The 7 Most Irritating Superbowl Halftime Performers of All Time
Well, perhaps not all time—there is the case of 1967’s pre-YouTube performance by various university marching bands, and the halftime performance a decade later that included something called an “audience card stunt.” But in the years since media has been preserved and democratized for posterity, there have been countless entertainers on the Superbowl halftime show who have irritated America into oblivion, whether for their performative snafus or for their despicable personal politics.
This weekend, Madonna will take over the halftime show of Superbowl XLVI. While we’re quite looking forward to her performance (mostly for her guest stars, Nicki Minaj, MIA and LMFAO), we’re also acutely aware of her status as the most prolific and colonial cultural appropriator of pop music’s last three decades. On Sunday, her set list includes “Like a Prayer,” a terrific song with a gospel choir, but one whose video shamelessly borrowed religious iconography from Mexican Catholicism in a way that was less homage, and more opportunity for her to revamp her commercial image.
But she’ll also perform the song “Vogue,” which does even more explicit damage to the community she lifted it from. Voguing is primarily the provenance of a black and Latino gay and transgendered community, and Madonna completely whitewashed it with her lyric, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white/ If you’re a boy or a girl.” It was a historical revision that, 20 years later, prompted former vogue scene DJ Sprinkles to write, “Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke.” Capitalism is a shitshow, and Madonna don’t care.
Not every performer on this list is as offensive as Madge...but every performer was, in their year, a good reason to go pick up more pizza during the break. Some of them are still dealing with the fallout.
1. Fergie and Slash, Superbowl XLV, 2011
Since the Superbowl began consistently booking celebrity musicians for the halftime show in 1988, every year has been about increasing the spectacle. This usually entails superstar collabos, even if they’re unlikely (Gwen Stefani and Sting? Hmm), and of course the requisite amount of fireworks and brouhaha. And when you want brouhaha? You call in the Black Eyed Peas. Last year’s performance was doubly ridiculous because it was a cross promotion with the movie Tron: Legacy, and Peas leader will.i.am was wearing some sort of futuristic superhero suit with a plastic hairpiece. But the Black Eyed Peas would be infinitely less annoying if not for Fergie, the bombastic white girl they added halfway through their existence which turned out to be a career-exploding decision, much to the annoyance of anyone cognizant of race in this country.
And at Superbowl XLV, she was in full irritating mode, assisted by Guns n Roses guitarist Slash, performing a difficult song to sing well: “Sweet Child of Mine.” She wasn’t totally offensive—that is, unless you care about aesthetics. Or music. Unable to span the range the song takes, her high notes were a half pitch off the whole time, and she adopted this weird guttural throat affectation that made it sound like she had chugged a gallon of milk before the show. Plus, she was warbling more dramatically than a drunk Liza Minnelli in a midnight showing of Cabaret. The real capper, though, was that she was doing Axl Rose’s signature sway-dance as she sang. Surely she meant it as homage, but it just reminded us that she was not him.
2. Disney Takeover, Superbowl XXXV, 1987
The first year the halftime show was booked with anything other than local college marching bands, drill teams, military choirs or Up With People was a tribute to the 100th anniversary of Hollywood, as staged by the Walt Disney Company. Even though its total domination of kid culture was still budding compared to now, its interpretation of “honoring Hollywood” was actually a shrewd example of contextualizing its important developments with holdings it owned, performing songs it had a stake in and letting Goofy narrate it. “When You Wish Upon a Star” was the outro. Hey, whomever writes history owns it, and it was Disney’s goal to make its company the only player in town.
One of the Disney-owned songs performed in 1987 was the theme song to Indiana Jones, and nearly 10 years later, they were still at it. In anticipation of the then-forthcoming Disneyland ride, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye," the corporation took over halftime yet again, creating an elaborate stage set meant to look like a lost temple in “India” with some sort of fake Hindu godhead, populated by men dressed to look like “Brahmins.” Mmm-hmm. There were also women wearing belly-dancing ensembles, and other women dressed up in “Native American” headdresses, proving that whomever costume-designed is really confused about where India is, and who lives there. Aside from the cultural exoticism inherent in this, and all Indiana Jones films, the set also required its featured performer, the great Patti LaBelle, to dress in some kind of faux Nefertiti costume. Fortunately, even that glitzy disaster couldn’t keep her from being great. (She did “New Attitude”!)
4. Justin Timberlake, Superbowl XXXVIII, 2004
Who can forget the great nip slip scandal of 2004? (Certainly not the United Court of Appeals, which finally ruled on the FCC complaint seven years later, in November 2011.) In case you need your memory refreshed: Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson were performing a medley of their songs, when he grabbed a part of her costume and exposed her breast, which was adorned by body-mod-style nipple jewelry. From the ashen looks on their faces, it was clearly not planned, and the incident was described as a wardrobe malfunction. So why is Timberlake the worst if it was an accident? Because of the way he acted after the fact, essentially abnegating responsibility, letting Jackson take all the heat, and abandoning her to deal with the fact that she involuntarily showed her nude boob to basically every single person in the entire world. An embarrassing development that was also racially loaded—why did she become the pariah, and her white, male collaborator get to go on and win some Grammys? Oh, because no one placed the blame on him, even though it was more his fault. Right. Timberlake’s still in the doghouse for never speaking up for her.
Yeah yeah yeah, everyone loves the Blues Brothers, who were represented here by Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman and James Belushi. But their presence here just underscores the gross and gimmicky nature of every Superbowl halftime show, which has to appeal to all demographics and as a result just ends up sucking. The Blues Brothers opened for JAMES BROWN by singing “Soul Man,” which felt vaguely offensive, and also his presence reminded us how crappy and milquetoast the Blues Brothers are, as musicians. Not to bang on them too hard, because they’re entertainers above all, but man, that was some misguided booking.
6. Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, The Judds, Superbowl XXVIII, 1994
“Rockin’ Country Sunday” was held in the Georgia Dome, not Nashville, so our only guess is that this Republican explosion is how culture was trying to get back at the Clinton presidency. (It was sponsored by “Wavy Lay’s,” meaning Frito-Lay, a chip company owned by PepsiCo which historically donates to the GOP.)
The late ‘80s are somewhat of a blur in our minds, but for the life of us we cannot understand why “Be-Bop Bamboozled in 3-D,” that year’s theme, would have its sole performer be a card-trick magician-slash-Elvis impersonator (with a terrible singing voice) doing the “world’s biggest magic trick.” Was America still so repressed in ‘89 that this was our idea of a good time? It seems like a rip-off, but perhaps Presto’s human magic trick was exactly the distraction the producers needed: the show opened with Bob Costas announcing its main attraction... a giant Diet Coke commercial in 3-D. We understand these things take money, but really, so gross.