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The 17 best and worst Super Bowl halftime shows

This year, Coldplay will perform during halftime at the Super Bowl.

But that should come with an asterisk. Beyoncé is also performing, and debuted a surprise song called "Formation" and powerful new video on Saturday. She effectively turned Super Bowl 50 into a Beyoncé concert with a side of football. And this isn't the first time she's slinked off with the show.

She had the most iconic Super Bowl performance of all time in 2013. If there's anyone who knows how to shine on the biggest stage, it's Beyoncé. Here's a ranking of the most definitive Super Bowl performances of all time:

    1. Beyoncé (2013)

      Beyoncé is the biggest name in pop music right now, and this performance is a large part of how easily she staked her claim as queen. Beyoncé took the Super Bowl halftime show and transformed it — full lights show and all — into a TV moment about her. From the opening number ("Crazy in Love") on, her vocals, her choreography, and even the digital projections of herself are spot on. Even though she missed one mark, we refuse to believe it happened. She is, on that stage, more powerful than anyone else who has ever performed at the Super Bowl. She not only completely overshadowed the game itself and blew the electricity, but she also looked completely comfortable. She even graced Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland with a Destiny's Child reunion.

      Beyoncé snags the top spot here, because there is not a single problem in this performance, hell, there's not a moment where she doesn't give every ounce of her power and ability. It is the best Super Bowl performance of all time.

    2. Aerosmith, Britney Spears, N'Sync, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige (2001)

      Between the marching bands of the '70s and the mega pop stars of the twenty teens, the early 2000s made the Super Bowl a place to showcase not only one star, but literally as many as the producers could smush into one performance. In 2001, the halftime show had a little bit of music for everyone. Rock-and-roll, boy bands, pop stars, R&B, and hip-hop. They were all "coached" by Ben Stiller beforehand on film. Everything about this set from beginning to end is absurd. The transitions between stars are strange and choppy. But it functions as kind of a tasting plate of 2001, and there's nothing about Steven Tyler finishing the last note of "It's Gonna Be Me," that isn't great. Plus there are bonus appearances from Britney Spears, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige.

    3. Prince (2007)

      Beginning with "We Will Rock You" and staged on a platform that is literally the symbol Prince used as his name for years, the 2007 halftime performance is one of the strangest in Super Bowl history. Prince's performance doesn't make any sense: he played a Foo Fighters cover. He played a Queen song. He had an epic guitar solo during "Purple Rain." But the unanticipated set list gave the pop star the energy he needed to carry through on a great set. No one really knew what to expect out of Prince in 2007, but he pulled out a stellar performance, complete with rock-and-roll screeches and a custom made purple guitar. His performance isn't available on YouTube, but you can watch it here.

    4. U2 (2002)

      U2's 2002 performance at the Super Bowl was so emotional and heartbreaking that it's impossible not to place it in the top five of this list. Starting with "Beautiful Day" and backed by the screaming of fans, U2 performed a medley of songs meant to function as a big hug for America after what had been a very rough 2001. During the rendition of "MLK," the names of people who had died on September 11 scrolled behind Bono on a waving screen. By the end of the performance, faces were wet with tears, and Bono was holding his jacket open to reveal an American flag. It was a truly touching, thoughtful performance, and it still resonates 13 years later.

    5. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (2009)

      Most rock stars put on musically superior, but visually boring halftime shows. They stand in a single spot next to a microphone stand, strum a guitar, and croon their greatest hits. Not Bruce Springsteen. Even in 2009, decades after the height of his fame, Springsteen runs around the stage, jumping off of platforms and doing crotch-first slides into cameras. He packs all of the energy of a four-hour long set into 12 minutes of rocking chorus after chorus. He has a full choir, and incredible saxophonist Clarence Clemons (RIP) join him on stage to play his greatest hits, and it's an action-packed performance. Springsteen basically has to force himself to leave the stage he's having so much fun, and it is actually sad when he finally bows.

    6. Madonna (with LMFAO, MIA, Nicki Minaj, and CeeLo) (2012)

      Like much of Madonna's visual repertoire this performance is borrowed. Specifically, Kylie Minogue's "Aphrodite" Tour of 2011. That said, it's actually a pretty good Madonna performance in large part because she opens with "Vogue." "Vogue" is an undeniable, indomitable force of a song, and the visual effects — those computer generated Vogue magazines — are stunning. Unfortunately, the performance tends to show its age and strays into a place of awkward exercise video around the time LMFAO shows up and Madonna does some assisted push-ups (get it, she works out). And despite Nicki Minaj's best efforts, it doesn't get any better. What saves the performance is the human glitter bomb CeeLo, and a choir closing out "Like a Prayer."

    7. Michael Jackson (1993)

      After literally being shot from underground onto the stage, Michael Jackson takes a stance and stands perfectly still for a full minute while a camera spins around him. That minute of stillness is more exhilarating than most of the Super Bowl performances in history. His head movements get shrieks from the stadium. Michael Jackson, King of Pop, commanded a stage, and in this performance his choreography is pristine. The rendition of "We Are the World" is the only reason this performance is as low as it is. The second half of the performance has none of the enthusiasm of the first, and a heavy dose of discomfort seeing Michael Jackson surrounded by hordes of children.

    8. Shania Twain, No Doubt, and Sting (2003)

      Do people remember this one? This performance makes it this high because of the sheer WTF value of it all. Putting Shania Twain, No Doubt, and Sting on one stage is like sitting down for a meal featuring blueberry pancakes with tacos and sushi. There's also a strange part where Twain, dressed in her leather blazer and diamond-studded brassiere, is spirited off mid-show, while No Doubt and Sting close it all down. To this day, Twain has not been found. Many say that after this performance, Twain rose to the cosmos and smiles down on us from time to time.

