Something we’ve mostly done without since the onset of COVID—appreciative fans in the seats. Whether pro football, which was played to almost-empty stadiums, or big-name live rock music, which wasn’t played at all, this institution of collective celebration has been wiped off the map by the pandemic.
Until 1993, when Michael Jackson showed up at Super Bowl XXVII, Super Bowl halftimes were for the most part opportunities to showcase the very best marching bands in the country—and we loved it. But that golden 20 minutes of nearly 100 million+ viewership was a prize too rich to leave to tradition, and would be claimed by the NFL for the rock and pop hierarchy. Ratings data showed that folks were tuning out during halftime, and significant numbers, especially in lopsided or smaller market games, were not returning for the second half. By comparison, according to data analysis, Lady Gaga’s 2017 halftime show drew more viewers than the game itself.
With Super Bowl LV kicking off on Sunday, here’s a look back at great moments when NFL history and classic rock excitement joined in a grand national convergence.
SB XLII (Giants 17-Patriots 14, 2/3/08) — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
The year of Lady Gaga’s avionic extravaganza, we lost Tom Petty, one of rock’s most beloved artists. His passing was a moment for reflection, which included remembrances of his Emmy-nominated SB halftime show.
After a laser-lit Flying V guitar pointed the way to an outsized beating heart, an estimated 9.7 million fans were treated to a Heartbreaker set pretty much like any you’d see on the road: no frills, straightforward twangy rock-and-roll. Watching Petty stroll the stage like a post-millennial troubadour while strumming “Free Fallin’” is a verklempt moment these four years after his death. XLII is also considered one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever played—so it’s all good.
SB XLIV (Saints 31-Colts 17, 2/7/2010) — The Who
In an upset comeback the Saints scored 18 unanswered points to win, and British rockers The Who delivered what is inarguably the heaviest set ever played at a Super Bowl. Power-chording and microphone-wielding through highlights of the band’s decade-spanning discography, dynamic duo Townsend and Daltrey left no rock unturned. There was no shortage of voices raised for the sing-along to the Teenage Wasteland chorus of “Baba O’ Riley.” “Who Are You?” took control like a dominant offense. Who masterwork “Won’t Get Fooled Again” provided for the umpteenth time a thunderous meditation on alienation, perseverance, and life itself.
SB XL (Steelers 21-Seahawks 10, 2/5/06) — The Rolling Stones
There was lots of griping when the dust settled on a game many critics called an officiating debacle, but nobody complained about the Stones’ halftime set. The aphorism “everything old is new again” was borne out when the NFL required the “greatest rock band in the world” to edit some lyrics on “Start Me Up” and “Rough Justice.” Ed Sullivan had required a similar edit on “Let’s Spend the Night Together” in 1967.
The band agreed to the edit, as they had with Sullivan, and rolled through a three-song set that culminated with an extended version of “Satisfaction.” Mick Jagger, thin as a rail and meteorically energized at age 62, gestured and exhorted to the nosebleeds while Keith Richards prowled, Ron Wood stood his ground, and Charlie Watts, the man, the icon, the rock, kept time.
SB XXXI (Packers 35-Patriots 21, 1/26/97) — Blues Brothers/James Brown/ZZ Top
This halftime of football’s biggest game began with something you’d never see happen today: a satirical Fox News Channel newsbreak reporting that Dan Ackroyd’s character Elwood Blues had escaped from a penitentiary. After a few strains of the riveting “Theme from Peter Gunn,” the Bros took the stage. But as enjoyable as the blues homage provided by the brothers (Ackroyd, Jim Belushi, and John Goodman in this iteration) may be, the arrival of “Godfather of Soul” James Brown illustrated the difference between comedians who sing and the real deal. Bringing it home in a voice rich with expressive depth, Brown set the stage for a blistering set from ZZ Top. There was more than enough cowbell when all hands hit the deck for the big finish, “Gimmie Some Lovin.’”
SB XXXIX (Patriots 24-Eagles 21, 2/6/05) — Paul McCartney
Royalty had finally entered the building. Brandishing his patent Hofner violin bass, Sir Paul played three Fab Four songs and a searing rendition of the Wings hit, “Live and Let Die.”
McCartney’s finale was truly grand. When the former Beatle exclaimed “I want to hear everybody in the house now!” as “Hey Jude” neared its apotheosis, he was inviting a very big house to sing along: 68,208 in attendance at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida, and an estimated 86 million watching from home.
There have been other notable Super Bowl halftime shows—Lady Gaga’s aforementioned high-wire act, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, and Prince’s spectacular “Purple Rain” during a Miami rainstorm. Who knows, we might even get a marching band again someday.
Will 2021 see the return of fans in the stands? God willing.
Mark Ellis is Associate Editor at the Northwest Connection, Portland, Oregon’s only conservative web/print publication. He is the author of the political thriller A Death on the Horizon. Mark has not yet been banned from Twitter.