Boobs, Beyoncé, & Brass Bands: The Evolution of the Super Bowl Halftime Show

For 50 years, the Super Bowl Halftime Show has been the biggest—and weirdest—gig in show business. How marching bands begat Up With People, Janet’s nipple, and, ugh, Coldplay.

Michael Conroy/AP

Tickets were $12. The hype was non-existent. Len Dawson, the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl, was spotted sitting on the bench smoking a cigarette.

And the first Super Bowl Halftime Show, back in January 1967? It was a marching band.

Before the boob that shocked the world. Before Beyoncé killed so hard she knocked the lights out. Before Bruno Mars announced himself as one of the industry’s most explosive live entertainers, Left Shark became a meme, and the announcement that Coldplay would headline Super Bowl 50 elicited the groans of a nation, the Super Bowl Halftime Show, well, wasn’t a very big deal at all.

It was Tommy Walker, a former USC kicker and Spirit of Troy drum major whom Walt Disney later hired to orchestrate Disneyland’s opening ceremony in 1967, who had the idea that the first championship game between the NFL and AFL champs should feature a halftime show with a little pomp and circumstance.

Walker was friends with then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, and, according to Austin Murphy’s must-read Sports Illustrated history, suggested he pony up some cash for the spectacle. Rozelle’s reaction: “Why would we spend all that money? That’s when everybody goes to the bathroom.”

Oh, how the times change.

Walker persisted and eventually won over Rozelle. Anyone who took a halftime bathroom break in 1967 missed out on a doozy of a showstopper: the marching bands from the University of Arizona and the University of Michigan.

In fact, marching bands would be a staple of the first run of halftime shows. Occasionally a performer like Carol Channing or Ella Fitzgerald would lend guest vocals, but it wasn’t until 1976 when Up With People headlined that an act was chosen to anchor to the proceedings based on their star power. (More on Up With People later.)

Now what was once a bathroom-break soundtrack is the biggest gig in entertainment, a showcase in front of more than 100 million eyeballs so powerful and fruitful that the NFL has even attempted to charge artists for the opportunity to headline.

It’s almost impossible to think that before Katy Perry rode into the University of Phoenix Stadium perched on top of a massive mechanical cat, dressed like a cartoon flame, acting out the nuances of a gay man’s fever dream, the Super Bowl Halftime Show was anything but a big-budgeted big deal.

But it would take decades—and a revolving door of drill teams, Elvis impersonators, and productions that more closely resembled a Disney parade than the effects-heavy bonanzas we’re used to now—before major recording artists would become a headlining staple of halftime shows.

Commissioner Rozelle, who held the position until 1989, feared celebrities would draw attention away from the game. He turned out to be right.

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As the Super Bowl—its parties, its commercials, its halftime shows—morphed into an entertainment event more than a sporting competition, the game has arguably become an afterthought.

When Madonna performed to 112.5 million viewers in 2012, the ratings actually ticked up as the second quarter was ending and the world braced for Madonna to vogue in a gold-plated Egyptian headdress. The next two years’ broadcasts followed the same pattern when Beyoncé and Bruno Mars performed.

Last year’s Katy Perry performance marks the most-watched Super Bowl Halftime Show of all-time, clocking in at 118.5 million viewers. Broken down into half-hour blocks, her halftime show performance outranked viewership for the entirety of the game with the exception of the final minutes.

As an entertainer, you can’t buy that kind of publicity. Except for when the NFL tried to make them.

Beyoncé announced her “Mrs. Carter Show” world tour soon after her 2013 halftime gig. Mars did the same, putting tickets for his “Moonshine Jungle” tour on sale right after.

In addition to spawning seemingly endless memes—we get it, Left Shark was funny—Katy Perry’s show last year catapulted 11 of her songs onto the Hot 100 charts and led to a 1,000 percent sales gain for featured performer Missy Elliott. (Not to mention how it introduced a new generation to Elliott’s erstwhile awesomeness entirely.)

Artists clearly profit from the showcase, so why shouldn’t the NFL get a cut? That seemed to be the league’s mentality when they proposed to Perry’s camp—as well as fellow contenders Rihanna and Coldplay—that they contribute a portion of their post-Super Bowl income to the league in exchange for getting booked for the gig.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pay-to-play suggestion was instantly strong-armed by the artists. But that the Halftime Show had become a spotlight so valuable shows how far it had come from when the NFL not only didn’t have to grovel for marquee entertainers to perform—it flat out didn’t want them to.

Any historical look back at the Super Bowl Halftime Show inevitably surfaces the franchise’s biggest curio: Up With People. Up With People were the first artists to headline a halftime show, and did so four times.

What in the hell is Up With People?

When they made their debut at 1976’s Super Bowl, a tribute to the bicentennial, they had already been performing for over a decade. They were a corporate sponsored act—literally funded by the likes of Exxon and Halliburton—to answer the anti-establishment music craze of the ’60s. Here was an aggressively diverse, aggressively earnest, aggressively cardigan-ed act that sang about loving your country.

Glenn Close was at one point a featured vocalist.

These Up With People performances were much in line with Walker’s early vision. The spotlight wasn’t on the person, but the cacophony. This was before the age of Jumbotrons and camera close-ups. The goal was to fill the field. And fill the field they did, up until their last halftime show in 1986, after which they were deemed too dated.

