Has The Super Bowl Become Music’s Biggest Event?

Steve Granitz/Getty Images

Has The Super Bowl Become Music’s Biggest Event?

Steve Granitz/Getty Images

In 1966, the National Football League decided to merge with its rival organization, the upstart American Football League. Although the two leagues wouldn’t actually become one until 1970, they decided to begin pitting their champions against each other in an NFL-AFL World Championship Game right away. So on 1/15/67, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers faced the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl. (Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt came up with the name, inspired by one of his children’s toys called the Super Ball.) The halftime entertainment at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was provided by the University of Arizona Symphonic Marching Band, the Grambling State University Marching Band, bandleader Al Hirt, and the Anaheim High School Drill Team and Flag Girls.

Music was a sideshow that day, as it usually is at sporting events. But when Super Bowl 50 takes over Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara this Sunday, music will threaten to overshadow the main event — especially if Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers defeat Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos as easily as I expect them to, but that’s another story for a different website. This is a website about music, and these days that means the Super Bowl is directly in our purview. It’s not just the commercials — Drake for T-Mobile, Lil Wayne for Apartments.com, Steven Tyler for Skittles, the Grammy Album Of The Year nominees coming to life — or the Panthers players’ various affinities for Migos and Creed. The next few days in the Bay Area amount to an ultra-expensive festival with some of music’s biggest stars.

Tonight, country favorites the Band Perry will take the stage in Super Bowl City outside Levi’s Stadium. Friday, Pharrell plays one of several DirecTV events at Project Nightclub Pier 70. Saturday, on the eve of the big game, things really pick up: Bay Area hometown heroes Metallica will play San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Rolling Stone is throwing their own show with Avicii, Charli XCX, Pitbull, Flo Rida, and Jane’s Addiction. DirecTV’s Saturday event has Red Hot Chili Peppers and Run-DMC. Lil Wayne and A$AP Rocky will play Maxim’s party, while Jon Bon Jovi will headline Vanity Fair’s invite-only event. On game day, Sam Hunt and Seal will perform at the official Super Bowl 50 NFL Tailgate Party outside Levi’s Stadium. Lady Gaga will be there to sing the national anthem. And in what will surely be one of those bloated spectacles we’ve come to expect, world-famous arena-rock softies Coldplay will give a halftime performance with rumored guest appearances from Beyoncé, Rihanna, Avicii, and Bruno Mars, all brought to you by Pepsi.

How did this happen? How did we go from flag girls to Left Shark? It started with former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s realization that the league needed some kind of insurance policy, a way to ensure that even if the game was a blowout, fans in the stadium and at home walked away with a memorable experience. Bleacher Report explains:

Rozelle proved to be correct: Super Bowls earned a reputation for being lopsided or sloppy from the very beginning. But the NFL outgrew marching bands and college-style floats after the first few Super Bowls. Unfortunately, there were not many companies capable of producing large-scale live spectacles in the 1970s and 1980s, forcing the league to rotate among a shallow pool of producers. The NFL turned several times in the 1970s and early 1980s to Up With People, a peppy, prosocial, aggressively inoffensive musical revue act that was like having a hundred Osmond Families invade your living room.

In case you’re having trouble imagining what Up With People might have been like, here you go. Verily, showing the “Super Bowl Shuffle” video on the Jumbotron would have made for a better halftime show in ’86.

This kind of blasé fare continued throughout the ’70s and ’80s and even up into the early ’90s — a mix of cheery Up With People inanity, chintzy Disney productions (think “It’s A Small World”), marching bands, drill teams, and Broadway stars. In 1989 the league even resorted to Elvis Presto, an Elvis impersonator. In 1991, when the NFL wised up and got reigning boy band New Kids On The Block to perform, it was in the context of another goofy Disney shindig ending with, yes, “It’s A Small World.” So, not actually that wise at all.

The ’92 show involved Gloria Estefan and Olympic figure skaters. It must not have seemed like a terrible idea but was smashed in the ratings when Fox’s In Living Colour counter-programming attracted 22 million viewers. That was the last straw for the NFL. In ’93, what had been a measured plod into modern pop music became a head-first plunge. Michael Jackson inaugurated the modern era of Super Bowl halftime show excess, drawing higher ratings than the game itself and setting the standard for all future halftime spectacles. It was quite a thing to see. I highly recommend that you see it.

With the rest of the pop world afraid to follow up Jackson’s performance, the Super Bowl went country in ’94 with Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, and the Judds. The ’95 show was a bizarre Indiana Jones tie-in that also featured Tony Bennett for some reason — it’s universally considered the worst halftime show of the modern era. Thankfully, Diana Ross showed up in ’96 to right the ship.

What followed was a weird procession of variety shows: a Blues Brothers thing co-starring ZZ Top and James Brown; then a salute to Motown with Boyz II Men, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, The Temptations, and Queen Latifah; then a “Salute To Soul, Salsa, and Swing” with Estefan, Stevie Wonder, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Savion Glover; then something called “Tapestry Of Nations” featuring Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton, and an 80-person choir, narrated by Edward James Olmos; then, in 2001, a TRL-era revue with Aerosmith, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly.

That sort of thing might have continued in perpetuity if not for 9/11. But in 2002, following the deadliest attack on American soil, the Super Bowl brought in U2 to pay tribute to the fallen. It was powerful, but it didn’t stop the NFL from going back to superstar variety shows seemingly aiming to attract as broad a viewer base as possible. Shania Twain, No Doubt, and Sting performed in 2003. And in 2004 we got Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, and Justin Timberlake, the show that entered the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” into our national lexicon.

