On January 31st, 1993, Michael Jackson jumped up from beneath the stage on the Rose Bowl field and forever changed the Super Bowl halftime show’s look.
Originally a slot for marching bands (and an excuse to take a long-awaited bathroom break), the Super Bowl Halftime show has since become a full-blown pop music spectacle. The world’s biggest artists have spent roughly 15 minutes either exerting their cultural dominance or reinforcing their prowess to the country’s largest viewing audience. The Halftime show is an altogether different venue than the Grammys or the MTV Video Music Awards. We expect seasoned performers with a deep bench of popular hits that can captivate even with the flashing lights and fireworks exploding around them.
The post-Michael Jackson roster reads like a who’s who of pop’s upper echelon: Prince, Madonna, Beyoncé (twice), Lady Gaga, Shania Twain, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars (twice). Even when the headliners weren’t particularly exciting or memorable (Coldplay, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, The Black Eyed Peas), there’s no denying their broad-spectrum appeal or musical catalogs. For the last thirty years, the Super Bowl Halftime show had performers that you wanted to see, or at the very least, would put on a good show while you refilled your Doritos bowl.
Against that benchmark, the NFL is now in trouble.
When The Weeknd – real name Abel Tesfaye – was announced as this year’s Halftime headliner, I doubted whether the R&B singer had enough verified hit singles that could fill the slot. I was proven wrong when he efficiently lobbed off smash after smash – “Can’t Feel My Face,” “Starboy,” “I Feel It Coming,” “Earned It” from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack – within his intriguing “lost night in Vegas” motif (including the face bandages). He closed out his set with a genuinely thrilling performance of “Blinding Lights” (which at this point may end up being the biggest song in the history of the Billboard Hot 100). It was a fine show that will live on in the two hilariously relatable social media memes it spawned. It will also further embarrass the Grammys after snubbing his After Hours album this year. Still, The Weeknd is early into his mainstream career, with a relatively limited history of hits and memorable performances. And yet, the NFL trusted him with the world’s biggest stage. It’s either a spectacular vote of confidence or reflects a nagging fear that today’s performers aren’t up to the task.
For whatever reason you choose – the rise of streaming, pop culture’s splintering due to the Internet, the decreased relevance of radio and TV, record labels no longer serving as gatekeepers and tastemakers – the music industry doesn’t make superstars like they used to. There are no real successors to Michael, Prince, or Madonna, and few contemporaries to Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. Determining a real smash hit versus a flash-in-the-pan number one juiced by dedicated-but-small fanbases is increasingly difficult. Music videos, once a culture-defining art form, have become rote. Performances, the kind you gathered around the watercooler (or rather the Zoom conference) to discuss the next day, have nosedived. The diminished quality of pop performances has rendered awards shows, which would typically serve as Halftime show dress rehearsals, irrelevant and star-making even more challenging. As such, the list of performers who could realistically pull off a Super Bowl halftime show feels minuscule, with little hope for growth.
So, after The Weeknd, who’s left?
Surprisingly, two current mainstream artists haven’t headlined a Super Bowl halftime show yet: Taylor Swift and Drake. Both are massive household names, with at least a decade of mainstream hits between them. Swift’s performance at the 2019 American Music Awards could’ve been a Halftime show dry run, and Drake has plenty of tour experience. Drake’s guest list would be an embarrassment of riches, but he could also reasonably do it alone, as could Swift. After them, the prospects are dicey. Rihanna has refused to perform in protest of the NFL’s continued freeze-out of Colin Kaepernick. Justin Bieber has the catalog and an impressive potential guest list, but his stage presence is debatable. Ariana Grande is in a similar boat (and I think she’s better suited to be a National Anthem performer given her vocal prowess). If we look to legacy acts, Usher is an option – he could perform the Confessions album and “OMG” as a closer and kill it. It’s also surprising that Garth Brooks, one of the best-selling musical acts ever, hasn’t headlined, and his Biden inauguration performance has put him back on the national stage. Céline Dion and Cher are proven touring forces, but their catalogs skew more towards diva balladry and high camp than most NFL watchers may be used to (then again, if Diana Ross could do it well in 1995, then why not them?)
Unfortunately, today’s current crop of stars either doesn’t have the mainstream catalogs or the performance ability to handle the demands of a Super Bowl Halftime show on their own. What will likely happen is, once the NFL has exhausted the options above, they will cobble together performers across genres, as they did in the early 2000s. For instance, a potential Halftime show could feature Ed Sheeran, BTS, Lizzo, Future, and Florida Georgia Line, covering any gaps they’d have alone. Instead of being a megastar showcase, the Halftime show will serve as a launching pad for pop’s up and coming, where they will cut their performing teeth and seek to convince the masses they are worth adding to Spotify playlists and buying their merchandise. Does that make for an exhilarating Super Bowl Halftime show? That remains to be seen, but with the megastar era effectively dead, the NFL and Pepsi have no choice but to work with what they have. The alternative is to bank on nostalgia and re-air the last 30 years of Halftime gigs every year.
Or they could bring back the marching bands.