Up With People might have been gone, but the hindsight absurdity of their performances wouldn’t soon leave. That’s the thing about the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Though the performances now might accurately reflect what you might see on the featured artist’s tour, they used to be so weird. So truly, very weird.

In 1989, three years post-People, an Elvis-impersonating magician named Elvis Preston was hired to perform tricks for what was supposed to be the world’s largest 3D broadcast. If you cringed while reading that, imagine watching it.

At the 1995 halftime show, which promoted The Lion King and a new Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland, Tony Bennett and Patti Labelle performed while an actor impersonating Indiana Jones tried to steal the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Then they all sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Flash-forward to Disney’s last go-round, a 2000 salute to the millennium that featured Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton, and Phil Collins singing along to an 80-piece orchestra while 30-foot-tall puppets danced around them and Edward James Olmos narrated with a monologue about the future.

In between these awkward Disney productions, Diana Ross would be airlifted out of the stadium in 1996 while singing “Can You Take Me Higher.” The Blues Brothers would perform with ZZ Top. Boyz II Men, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, and Queen Latifah would salute Motown’s 40th Anniversary.

The Super Bowl Halftime Show, though weird, was nothing if not ambitious.

Year by year, the sideshow would inch closer to pure spectacle. Producers began to realize that the stakes were high. They weren’t just competing against idle bathroom breaks anymore. They were competing against other entertainment options.

In 1992, Super Bowl XXVI’s theme was “Winter Magic,” featuring figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano. I know. Fox had the same reaction as you. The network decided to air an episode of In Living Color to compete with the saccharine disaster, and ended up siphoning 20 million viewers from the CBS Super Bowl broadcast.

The next year, the NFL booked Michael Jackson.

He wore a military-style jacket apparently on loan from Muammar Gaddafi. The stadium audience erupted with such deafening glee at the sight of him that nearly two minutes passed before he was able to begin. He ends with a performance of “Heal the World.” A giant inflatable globe rises from a stage.

Had Twitter existed then, it would have exploded. It’s still widely considered to be the best halftime show ever. Everything changed.

You can draw a direct line from Jackson’s zeitgeist-seizing performance to the one that MTV tried to create when it was given control of the show in 2001. Following Disney’s “Tapestry of Nations” disaster in 2000, the network’s goal was to bring the youths back to the show without alienating older audiences. In other words, to do that thing that MTV does: create buzz.

Britney Spears, her cleavage its very own touchdown, joined NSYNC, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige for a climax performance of “Walk This Way.” The kids dug it! It was fun. The NFL continued MTV’s attempt to bridge young and old with 2003’s Shania Twain/No Doubt/Sting show and, most famously, the 2004 Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake performance.

Perhaps more than next-day ratings or sales boosts, nothing to that point had quite exemplified the power and breadth of the Halftime Show spotlight more than Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate. Reactionary FCC guidelines put in place still linger. It practically put TiVO in business—never before had there been such a desire to rewind live TV. Over a decade later, it’s still a topic of conversation.

Even just within the context of the Super Bowl, Nipplegate is still relevant. It kicked off the age of reactionary Halftime Shows.

Bookings whiplashed away from edginess and toward classic, family-friendly entertainment: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and the Who. For viewers of a young age, these performers brought the literal question: “The who?”

When an attempt to find more relevant, modern performers surfaced the Black Eyed Peas in 2011—as ho-hum a pop booking as they come—it became clear that it was time to return to Tommy Walker’s early playbook: Bring back a little pomp and circumstance. Make a little spectacle. Think big.

In other words: Hire Madonna.

Madonna, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and Katy Perry, successively, have contributed in creating a bit of a Super Bowl monster.

Their bookings have coincided with a domination of social media not just in our own lives, but in the eyes of programmers. The Halftime Show didn’t just need to entertain. It needed Twitter likes, Facebook shares, and the possibility of going viral.

What began with a marching band created Left Shark.

Beyoncé will be back this year, playing second fiddle to Coldplay. Bruno Mars will be there, too. In a way, Coldplay headlining continues the reactionary trend Janet Jackson’s booby kicked off.

After years of female-courting programming (arguably reasonable for an event centered around football), fatigue over “Katy Perry and Football? What an Awkward Fit!” thinkpieces led to dads and bros being thrown a bone. Fine, you tolerated “California Gurls” last year. Now you get to sing along to “Fix You.”

The Super Bowl and its halftime show might be the last remaining relic of TV that, in an age of splintered viewing and demographic-courting programming, must try to appeal to everyone… because everyone is watching. Of course, then every decision is met with backlash, the least of which is hiring divisive pop-rockers Coldplay to play the biggest show of the year.

That there are such strong opinions at all is remarkable considering the show’s origins.

In a 2015 article on this very topic, Sports Illustrated ventured that Tommy Walker “might have been the most interesting man in the world.” (Suck it, Dos Equis guy.) In the world of entertainment, he may actually be the most important and influential man you’ve never heard of.

Super Bowl IV upped the ante, as far as halftime shows go. Staged in New Orleans in 1970, the “Tribute to Mardi Gras” theme had balloons, cannons, and pigeons. Pigeons! It was the biggest show Walker had produced for the NFL yet. It also had the ingredient that has, in all its incarnations, never left the Super Bowl Halftime Show: joy.

Look for lots of that during Sunday’s Coldplay appearance. And, hopefully, some pigeons.