The Sad History of the Super Bowl Halftime Show

January 31, 2014 | Ed Daly

If you’re a teenage girl who has a thing for pop stars in unhealthy relationships with Crest Whitestrips, chances are you’re psyched about Bruno Mars being the headliner in this Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show. If you’re over twenty, you’re probably none too pleased. Rest assured: It could be worse, much worse. Just look at the past 47 years.

Starting in 1967, the first Super Bowl fans were treated to a marching band, 300 pigeons, and two guys with jet packs who hovered for twenty seconds. Hey, it was 1967. “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees was ripping up the charts. These were simple times.

Despite television ratings soaring, the NFL showed little interest in upping the halftime show ante. With the sole exception of Ella Fitzgerald performing a tribute to Louis Armstrong in 1972, the first decade of shows were a steady stream of marching bands and irrelevant performers like Andy Williams and Carol Channing. And, in true Texans-overestimating-how-much-people-care-about-all-things-Texas fashion, Miss Texas 1973 played the fiddle.

Then, in America’s bicentennial year, the NFL decided to do something big. And by big, I mean massive hits of acid. Up With People, a group of minimally talented young adults hell-bent on preaching positivity, assaulted America with four shows in the next eleven years. Like Jason Voorhees, Up With People murdered with relentless precision. Except instead of taking human lives, UWP focused on killing on the music of Motown, The Beach Boys, Huey Lewis, and Bruce Springsteen.

Another frequent contributor to the Super Bowl halftime shows of the ’70s and ’80s was Disney. Most shows focused on promoting the theme parks and Mickey Mouse. But in 1984, the Disney halftime show seemed to promote something entirely different. Considering most-watched show of the year featured a myriad of tap-dancing men in white tuxedos and greased-up dudes flexing in suspenders, it’s a shock it has taken America nearly three decades to finally come around on gay marriage.

For the remainder of the 1980s, NFL executives had gotten old and the acts reflected it. Be it George Burns and Mickey Rooney leading the charge in 1987, Chubby Checker doing “The Twist” a mere two and a half decades after it was last requested, or an Elvis impersonator doing magic tricks, someone needed to breathe new life into the show.

In 1991, that new breath of life came in the form of New Kids on the Block. The newly-minted boy band represented the younger generation – a generation high on life and low on testosterone and musical taste.

The trend continued one more year with The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You lady and a bunch of ice skaters. But, in 1993, the King of Pop finally established the Super Bowl halftime show as a major event. Gone were low-rent marching bands and baton-twirlers. The Super Bowl was now a full-on spectacle.

Unfortunately, the search for the next spectacle led to bat shit crazy results. The rest of the ’90s featured Patti Labelle teaming up with Indiana Jones, an out-of-breath Diana Ross getting on a helicopter, and Edward James Olmos narrating a show about the “Tapestry of Nations.”

In January 2002, despite Bono wearing blue sunglasses indoors, U2 performed a beautiful 9/11 tribute. Two years later, a “wardrobe malfunction” broke all good will and sent politicians and old people into a state of hysteria. Suddenly, Saving Private Ryan was getting banned from TV.

The NFL reacted to the censorship trends by stepping away from current artists and went with aging (and hopefully not so controversial) rockers: Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince (although some would question the phallic guitar), Bruce Springsteen, and The Who. The old familiar acts were generally well received but didn’t create the buzz that the NFL so desperately craves.

So, in 2011, they turned to the more current Black Eyed Peas. With Luftwaffe-like relentlessness and efficiency, the Black Eyed Peas assaulted an unsuspecting nation. This time, instead of the German bombers, the Peas relied on bad music, Auto-Tune and Tron-inspired lighting. Let’s just say they can’t all be winners.

Finally, after decades of tinkering, the NFL turned to the greatest performer of all-time to right the ship – Madonna. Madge delivered. For the first time in history, the ratings for the halftime show outperformed the actual game itself.

Beyonce took the torch last year and ran with it. Women were pleased with the reuniting of Destiny’s Child and men made excuses for why they couldn’t stand up for the next half hour. Despite generally positive reviews, the show wasn’t without some controversy as Bey’s publicist (who insisted on going with the Bond-villain-esque single name “Yvette”) demanded BuzzFeed remove several “unflattering” pictures of Mrs. Jay Z. Of course, this led to a media feeding frenzy and the pictures became a bigger story than the show itself.

So before you bemoan the state of the halftime show, remind yourself of how far it’s come. I’m sure Chubby Checker would be happy to replace Bruno Mars at a moment’s notice.

(Illustration: Michael Weinfeld)