After the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show that could have also been a late-night Cinemax special, I got curious about when the halftime show really went off the rails. I had distant recollections of a time when the Super Bowl show was a family-friendly event full of happiness and goodwill. Luckily, YouTube has records of them all. I started in 1985 because I don’t believe that prior to that, the FCC would have allowed any nonsense on television. Back then, we were still watching sitcoms with married people in twin beds.
Sure enough, the 1985 show was obviously geared toward children, featuring many children on the field and giant pirate ships, pianos, a circus and much more — with local performers no one ever heard of and everyone was properly dressed. I showed this to my daughter, who had the misfortune of seeing JLo’s crotch up close, and she watched the whole thing saying over and over again, “Why don’t they do THIS?” She loved it, like all of us did in 1985. There was a nod to NASA and everything. What’s not to love? And there isn’t a stripper pole in sight.
The rest of the 80’s halftime shows were equally as spectacular, including this awesome show featuring the Rockettes. You’ll notice that in the good old days the shows were huge and took up the entire field with marching bands and performers. It was a real spectacle that everyone enjoyed. In the 1988 show, there were over 100 grand pianos on the field. It was awesome.
Skipping ahead to the ’90s, the 1991 show was an all-child cast put on by Disney, proving that the NFL used to know who its audience was. New Kids on the Block made an appearance as part of the show, but not the main event. It was a lot of fun and I’m sure the families involved are still talking about it.
This kind of show continued all the way through the ’90s. The moment of no return was the year 2000. It’s hard to believe that this performer was the reason for the drastic slide into inappropriate weirdness, but it is the truth. Tina Turner started the dark period now known as the Super Bowl halftime porn show. It wasn’t her that did it, but her backup dancers. It was also the first show where the focus was on one performer instead of a grand-scale full-field extravaganza that was comprised of a thousand moving parts. There was one marching band and there were dancers still on the field but it seemed more for the people in the stands and not for the TV audience. For the first time, the entire show was Turner and her backup dancers whose breasts were falling out of their shirts as they performed dancing previously only seen in strip clubs. For some reason, no one seemed to notice. Turner is inarguably an amazing performer, but her show opened the door to what we now have to put up with every year.
Just three short years after Turner’s show, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake pulled their “wardrobe malfunction” on America, but the entire show leading up to that moment was over the top with sexually explicit messaging and dirty dancing. Since the year 2000, there hasn’t really been any show that tried to be family-friendly the way the NFL used to. Instead, the shows focus on a musical performance and the local participation has dwindled to zero. All those marching bands and local performers that used to get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to perform on a national stage were never called on again. Instead, there’s a massive stage built in the center of the field and “on-field” crowds are allowed on to play the part of adoring fans instead of performers in the show.
It’s too bad. I miss the marching bands and the children’s participation. (This year, JLo and Shakira brought kids onto the stage to witness the stripper pole dancing while sitting in cages. It was weird, to say the least.)
Even after the disastrous 2004 halftime show that resulted in massive fines for the network, the NFL still geared the show toward adults. That year’s tame performance by Paul McCartney, while appropriate for family viewing, was still just a concert with zero attempts to entertain the whole family. I don’t know many kids who are desperate to see an old member of the Beatles.
The entire 2000s were basically the same show every year. Several famous performers doing their hit songs while “audience performers” run onto the field to cheer them on. What used to be a huge extravaganza has morphed into just another concert performance and one has to wonder if it was a budget issue rather than any plot to corrupt the youth. If the NFL doesn’t have to pay thousands of performers in marching bands and local artists and dancers, but instead just has to just build a stage and pay one performer, they’ve probably saved a bundle. Unfortunately, narrowing the focus to one performance, the artists feel an increasing pressure to push the envelope to create better ratings and buzz for themselves, thus bringing us to a place where a grown woman thinks it’s a good idea to rub her crotch on national television.
Heading into the ’20s, I think it’s time to lobby the NFL to bring back the extravaganza that highlights local performers, bands, dancers, and acrobats and leave the famous musicians to do whatever the heck they want to at their own concerts that people pay to go to. For the rest of us who would never buy a ticket to their show, just give us the marching bands.
Megan Fox is the author of “Believe Evidence; The Death of Due Process from Salome to #MeToo,” and host of The Fringe podcast. Follow on Twitter @MeganFoxWriter