XXVII
As he did in all areas of his career, Jackson changed the game with his Super Bowl performance. Previously an afterthought relegated mostly to marching bands, Jackson's Super Bowl Halftime Show reestablished it as a platform of pop prestige. The lip synching is atrocious and it's a little uncomfortable to see him finish his set surrounded by a sea of children, but the sight of him launching onto the stage and standing still in command of the stadium--for two whole minutes!--is among the most iconic moments in Super Bowl history, musical or otherwise.
3. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Super Bowl XLIII
If you were eating apple pie while watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Super Bowl in 2009, congratulations, you experienced the most American moment in our nation's history. What's great about Springsteen's set is that he leans into the ridiculousness of the stage and lets loose. With their extended length, Springsteen's concerts are often compared to church but here, he's content to deliver a short sermon that still follows through on his opening promise of 12 minutes of the "righteous and mighty power of the E Street Band."
2. Beyoncé - Super Bowl XLVII
Beyoncé is so incandescent on the big stage of the Super Bowl, she was the most-buzzed about part of someone else's halftime set. Her own headlining performance in 2013 is a masterclass in the modern halftime show: She sings (live, it should be noted), she dances, she brings out surprise guests in Destiny's Child. As we've said before, "it almost feels as if the Super Bowl isn't big enough for her." The crazy thing is, Beyoncé has only become even bigger and more acclaimed in the five years since this set. There's a reason why she's called the Queen.
1. Prince - Super Bowl XLI
An artist's death can bolster their legacy, but this was the greatest Super Bowl Halftime Show even before Prince passed away in 2016. In fact, it was the greatest Halftime Show the second he walked off the stage.
The context of his performance is important: In 2007, Prince was pretty far removed from the cultural conversation, so his electrifying set was a vivid reminder of his greatness and a songwriter, performer and musician, thanks to his epic guitar solo on "Purple Rain" (which took place in actual rain, proving that even God is a huge Prince fan). His Halftime Show cleared a path for Prince's return to prominence and served as a vivid testimonial to the power of his live show. The only way this could have been better is if Prince's beloved Minnesota Vikings had won (or even played in) the game.
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