In its quest to make a money grab and draw in people who only care about the ads that run during America’s greatest secular holiday, the National Football League has made the halftime show the centerpiece of the Super Bowl. It’s certainly evolved from the days when Up With People and Chubby Checker were considered front-line entertainment.
Artists featured here are performers who actually, you know, played their instruments and did it well. So while there will be readers who complain about the absence of people like Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Katy Perry, my list has less to do with how you command a stage while lip-synching and being accompanied by an army of dancers, special effects and Land Sharks and more about what you do at center stage as a musician.
Paul McCartney, 2005
The NFL attempted to save face in the aftermath of the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson “nipplegate” fiasco of the prior year by button-hooking a Beatle to serenade the masses. Macca did not disappoint. Kicking things off with “Drive My Car,” he rounded his set off with “Get Back” before hopping on piano for an explosive reading of “Live and Let Die” before leading the crowd at Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium in a giant sing-a-long of “Hey Jude.”
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, 2009
Arguably one of the greatest live performers, Springsteen delivered an explosive set that had viewers following his directions to “step away from the guacamole and put the chicken fingers down.” Opening with “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” Jersey’s favorite son proceeded to tear through “Born to Run” and “Working On a Dream” before wrapping up his 12-minute set with a reading of “Glory Days” that had a football-oriented lyrical tweak applied to it.
Emotions were still raw roughly five months after the devastation of September 11 and U2 wound up being the perfect Super Bowl halftime act. Stopping off from their Elevation tour, the quartet brought their heart-shaped stage to the Superdome to play a set that opened with “Beautiful Day” (with a snippet of “In God’s Country” woven in), before shifting gears to “MLK” and finally “Where the Streets Have No Name,” that featured a scrolling rear screen displaying the names of all the victims who died in the attacks. Bono capped it off by ripping open his jacket to reveal an American flag sewn into the lining.
The elements could not keep the Purple One down as he performed in a downpour that found him wielding his purple, symbol-shaped guitar in a phallic manner while ripping through his own classics (“1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy”) before shifting gears and tearing into gems by Ike & Tina Turner/CCR (“Proud Mary”), Jimi Hendrix/Bob Dylan (“All Along The Watchtower”) and the Foo Fighters (“Best of Me”) before capping it all off with a tremendous version of “Purple Rain.” Epic.