The Super Bowl then decided to punish women by only booking male classic rockers for the next six years: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and the Who. Besides Prince, none of them were particularly memorable. Pop variety shows returned in 2011 with the Black Eyed Peas, Usher, and Slash. The Madonna-starring 2012 show also had LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, Cee-Lo Green, and M.I.A., who memorably flipped off the camera, leading to a years-long legal battle with the league. Beyoncé reunited with Destiny’s Child in 2013, Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers rocked their way through 2014 unplugged, and last year was Katy Perry’s (underrated!) extravaganza featuring Lenny Kravitz, Missy Elliott, and those sharks.

In summary, Super Bowl halftime has gone from sideshow to shitshow. When many massive corporations spend unthinkable amounts of money trying to appeal to basically everyone in the world, a shitshow is usually what happens. It will surely be a shitshow this year when Chris Martin and friends take the stage. But it will be a shitshow watched by 117 million Americans and millions more worldwide, twice as many as the Grammys, AMAs, BETs, CMAs, and VMAs combined. It will be the best-rated shitshow in the world.

It was only a matter of time before an event with that kind of cultural gravity became something more than a sporting event. In the age of corporate patronage, at a time when the world’s biggest superstars are aligning themselves with various monolith companies — Drake and Future with Apple, Jay Z and Rihanna with Samsung, etc. — the music business was bound to turn Super Bowl weekend into a horrifically realistic dystopian future version of SXSW. Athletics, which remains best experienced live, is the one wing of the global entertainment industry that hasn’t been decimated by modern technology. Not only does sports lay claim to the most eyeballs, it’s where the corporate money is flowing the most freely, and a struggling music industry is going to take all the freely flowing money it can get. Where the sports are, the brands are, and where the brands are, the bands are. Are you ready for some football Coldplay?!


Justin Bieber is truly the reigning king of the Hot 100. After spending the past three weeks at #1 with “Sorry,” the Biebs replaces himself at the top with “Love Yourself.” Per Billboard, he’s only the twelfth artist to ever dethrone himself at #1. “Sorry” stays at #2. Then, at #3, Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” reaches a new peak. Flo Rida flies into the top 10 with #5 “My House,” while the Chainsmokers’ “Roses” climbs to a new high of #6.

Intriguingly, the other artist besides Bieber to land two hits in the top 10 this week is his ex, Selena Gomez. Her superb “Hands To Myself” rises to #7 this week, bumping her also-great “Same Old Love” down to #8. I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Hands To Myself” become her first #1 — that is, if Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” an ostensible Gomez kiss-off, doesn’t stick around in the top spot long enough to block her. And hey, Rihanna and Drake’s increasingly winsome “Work” debuts at #9 this week; who knows where that one might end up.

Over on the albums chart, things are back to normal, i.e. Adele rules. In its tenth week on the chart, 25 tallied a whopping 116,000 equivalent units, climbing back to #1 after a two-week absence. Last week’s #1, Panic! At The Disco’s Death Of A Bachelor, slides to #5 this week with 39,000. The only top-10 debuts are Megadeth’s Dystopia (#3, 49,000) and the 2016 Grammy Nominees comp (#9, 31,000).


Akon – “Hypnotized”
Is the Akon comeback on? I could see this being a true-blue radio hit the likes of which this guy hasn’t seen in years. I wouldn’t be mad. “Hypnotized” is completely inoffensive, but not offensively so.

Allie X – “Old Habits Die Hard”
If Chvrches had a little more NIN in them, it would sound like this, and it would be awesome.

Zendaya – “Something New” (Feat. Chris Brown)
“Something New” samples something old, namely TLC’s CrazySexyCool classic “Creep.” Unfortunately, unlike Ariana Grande’s great “I’m Coming Out”/”Mo Money Mo Problems” flip “Break Your Heart Right Back,” it doesn’t do justice to the source material.

Annabel Jones – “IOU”
New UK singer Jones has got my attention with this one. The production is killer, and she sure doesn’t waste it.

Transviolet – “New Bohemia”
I’m just gonna leave this here.


  • Fergie’s second solo album is out in March. [WWD]
  • Boy George, Vince Neil, and Carnie Wilson will compete on Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice. [USA Today]
  • Selena Gomez hopes to make music with “best friend” Taylor Swift someday. [Billboard]
  • Roc Nation is countersuing Rita Ora. [TMZ]
  • Once again some NYFW designers have had to scramble so their shows won’t conflict with Kanye’s surprise runway show. [Fashionista]
  • Rihanna will perform at the BRIT Awards. [Twitter]
  • Iggy Azalea, Fifth Harmony, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato appeared at this week’s iHeart Summit to perform for and earn the good graces of radio programmers; Taylor Swift was there too, but she didn’t perform. [Instagram]
  • A new Gwen Stefani single, “Make Me Like You,” is reportedly coming in a few weeks. [Beacon Street]
  • Miley Cyrus will be a key advisor on The Voice. [EW]
  • Christina Milian has been cast as Magenta in FOX’s Rocky Horror Picture Show remake. [Deadline]
  • Kesha’s mom won a small legal victory against Dr. Luke, but the case is far from over. [THR]


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