- Donald Miralle/Getty Images
- The Super Bowl once had local marching bands instead of epic-scaled performances from major musicians during its halftime show.
- But with today’s bigger performances come higher stakes.
- 2004’s “wardrobe malfunction” with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson is still legendary, but it’s not the only controversial performance.
While the Super Bowl halftime show is the most-watched event on television every year, it wasn’t always the massive institution it once was.
Until the 1990s, the show was pretty lame. The NFL just booked a local marching band or some other kind of wholesome entertainment. There’s a lot of Elvis Impersonators and trombones in halftime history.
But in the current era, the event is so big that the NFL has enough leverage to make performers pay to be there. And with scale comes a lot of uncontrollable factors. Year after year, the NFL struggles to entertain tens of millions of people and make a gigantic 12-minute show run smoothly.
The most famous Super Bowl performance is from 2004, where an “indecent exposure” from Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson changed the direction of the show forever. But it’s not the only halftime show controversy. Even this year’s Maroon 5 performance is under fire because of the NFL’s stance on Colin Kaepernick.
Here are the 15 most controversial Super Bowl halftime show performances of all time.
15. The Who was aggressively mediocre in 2010.
For whatever reason, the NFL hired a way-past-their-prime The Who to perform. The whole time, they seemed nearly bewildered to be onstage and were seemingly unprepared. The band never managed to connect to the audience, mumbled through a medley of some of their old songs, and Pete Townshend’s stomach was visible for much of the show.
14. The Rolling Stones played some old stuff in 2006.
For the most part, the Rolling Stones show was a mixed affair, with just three songs – one of them a new one, so no one could sing along. It was also a strange choice for the NFL not to have any black artists given that the game was set in Detroit.
13. The New Kids on the Block were so tepid that they were bumped till after the show in 1991.
In the early days of the glitzy halftime show tradition, boy band New Kids on the Block put on some slow songs, draining the room of all its energy, and performed “It’s a Small World (After All),” making approximately the entire the stadium roll their eyes. ABC News opted to give a news report on the Gulf War instead of airing their entire show live, bumping it to after the game.
12. The Black Eyed Peas were bad even for the standards of people who enjoy the Black Eyed Peas in 2011.
- REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The Black Eyed Peas brought plenty of energy to their 2011 performance, but they were an incongruous match with Slash and Usher, who performed with them, and the tech-leather costumes were more bizarre than fun. Rolling Stone likened it to “witnessing something magical and special – like seeing a unicorn cough up blood.”
11. The NFL hired an Elvis impersonator in 1989.
In the era before the NFl actually cared about putting on a show, it hired an Elvis Presley impersonator to do a magic trick performed with a song. It’s absolutely baffling compared to the high-profile shows from today’s times.
10. Aerosmith, Britney Spears, N’Sync, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige all sang together in an incoherent mess in 2001.
- Mike Segar/Reuters
The performance – with pop, R&B, and old-school rock all mashed together – may just be one of the most energetic Super Bowl shows ever produced. But it’s also totally incoherent and whiplash-inducing with the crowded stage and the stylistic shifts.
9. Olympic figure skaters took over in 1992.
You know who’s a pretty good choice for a Super Bowl halftime performer in 1992? Gloria Estefan. You know who’s a bizarre choice? A bunch of Olympic figure skaters and people in hideous winter-themed costumes. We all love our Olympians, but the final result was just cringe-worthy.
8. Snoopy stars in a Mardi Gras-themed extravaganza in 1990.
If you thought you were hallucinating, no one could blame you. The show was a celebration of New Orleans and, because it was Charlie Brown’s 40th birthday, Snoopy from the “Peanuts” comic strip.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers did the rock version of lip-syncing in 2014.
- Jamie Squire/Getty
When the band joined Bruno Mars onstage, fans noticed their instruments were unplugged. They played over a recording of their own song.
“I understand the NFL’s stance on this, given they only have a few minutes to set up the stage, there a zillion things that could go wrong and ruin the sound for the folks watching in the stadium and the TV viewers,” the bassist, Flea, wrote on the band’s website. “There was not any room for argument on this, the NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period.”
6. The NFL picked a Blues Brothers theme for some reason in 1997.
The “Saturday Night Live” joke blues band, The Blues Brothers, headlined the night. Since one of the members, John Belushi, was dead, he was replaced by his brother Jim. It was weird. James Brown, the master of soul music, also showed up but got shamefully little stage time.
5. The halftime show had a cheesy “Disney Millennium Performance” in 2000.
- Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Since Disney owns ABC, which broadcasted the Super Bowl, they used the halftime show to advertise their “Disney Millennium Performance” costume and dance show. It’s kind of cool – even though it invoked cultish-sounding phrases like “the gate of time” and “the great millennium walk” – but no one really wanted it.
The show also swallowed up the musical performers. Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, and Toni Braxton all performed original songs, so no one could sing along.
4. No one knows what the heck is going on in 1995.
The 1995 halftime show was a mess. Patti LaBelle, Tony Bennett, Teddy Pendergrass, and Miami Sound Machine all performed in what seemed like an homage to … Indiana Jones? There were lots of buff, shirtless men dancing in shiny pants, that’s for sure. It was kind of fun.
3. Beyoncé stole the show in 2016.
- Matt Cowan/Getty Images
Beyoncé has given Super Bowl shows enormous extravaganzas multiple times, but her Black Panther-invoking 2016 show is her most significant. Her performance of the politically charged “Formation” led to a firestorm of criticism from law enforcement groups and right-wing pundits. While Coldplay was that year’s headliner, Beyoncé’s brief part was all anyone was talking about.
2. M.I.A. gave everyone the middle finger and got sued for more than $16 million in 2012.
- Christopher Polk/Getty Images
In the middle of an otherwise excellent performance from Madonna, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, and Cee Lo Green, the rapper M.I.A. gave the middle finger during her dance moves. The NFL sued her for $16.6 million and eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. The FCC didn’t seek any fines.
After news of the lawsuit became public, MIA asked Madonna for help.
“@madonna ummm …. can I borrow 16 million?” she tweeted.
1. A 9/16 second flash of Janet Jackson’s nipple led to the United States government cracking down on media in 2004.
- Donald Miralle/Getty Images
The so-called “Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show controversy,” also known as “Nipplegate,” shocked audiences in 2004 and led to the invention of YouTube when co-founder Jawed Karim struggled to find a video of the incident.
At the Halftime show, Justin Timberlake swiped off a breastplate on Janet Jackson’s costume, revealing a body part that isn’t supposed to be broadcast on TV for less than a second. Some of the details are still mysterious, but the aftereffect is clear.
Michael Powell, the head of the Federal Communications Commission, assailed the event as a “celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt” and announced an investigation. Congress passed a bill that increased fines for “indecency” on television more than tenfold. The FCC began a campaign of censoring media over “public indecency.” and Jackson’s career took a nosedive while Timberlake remains mostly unscathed.
After he left office, Powell said his outrage was insincere.
“I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on,” Powell told ESPN while “shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes.” “Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we’re gonna do?”