The halftime show of the 2022 Super Bowl is not messing around. In the first Super Bowl held at the brand spanking new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, hometown boy Dr. Dre is taking the helm, captaining a ship that includes Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige. You could make an argument that two of those performers (Kendrick and Eminem) could probably headline the show on their own. But Dre has assembled them like Infinity Stones and much like Thanos is set to do some damage.
I mean, not exactly like Thanos. Just want to clarify that for anyone keeping score.
This comes a year after The Weeknd performed, a performance that was cool if not mildly unsettling. Yet to be fair, The Weeknd’s music has always felt like it belongs after hours, so having him perform in primetime never really made sense from the moment it was announced. He did seem to benefit from a lack of a Super Bowl-sized crowd though, allowing him to play to the camera more than the audience, something of a natural move given the evolution of the gig. Over the last decade, the halftime show has been transitioning from a live spectacle to a televised one. I’ve often wondered what it must be like seeing the show in person because it has certainly seemed as if the folks actually in attendance are an afterthought. The artists performing seem to be gearing everything to the folks at home, not those actually there.
It’s hard to nail down when this shift actually began to happen but it feels like it has coincided with the shift in who is performing, the move from rock bands to pop artists. This transition to the halftime show’s latest era began at the start of the last decade, probably unofficially in 2011, when the Black Eyed Peas played. Since that year, it’s been one pop act after another, with two exceptions: Coldplay and Maroon 5, two bands that are “rock bands” but also pop. So it was a deviation but not a major one.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers also performed, backing Bruno Mars in 2014. But frankly, the best said about that performance, the better.
If we’re currently in the Pop Star-Centric Era, what were the previous eras? I’m so glad you asked.
The Marching Band Era (1967 – 1968)
Marching bands would be a fixture during the halftime show for at least the next two decades, but what made these first two Super Bowl halftime shows unique was that they didn’t include a theme. They just featured marching bands. That’s it.
Super Bowl I featured the marching bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling State University performing with trumpeter Al Hirt. The music was accompanied by the Anaheim High School Drill Team and Flag Girls, 300 pigeons, and 10,000 balloons. One year later at Super Bowl II in Miami, Grambling State University returned to perform, this time getting the gig all to themselves. Not even the pigeons were there. An exact balloons count is unknown at this time.
The First Era of Themes (1967 – 1979)
Themes were incorporated into the halftime show starting with Super Bowl III in Miami. Why? It’s simple. Everyone loves a good theme. That year, the theme was “America Thanks” and featured the marching band from Florida A&M University, as well as various high school bands from the Miami area. Again, no pigeons.
Next year at Super Bowl IV, the halftime show was the first one to really highlight and feature performers that weren’t a marching band. Although don’t worry, a marching band still performed. With the game in New Orleans, the theme was “Tribute to Mardi Gras.” The Southern University Marching Band played alongside Al Hirt, Marguerite Piazza, Doc Severinsen, and Lionel Hampton. Two years later at Super Bowl VI, also in New Orleans, the theme was “Salute to Louis Armstrong.” The show featured Hirt once again, as well as Ella Fitgerald, Carol Channing, the USAFA Cadet Chorale, and the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Team. It was the first halftime show to not feature a marching band from a university. No pigeons either.
Throughout the seventies, themes ranged from “Happiness Is” at Super Bowl VII to “Tribute to Duke Ellington” at Super Bowl IX. In 1976, the theme was “200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute to America’s Bicentennial” and featured Up With People, a group of enthusiastic youngsters looking to inspire everyone through the power of song. Up With People made their halftime show debut five years earlier, performing alongside the marching band from Southern Missouri State University. They would perform at the halftime show a handful of times throughout the 1980s because of course they did. The 1980s were weird. You know, just in case you forgot.
Disney got into the halftime show game in 1977 at Super Bowl XI. With a theme of “It’s a Small World,” the show, based on the ride at their theme parks, featured the Mickey Mouse Club, as well as the LAUSD All-City Band. It was also the first halftime show to feature crowd participation, with the crowd waving different colored placards throughout the performance as well as a section of Dads sleeping through the whole thing, something you also find when going on the actual ride. Disney is nothing but thorough.
The Second Era of Themes (1980 – 1991)
Themes at the halftime show continued into the 1980s with the first game of the decade, Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena, having a theme of “A Salute to the Big Band Era.” Up With People was back for this one, as was the Grambling State University Marching Band. For the Up With People heads out there, the group of well-meaning youngsters would go on to perform two years later at Super Bowl XVI in the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan where the theme was “Salute to the 1960s and Motown.” They would also perform at Super Bowl XX in New Orleans where the halftime show theme was “Beat of the Future.”
