The Super Bowl 50 halftime show was a colorful spectacle that featured fireworks, a lit up stage with magical kaleidoscope effects, intense choreography, massive floral arrangements and energetic performances by Coldplay, Mark Ronson, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and Youth Orchestra L.A.
Though this so-called “musical celebration of Super Bowl past, present and future” was heart-warming and featured a brief mashup of previous halftime show video clips, it was hardly a reflection of everything the Super Bowl halftime show has gone through during its 50-year evolution.
It took a lot of time, marching bands, conservatives in cardigans, awkward Disney characters, wardrobe malfunctions and an Elvis-impersonating magician for the Super Bowl halftime show to finally evolve into the symbol of American pop culture we all know and love (or ignore as we get up to grab more snacks) today.
During its first decade, the Super Bowl halftime show primarily featured university marching bands. In fact, the first ever Super Bowl featured the University of Arizona Symphonic Marching Band, the Grambling State University Marching Band, musician and bandleader Al Hirt and Anaheim High School Drill Team and Flag Girls. By the third Super Bowl, the halftime shows had themes, such as “Tribute to Mardi Gras” (performed in 1970 by the Southern University Marching Band) and “Salute to Louis Armstrong” (performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Channing, Al Hirt, the USAFA Cadet Chorale and the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Team in 1972).
The corporate sponsored performance ensemble “Up with People” made their Super Bowl debut in 1976. Conservatively dressed in cardigans and turtlenecks, the giant group was created in response to the nation’s growing anti-establishment movement. Members of “Up with People” were aggressively wholesome and performed songs about loving their country. The group was so big that it covered the entire field, which was convenient since Jumbotrons and camera close ups didn’t exist yet. “Up with People” performed their final Super Bowl halftime show in 1986.
Super Bowl halftime shows were only beginning to get weird at that point. In 1989, an Elvis-impersonating magician named Elvis Presto was hired to perform magic tricks with extravagant 3-D effects. It was devastating.
In an effort to increase viewer interest, the Super Bowl halftime show began to feature pop music acts in 1991, such as New Kids on the Block. The tradition of themed shows ended and was replaced with high-profile acts.
1992 featured Gloria Estefan with Olympic figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano. Assuming this would bore viewers, Fox proceeded to air an episode of “Living in Color” to compete with the Super Bowl. Fox ended up stealing 20 million viewers from the CBS Super Bowl broadcast.
The next year, the NFL booked Michael Jackson to perform the halftime show. This performance was a game-changer, as Michael Jackson pioneered the Super Bowl halftime spectacle. This halftime show was one of the most watched American television events in history and from this year on, deliberate attempts were made to book top performers.
Disney produced some awkward halftime performances throughout the 1990s, however, including the 1995 one in which Indiana Jones tried to steal the Vince Lombardi Trophy and then sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from “The Lion King” with Patti Labelle and Tony Bennett.
MTV produced the 2001 halftime show, aiming to appeal to youth while not alienating older audience members. The show featured a variety of artists, including Aerosmith, Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Nelly and Mary J. Blige.
The trend of targeting younger audience members continued until 2004, when the infamous Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson wardrobe tragedy struck. The next six Super Bowl halftime shows featured only one artist or group each year, and they were all classic rock musicians, including Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and The Who.
In 2011, the Super Bowl halftime show began to phase pop music back into the game by combining pop musicians – The Black Eyed Peas and Usher – with rock musician Slash. The show returned to its previous format with one headlining musician supported by a small number of guest artists. By the time pop returned to the Super Bowl, artists not only relied on giving an entertaining show, but they also had to be spectacular enough to gain a significant amount of attention on social media. The desire to go viral inspired some unique shows in the following years, including stunning performances by Beyoncé in 2013 and Katy Perry (as well as her unforgettably lovable back up dancer, Left Shark) in 2015.
The last 50 years of Super Bowl halftime shows have had their fair share of weirdness and magnificence. One can only imagine what the Super Bowl 100 halftime show will look like. It can only get more spectacular and bizarre from here.