    9. Diana Ross (1996)

      Diana Ross gets lowered on a platform spurting fireworks to begin this performance while yelling "Come on, world!" She wears a sparkly red dress and divas it up. She sings a Supremes medley. There are thousands of balloons released. Ross changes costumes into a floor length, multi-colored ballgown. The performance concludes, after several, belting firework-riddled song and costume changes, with Ross climbing into a helicopter. If that's not what Super Bowl dreams are made of, what is?

    10. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (2004)

      Without the notorious nipple, there's no way this performance cracks the top 10 of Super Bowl performances. The "wardrobe malfunction" that led to American Heartthrob and beautiful human Justin Timberlake removing the entire cup off of Janet Jackson's breast is the only reason this performance is memorable. Rewatching this American Cultural Event, however, makes you realize just how much this performance needed some jaw-dropping behavior to make it memorable. This moment stopped Janet Jackson's musical career and almost killed Timberlake's. It's also to blame for the dull, safe Super Bowl performances afterward (Paul McCartney), and it's one of the main reasons why MTV shifted its focus away from music.

    11. Tom Petty (2008)

      Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened their Super Bowl performance with "American Girl," perhaps the sappiest, most beloved song in Petty's canon. The Heartbreakers do a fair job backing him up, but what's great about Petty's performance is what's great about every single set Petty has ever done — he looks like he just woke up from a nap, but still manages to put on a show that people can sing along to and makes them feel good about themselves. The downfall of this performance is that, besides guitar switches, Petty never moves. His stage presence is entirely based on being on the stage, which makes for a great live concert, but not necessarily a great televised, live event.

    12. Paul McCartney (2005)

      The real reason to be outraged about the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake incident is that this Paul McCartney snoozefest was forced upon us. What makes McCartney's 2005 performance worthy of this list (as opposed to his 2001 Super Bowl performance) is that he didn't try to do anything new. He came out on the stage, and gave audiences what they wanted out of him: The Hits. He sang "A Hard's Day Night" in a beautiful duet with Terry Bradshaw that could have pushed this performance into the top 10 if it weren't for how bored McCartney looks on stage. Super Bowl performances are supposed to be extravagant spectacles that are made for people who don't care about football. This was not that.

    13. The Who (2010)

      The Who was well past its prime by the time Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey took the stage in 2010. Neither of them seemed to understand that this was not just a normal Who concert and that their visibility was higher than it probably ever had been before. Instead of coming out and slaying it, the Who performed a medley of greatest hits including "Won't Get Fooled Again" (or as many youths know it, the theme song from CSI: Miami). The perfectly in-sync audience singing sounds like a backing track, and the medley of hits they churned out sound better and more exciting on tape than they did live.

    14. Boyz II Men (1998)

      Boyz II Men, the '90s boy band who were more R&B than pop, played the 1998 Super Bowl with a bunch of their inspirations, including Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. The show was supposed to "celebrate 40 years of MoTown" according to the announcer at the beginning of the show. The set opens with the Temptations in what appear to be full denim suits, and only goes downhill from there. Why the late '90s were obsessed with oldies, we can't know. What we can know is that whoever decided to run Boyz II Men out there after Martha Reeves made a terrible mistake. They have no charisma on the stage, and basically just sway in NFL tracksuits for the entire performance.

    15. The Blues Brothers (1997)

      The Blues Brothers' appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show is one of the most confusing choices in Super Bowl history. Not only was John Belushi dead by the time the 1997 performance happened, but James Brown himself made an appearance and was completely overshadowed by three white men who weren't even musicians! They had just played musicians in a movie! The dead star and heavy emphasis on fake musicians understandably made the show a little weird. With Jim Belushi subbed in for John, the group awkwardly tried to half-heartedly perform some soul songs for long enough for ZZ Top to take the stage.

    16. New Kids on the Block (1991)

      In comparison with some of the big bands that played after them, it could be easy to argue that the New Kids on the Block shouldn't even make this list. To give NKOTB some credit, this was the first Super Bowl halftime show to be promoted as a real concert. Sponsored by Disney and Coca Cola, the boy band came out in full black to harmonize one of their sappiest and most boring hits. Instead of the poppy, grooving "Step By Step," they sang "This One's for the Children" and then were interrupted by an ABC news report on the Gulf War. Despite the show's considerable shortcomings, they are really the grandfathers of the Super Bowl halftime show as we know it.

    17. Black Eyed Peas (2011)

      If there were videos of the marching bands who played the Super Bowl halftime show before we let pop stars do it, they would be ahead of The Black Eyed Peas' 2011 performance. Really, the Black-Eyed Peas are worse than every band that didn't make this list because we didn't have strong opinions about them. (Sorry, 2006 Rolling Stones.) But The Black Eyed Peas are really the palate cleanser you need in order to truly appreciate how great some of these Super Bowl acts are.

      Not only are the vocals terrible in this performance despite the backing tracks, but most of the show consists of the four members of The Black Eyed Peas standing while a horde of people in neon suits kind of dance on the field below them. And then, when you think things can't get any worse, Fergie performs "Sweet Child of Mine" with Slash. It's almost as uncomfortable to watch this performance as it had been to watch Christina Aguilera garble the words to the national anthem that night. Super Bowl XLV was a hard time for music.


    • Writer: Kelsey McKinney
    • Writer: Alex Abad-Santos
    • Editor: Matt Yglesias
    • Developer: Yuri Victor
    • Copy Editor: Lauren Katz
    • Cover photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty
    • Update: We weren't being clear about Bey's performance. She missed one mark, we completely blocked that from our brains, and we refuse to believe it happened. We updated the wording to reflect that. Her performance was still better than Prince's.


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