Disney, after producing the 1977 show, would produce two halftime shows in the 1980s, the first one in 1984 at Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa where the theme was “Salute to Superstars of Silver Screen.” It featured the marching bands from the University of Florida and Florida State University. Disney then produced the halftime show at Super Bowl XXI in 1987, again at the Rose Bowl, with a theme of “Salute to Hollywood’s 100th Anniversary – The World of Make-Believe.” The show included performances from halftime show veterans the Grambling State Marching Band, as well as the marching band from the University of Southern California and drill teams and dancers from area high schools. Disney characters, George Burns and Mickey Rooney were also part of the festivities.
Don’t even ask. There were no pigeons.
The last two halftime shows of the 80s both started to hint at the bigger productions that were to come in the next decade. Super Bowl XXII in San Diego included a theme of “Something Grand” and with it, 88 grand pianos, Chubby Checker, The Rockettes, and the combined forces of marching bands from both San Diego State University and the University of Southern California. A year later in Miami at Super Bowl XXIII, rock and roll from the 1950s was celebrated, as well as the magic of 3-D because I guess that combination makes sense. The show featured an Elvis Presley impersonator joined by dancers from all over Florida, but more importantly, a barrage of 3-D images.
Again, the 80s were weird.
The Era of Themes Plus Big Name Headliners (1991 – 2004)
In the 1990s, the Super Bowl halftime show began to change and evolve into the spectacle that we know today. Super Bowl XXIV in 1990 and Super Bowl XXVI in 1992 still featured university marching bands but the bands would soon be replaced by pop stars. Yet the real shift happened in 1991 at Super Bowl XXV. The show, again produced by Disney, included the New Kids on the Block, who were at the height of their popularity at the time. The band’s performance was bookended by children singing “It’s A Small World After All.”
Themes in the 1990s included “Rockin’ Country Sunday” at Super Bowl XXVII in Atlanta featuring a handful of country stars, “Take Me Higher: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Super Bowl” at Super Bowl XXX in Arizona highlighted by Diana Ross and “Salute to Motown’s 40th Anniversary” at Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego that featured Motown legends Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, as well as Boyz II Men, Queen Latifah and making their triumphant return, the Grambling State University Marching Band. Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami had a theme of “Celebration of Soul, Salsa, and Swing.” Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, and swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy all performed, all but ensuring that as a society, we never forget the regrettable swing fad of the late 90s.
The only halftime show of the nineties to not feature a theme happened at Super Bowl XXVII. Although to be fair, you could just say the theme was “Michael Jackson.”
Themes continued into the early 2000s, although they were mostly an afterthought. Shows started to feature top-line talent and some of the biggest acts in music. “Tapestry of Nations” at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 starred Phil Collins, Christian Aguilera, Toni Braxton, and an 80 person choir, and next year at Super Bowl XXXV there was “The Kings of Rock and Pop” featuring Aerosmith (i.e. the “Kings of Rock”) and the Kings (and Queens) of Pop: ‘NSYNC, Brittany Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly.
At Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans, the theme was “Tribute to Those Killed in the September 11th Attacks.” U2 performed solo, the first time the halftime show was a single-bill affair since the Michael Jackson halftime show almost a decade earlier. U2 was still at the height of their popularity at the time — they hadn’t even dreamed of dropping an album all sneaky-like onto your phone when you weren’t looking yet — and to a nation still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, they were perfect to provide some healing. And for what it’s worth, it did; they provided what was a beautiful and memorable moment. Call it the right band for the right time or call it a win all the way around, but still, U2 were the exception. The veteran rockers had the ability to provide a catharsis for people and not have it seem cheap or cheesy. Just look at what they did in Paris a little over a decade later.
After a themeless year in 2002, themes were back at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the last one to include a theme. “Choose or Lose” featured Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock. But the show would go on to be best remembered as the halftime show where Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson performed. And you probably remember what happened then.
The Post-Nipplegate Era (2005 – 2012)
At the tail end of Super Bowl XXXVIII’s halftime show, that thing happened with Timberlake and Jackson and as a result, the next decade-plus of Super Bowl halftime shows would be a delicate back and forth between performers that were trustworthy and performers that were questionable, but not all that risky. It was a wonderful run of course corrections and reactions to the year before, kind of like Weezer’s entire career. The end result was a run of halftime shows featuring legendary rock bands, massive pop stars, and sometimes, a combination of the two.
The first artist to perform in the Post-Nipplegate Era was Paul McCartney, someone who was all but a guarantee not to show a boob during the performance. McCartney was a safe pick, albeit an uninspiring one. But what did everyone expect? It’s Newton’s Third Law, kids. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” You show a boob on national television, you get Paul McCartney. And then you get the Rolling Stones, who performed a year later at Super Bowl XL.
