A Super Bowl Spectacular

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Issue 11, Volume 113

By Khush Wadhwa 

To some, the Super Bowl is about the football game itself. To others, it’s the detailed advertisements that corporations spend millions on. But almost everyone can agree that what makes the Super Bowl so special is its halftime show. The Super Bowl halftime show has not always been a display of some of America’s most prevalent music. However, through time, this 15-minute miniature concert has evolved into a masterful display of American values and technology, banding together the vastly diverse audience watching the show. Though listing the best shows has given rise to fierce debates, there is no denying that there have been indisputably groundbreaking Super Bowl shows that have set the stage for the revolutionized extravaganza.

First, Michael Jackson’s double-bowl halftime show in 1993, which was performed at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl but for the Super Bowl. Jackson’s show, by modern means, was quite traditional, with his excellent singing complemented by his iconic choreography. He used air geysers and a trapdoor to spur the audience's interest, transforming the Super Bowl into a must-watch event for more than just sports fans. Most significantly, the Super Bowl halftime show featured a popular artist rather than a collection of marching bands or unpopular artists. For the first time in NFL history, television audiences increased for the halftime show relative to the remainder of the game. Jackson’s flamboyant performance united sports and music fans alike, and garnered the attention of sponsors: although Frito-Lay did not pay to put their name behind the halftime show, they made a $100,000 donation to Jackson’s Heal the World charity in recognition of his performance. This set the precedent for companies like E*Trade and Pepsi, who would begin to sponsor ensuing halftime shows, allowing the NFL larger budgets for more bombastic shows in the future.

Our journey continues in 2001, when the September 11 terrorist attacks shook the core of America. Left searching for a unified identity, the nation was exploring a range of mediums to express their strength on. In light of this, the NFL canceled Janet Jackson’s scheduled 2002 Super Bowl Halftime show in favor of Irish pop-rock band U2, drawing on the group’s emotional performance at Madison Square Garden and their 9/11 tribute that personally touched many NFL executives. U2’s performance was a stark contrast to those prior, as they played just three songs in their entirety. However, they showed precisely why they were chosen for such a monumental performance when, during their song “MLK,” the band revealed a vertical screen displaying the names of individuals who had lost their lives in the attack. Lead singer Bono relished in the cheers and tears, the joy and sadness, the collective emotional pit that was the New Orleans Superdome. As each name scrolled through the stadium’s rafters, the packed stadium felt an emotional connection that resonated in fans across the nation. Bono, transitioning into the show’s ultimate song, “When the Streets Have No Name,” brought this together with one lyrical change, from “It’s all I can do,” to “It’s all we can do.” Behind his jacket, Bono revealed an American flag, met by thunderous applause and cheers. As a final show of compassion, Bono demanded that the NFL keep all profits from the show; that his band performed that night for the American people, not for profits. Their performance was emotionally riveting and beautifully showcased the unity, solidarity, and comfort that America needed, emblemized in the nation’s most famous sporting event.

After U2, performances began to blend into one another as big names, like Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Prince, The Who, Madonna, Beyoncé, and others celebrated spotlight years with a passable but unspectacular show that featured recurring styles and mediums. But new ground was broken in 2015 by Katy Perry, who broke into Glendale, Arizona, on a massive robotic tiger, performing her hit song, “Roar.” Perry’s team utilized well-timed costume changes, a variety of sets, and 3D effects to visually portray the tone of each song, from the sunny summer setting of “California Gurls” and “TGIF” to the balloons and majestic skies of “Firework.” Perry and her show laid the framework that would become instrumental in performances for years to come.

However, Perry’s revolution was short-lived, as Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars took to a vastly different medium to engage their audience.  In a homage to Jackson’s performance, Coldplay brought members of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles to play their songs live. Additionally, Coldplay’s performance played on color schemes, as their luminescent stage was reflected in fans painting the stadium in neon colors. The color schemes were intentionally chosen to reflect Coldplay’s vibrant new album, and fans were treated to a bright and immersive performance.  From there, Mars and Beyoncé stole the show after an electric and unexpected walk-on from the side of the field, providing a burst of energy with contrasting black outfits and fluid dances. For the finale, all the groups joined together on the stage for a mashup of Coldplay’s “Fix You” and “Up&Up.” The energy and appeal to all generations made Coldplay’s show one for the ages, capturing the hearts of the millions lucky enough to see it live.

Justin Timberlake headlined Super Bowl 52’s halftime show, with one of the most thrilling introductions that the show has seen in history. His performance was a spectacular mix of old and new, as he combined the hits that brought him fame with those from his newest album, which he’d purposefully kept secret until a few days prior. In a particularly touching moment, considering Prince’s untimely passing earlier in the year and the Minneapolis setting, Timberlake paid tribute to the late singer by performing two of his most famous songs to appeal to the Minneapolis crowd. But perhaps the most significant part of Timberlake’s performance was that it was designed for television. From the set to the lighting to the dances to the camera placement, fans watching on screen were treated to a mesmerizing display of strobe lighting and color, with different sets and parts of the stadium helping to define the atmospheres of Timberlake’s diverse array of music.

Though each performance was unique in its own right, few were as challenging as that of 2021, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic took America by storm. After a year of isolation in which live sports ceased to exist and lockdowns threatened the lives and livelihoods of Americans, the NFL’s Super Bowl was the first major sporting event to return to something resembling normalcy. The NFL was under pressure to put together a game and a show that could convince Americans that their cultural habits would return after an atypical year. As such, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay expected nothing less than perfection from the Weeknd’s 2021 Super Bowl performance. The performance, unlike previous shows which integrated the audience in some form, demanded innovation, and the Weeknd’s crew delivered. Employing pyrotechnics and LED sets, the Weeknd used the dark Tampa skies to his advantage, recreating the neon city vibe that popularized his hit song “Blinding Lights.” Because of the raging pandemic, the performance was geared towards television audiences, with the Weeknd utilizing sections of the stadium that were out of the view of many fans. The show of light and dark dancing through the night was one of technical brilliance, emphasizing the bright return of major American sporting events like the Super Bowl.

After a long road of constant evolution, we’ve now reached a point where a Super Bowl halftime show doesn’t need to be technically brilliant to display the culture of America’s great cities. Just a few miles southeast of SoFi Stadium, the NFL’s historic billion-dollar arena and site of Super Bowl 56, sits one of California’s oldest yet lively cities: Compton. “Hub City,” as it is known, is a center for West Coast hip-hop and rap culture, and Dr. Dre had no trouble assembling a crew of some of the greatest West Coast rappers of all time. Dr. Dre brought together members of his timeless Compton crew in Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and 50 Cent, and the performance evoked a great sense of nostalgia from Millenials and Gen-Zs, while also shedding light on the hip-hop of today with the brilliance of Kendrick Lamar. They utilized one set that featured different rooms matching the environments of each performer’s song, with a drum set and several performances above the rooms in the style of a runaway train. On the ground, set designer Es Devlin created a flat map of the world, referencing the extent to which Compton’s music reached and resonated with listeners across the globe. In a well-choreographed show that emphasized community, Super Bowl 56 set the stage for a future of performances that balance technology, community, and character. Of course, who is on stage will always matter. But the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime show has always been about bringing the country together, and the technology and music is one of America’s finest art displays for all to enjoy.