Super Bowl halftime show history: 2 winners, 3 losers, and 1 unforgettable concert that happened to be a halftime show

When it comes to determining the greatest halftime performances in Super Bowl history, there are plenty of factors – but even fewer acts – to consider. Elements like production quality, set lists, star power, innovation, and memorable moments (Left Shark, anyone?) are all pieces to the puzzle, and some acts are able to find just the right fit, transforming songs you’ve heard a dozen times before into historical moments for pop culture.

And then you have Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl LII giving you the opportunity to sneak in that bathroom break you’ve been dying to take since the beginning of the second quarter. In other words, these performances can be hit or miss, but there have been a few that have stood the test of time – and one that is so clearly No. 1 that everyone else can chase the whale, but you’re never catching it.

First, let’s hit on some of the performances that missed the mark.

Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004); Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson and Nelly: Setting aside the wardrobe malfunction that rocked the nation, this lineup is an absolute fever dream realized. A stage shared by both Diddy and Kid Rock should have resulted in Christopher Wallace turning in his grave. Mr. Rock got to play two songs before giving way to “Rhythm Nation” by Janet? Who gave him that sort of clearance? Instead, we got the figurehead of N’Sync escaping virtually scot-free and parlaying this publicity into a career carried by Timbaland beats. We all lost.

Super Bowl XL (2006), The Rolling Stones: The only way you could’ve overreacted more in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s areola at Super Bowl XXXVIII is to have Paul McCartney as the following year’s act – which is exactly what the NFL did. As a followup to Sir Paul, the NFL went with the Stones, which, sure, they’re great, they have one of the most storied legacies in music and a never-ending catalogue of hits, but you know who else does? Motown. Hitsville, USA. And when you’re in Detroit, Mich. and you choose to import your halftime entertainment without so much as a nod to one of the greatest and most impactful movements in music and culture at large, it “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, baby.

Super Bowl LII (2018), Justin Timberlake: Unreal. Guy gets to come back to the Super Bowl halftime stage and doesn’t even put on anyone who helped him to get to this point in his career. No N’Sync reunion like Beyonce so admirably did with Destiny’s Child, no Timbaland, no duet with Janet Jackson to bring things full circle. Instead, he does what he does best and covers Prince in Minnesota for a cheap pop and reminds us that “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is as aggravating as it gets. Imagine riding the wave of a Trolls movie into the Super Bowl.

Alright, enough recounting the missteps. Here are two great Super Bowl halftime shows, and one of the most unforgettable concerts that just so happened to take place smack dab in the middle of a boring-ass football game.

Super Bowl LVII (2023), Rihanna: So the average viewership of this Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs was 115.1 million viewers. When Rihanna—who hadn’t performed on stage in five years—took the mic, it peaked at 118.7 million viewers. Rihanna, while pregnant, platformed on a Super Mario level stage and kicked off her set with “Bitch Better Have My Money” to remind everyone of the bag she showed up to collect.

Super Bowl LVI (2022); Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Anderson .Paak: With a measured amount of skepticism, this halftime show felt like it could be an exercise in “Too Many Cooks,” or it could be a celebration of everything that graced a Sony Discman. Luckily for us, it was the latter. 50 Cent upside down for “In da Club” was a nice touch, but Kendrick playing “Alright” and Eminem taking that knee felt like hip hop was truly on center stage.

Super Bowl XLI (2007), Prince: If divine intervention were a concert, this was it. “Can you make it rain harder?” is the stuff made of legends. He’s covering Jimi Hendrix and the Foo Fighters and making it all his own. Dude is wearing high heels across a slick, tile surface, ripping guitar solos with such ease, you’d think he’d never been more comfortable. “Purple Rain” in a torrential downpour. C’mon.

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