The NFL was obviously feeling slightly reassured about things the next year, making them confident enough to take at least a little bit of a risk as Prince was tapped to play the halftime of Super Bowl XLI. Everything seemed on the up and up until he acted like his guitar was his penis and just like that, Super Bowl XLII featured Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Super Bowl XLIII starred Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Super Bowl XLIV included The Who.
Again, Newton’s Third Law.
By the time 2011 rolled around the NFL once again felt at least mildly reassured that musicians were able to behave themselves in public and the Black Eyed Peas were called to perform, joined by Usher and Slash of Guns ‘n Roses. They did fine and the next year at Super Bowl XLVI Madonna was the headliner. Madonna behaved herself, but M.I.A., who was brought along to perform, flashed the middle finger at some point. Thankfully, reactions were kept largely in check (in public at least) and Beyoncè was brought in to perform at Super Bowl XLVII, helping to usher in a new era for the halftime show.
The Biggest Pop Star In The World Era (2013– Present)
Following Beyoncè’s dominant performance in 2012, Bruno Mars damn near shocked everyone and killed it the next year. That was followed by a delightfully entertaining Katy Perry performance in 2015. Headed into Super Bowl 50, there was plenty of speculation about who might perform but barely anyone mentioned Coldplay, which made the announcement that the band had been selected for the gig all that more surprising. Or to be even more accurate, the news was met with a resounding “meh.” A lot of the criticism was rooted in the very credible argument that they weren’t “a Halftime Show band” or framed by the popular question — “was Taylor Swift not available?”
Of course, right from the jump, there were rumors of a Beyoncè appearance. After all, it was hard to ignore that she was on the band’s album that had been recently released. Besides, the general consensus was that in order to be successful, Coldplay would need help. Who better than Beyoncè? Well, as it would happen, Beyoncè and Bruno Mars.
By the time Bey had confirmed her part in the year’s biggest performance and dropped the incredible “Formation” on the day before, barely anyone was considering the Halftime Show to be Coldplay’s. It was all about Beyoncè now. Even Mars was an afterthought, but at least he was an afterthought before Coldplay. Throughout the first and second quarter of the game, Twitter was on Beyonce-watch. Sure, CBS kept saying it was Coldplay coming up at Halftime, but Beyoncè was the real draw. We all knew it, we all felt it, we all said it.
And then it happened and as was to be expected, Beyonce stole the show from both Coldplay and Bruno Mars. Although if we’re being fair, Bruno Mars (joined by Mark Ronson) held his own. Reaction on Twitter was tough but fair.
But it wasn’t Coldplay’s fault! They tried. They gave it their all. In the end, they were simply collateral damage in the halftime show’s burgeoning war with rock bands. The gig has become such a spectacle, such a production, that a band simply standing there and playing their instruments wouldn’t cut it. Again, not their fault but facts are facts.
I mean, the next year Lady Gaga effin’ jumped off the roof of the stadium!
A band can’t do that! Few people can do that! Lady Gaga played the halftime of Super Bowl LI all by her damn self because she’s Lady Gaga and she didn’t need anyone to come out and perform with her. She not only killed her performance but she killed the idea that a rock band could ever play the halftime of the Super Bowl again.
Justin Timberlake came back to perform the next year and pulled his set off without showing anyone’s boob, which I’m sure was a relief to the NFL. He had a band with him (as well as a marching band!) but for the most part, it was again a massive pop star performing, which at this point, just made sense. Actually, it made as much sense as Maroon 5 being named the performer for Super LIII didn’t make sense. Ugh, Maroon 5. I didn’t even know they were a thing anymore and I’m not sure Adam Levine did either. Are the other members in the band kept in a Westworld-like cold storage facility, waiting for him to call and see if they want to perform?
Whatever. Who cares.
Maroon 5 played and were joined by Big Boi and Travis Scott and perhaps the most memorable thing about the whole deal was how unmemorable it was. Many asked why the NFL hadn’t gotten someone bigger, someone, like Rihanna or Cardi B. But then it came out that both had declined to play, standing in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who had been effectively blackballed from the league. So, then you get Maroon 5. At least it was a good game, right? Oh, yeah. Nevermind.
And that brings us to Jennifer Lopez and Shakira performing in 2020, The Weeknd’s set in 2021, and now Dr. Dre and friends performing this year. Next year, who knows? If any band were to get the nod, it could maybe be the Foo Fighters, but I wouldn’t put any money on that. The safer bet would be someone like Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, or shit, bring Beyoncè back.
Anyone besides a band.
Those days, like the ones where marching bands and themes were involved, are over.
Portions of this piece originally appeared on UPROXX & Heavy