Once upon a time, all the way back in 1967, when it came to the halftime show at the Super Bowl, big-name performers were not involved. Instead of performers who currently topped the charts and were fresh off of wins at the Grammys, the earliest halftime shows consisted of marching bands. And they weren’t professional marching bands, either (although I’m not even sure those are a thing.) The marching bands were from local universities and colleges, as well as high schools, and were accompanied by drill teams, flag girls and drum majors.
It was a far cry from the dancing sharks and the death-defying leaps from the top of the stadium halftime shows have featured in recent years.
Yet since those early Super Bowls, the game’s halftime show has gone through a few changes and weaved in and out of different eras. They didn’t become the massive spectacle they are today over night. It was actually just the opposite. Over the course of fifty years, the halftime show has gone from marching bands to marching bands playing to a theme to the gradual inclusion of pop stars to a show entirely comprised of pop stars to a show that needed to be reigned in for the safety of the innocent among us to massive productions that rival a Broadway production in size and scope.
The halftime show at the Super Bowl is a story of eras. Here is what you need to know about the halftime show’s history and the various shapes and sizes it has gone through.
1. The Marching Band Era (1967 – 1968)
The first two Super Bowls, Super Bowl I in 1967 and Super Bowl II in 1968, sit by their lonesome in the first era of Super Bowl halftime shows, the Marching Band Era. Marching bands would be a fixture during the halftime show for at least the next two decades, but what made these first two shows unique was that they didn’t include a theme. They just featured marching bands. That’s it.
Super Bowl I, which was played in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California, 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.
2. The First Era of Themes (1967 – 1979)
Starting at Super Bowl III, which was again played in Miami, themes were incorporated into the halftime show. Why? It’s simple. Everyone loves a good theme. The theme of the halftime show of Super Bowl III was “America Thanks” and featured the marching band from Florida A&M University, as well as various high school bands from the Miami area.
The following 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,” with the Southern University Marching Band playing alongside Al Hirt, Marguerite Piazza, Doc Severinsen and Lionel Hampton. Two years later at Super Bowl VI, which was 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.
Throughout the seventies, themes ranged from “Happiness Is” at Super Bowl VII in Los Angeles to “Tribute to Duke Ellington” at Super Bowl IX, which was again in New Orleans. In 1976 the theme was “200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute to America’s Bicentennial.” The performer was 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 in 1971 at Super Bowl V, performing alongside the marching band from Southern Missouri State University. Up With People would perform at the halftime show a handful of times throughout the 1980’s.
Disney got into the halftime show game in 1977 at Super Bowl XI, which was played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. With a theme of “It’s a Small World,” the show, produced by Disney and 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.
3. The Second Era of Themes (1980 – 1991)
The use of themes at the halftime show continued into the 1980’s 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. Up With People would go on to perform two years later at Super Bowl XVI, which was played in the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan and the theme was “Salute to the 1960’s and Motown.” Up With People would also perform at Super Bowl XX in New Orleans. That game’s halftime show theme was “Beat of the Future.”
Disney would produce two halftime shows in the 1980’s, the first one being in 1984 at Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa, Florida. The theme was “Salute to Superstars of Silver Screen” and featured the marching bands from the University of Florida and Florida State University. In 1987 Disney produced the halftime show at Super Bowl XXI, again at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, 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.
The decade’s last two halftime shows 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 1950’s was celebrated, as well as the magic of 3-D. The show featured an Elvis Presley impersonator joined by dancers from all over Florida, but more importantly, a barrage of 3-D images.
4. The Era of Themes Plus Big Name Headliners (1991 – 2004)
In the 1990’s, the Super Bowl halftime show began to change and start to become the spectacle that we know today. Marching bands were replaced by pop stars, although Super Bowl XXIV in 1990 and Super Bowl XXVI in 1992 still featured university marching bands.
The real shift happened in between those years though at Super Bowl XXV. The show was again produced by Disney and again featured Disney characters and audience participation. But more importantly, it included the New Kids on the Block, who were at the height of the popularity at the time. The boy band’s performance was bookend by children singing “It’s A Small World After All.”
Themes in the 1990’s included “Rockin’ Country Sunday” at Super Bowl XXVII in Atlanta, Georgia 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.
The last Super Bowl halftime show of the decade, Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, had a theme of “Celebration of Soul, Salsa and Swing.” The performers were from the worlds of you guessed it: soul, salsa and swing. Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan and swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy all performed.
The lone theme-less halftime show of the nineties happened at Super Bowl XXVII. Although to be fair, you could just say the theme was “Michael Jackson” and that would work as this halftime show was the now famous and legendary Michael Jackson halftime performance. Half time shows wouldn’t be the same afterwards.
Themes did continue into the early 2000’s, although they were mostly an afterthought as the shows now started to feature top-line talent and some of the biggest acts in music. There was “Tapestry of Nations” at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 starring Phil Collins, Christian Aguilera, Toni Braxton and an 80 person choir and the next year, “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.
The theme of halftime at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans 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.
Two years later, at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the halftime show was the last one to include a theme. “Choose of 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.
5. The Post-Nipplegate Era (2005 – Present)
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 trust worthy and performers that were questionable, but not all that risky. It was a decade plus of course corrections and reactions to the year before. The end result was a run of halftime shows featuring legendary rock bands, massive pop stars and sometimes, some combination of the two.
Either way, the era of themes was finished. The shows’ producers had enough to think about and plan for.
The first artist to perform in the Post-Nipplegate Era was Paul McCartney, someone who was all but a guarantee not to show their 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.
Whoever makes the decision of who plays halftime of the Super Bowl was obviously feeling slightly reassured about things the next year and confident enough to take at least a little bit of a risk because 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 people.
By the time 2011 rolled around the decision-makers once again felt at least mildly reassured that musicians were able to behave themselves when needed to 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 Beyonce was brought in to perform at Super Bowl XLVII.
In the past few years halftime performers have largely behaved themselves. The biggest has been the revelation that halftime at the Super Bowl is no longer a venue for rock bands, as evidenced by Coldplay’s performance at Super Bowl 50. The band did fine, but were massively overshadowed by Beyonce and Bruno Mars, who were added long after the British band were announced as the headlining act. Given the magnitude of the performance, the scope of it and the swooping production of the show now, a band, people up there just hammering out songs on instruments just isn’t visually dynamic enough.
Although we’ll see what the next era holds for the halftime show. As history has shown us, the next era is bound to be different than the current one.
Who knows, maybe the Grambling State University Marching Bands makes a comeback.