Sports

A Brief, Sometimes Gruesome Look At The Super Bowl Halftime Show

Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend perform in Brisbane, Australia in March 2009.

hide captionThe Who is on tap for the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday. Based on the history, don't let your expectations run away with you.

Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

The Super Bowl halftime show this Sunday will feature The Who, which (who?) we already know will be performing "a mashup of stuff" including "Baba O'Riley," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Who Are You?" (those three make up the C.S.I. theme song trilogy), and "Pinball Wizard."

This is how it's been for a few years now: Bruce Springsteen. Tom Petty. Prince. Somebody who's actually ... you know, a rock star, doing the Super Bowl halftime show.

It wasn't always this way. The halftime show used to be about the other kind of band — the kind with flugelhorns and glockenspiels. A marching band, just like at a real football game. Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II both featured the Grambling State University Band. At Super Bowl V, it was the Southeast Missouri State Band — and Anita Bryant. The Super Bowl halftime show used to be aggressively uninterested in being cool.

And things would get even cleaner than Anita Bryant before they got as dirty as Prince. Schlock sensation Up With People performed in the halftime show four times between 1976 and 1986. The only available video of the 1976 Bicentennial show has fallen on hard audiovisual times, but the 1982 show is fortunately available for your perusal.

And you really have to see that 1982 show to believe it. On the one hand, this group is an unreasonably easy target, and this halftime show is even more so.It's a group that seems to have gotten most of its DNA from the '70s doing a salute to the '60s in the '80s, making it, to a modern viewer, unavoidably dated three times over. It's like hitting a guy in the face with a pie full of Acme anvils while he's already slipping on a banana peel.

Let's take a look.

All this and more, with plenty of supporting video, after the jump.

The reason the 1982 show is on YouTube is that one of the guys in it put it there to show it to his kids, and he's definitely done them a favor if he's trying to demonstrate how times have changed. Why? Because a show that would one day bring about the most famous exposed nipple in television history here includes a guy pleading with the crowd — at the Super Bowl — to sing along with "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore."

The Up With People shows did not continue. They started experimenting, and the big raising of the stakes happened in 1993, when they brought in Michael Jackson.

There had been toes in the water in previous years as far as pop stars — New Kids On The Block performed in 1991, with "It's A Small World" as their lead-in. But Michael Jackson was the first effort to make the halftime show an event on quite that level.

It didn't always work when the effort to go "event" moved away from "tiny rock concert" and toward "overblown and corny, even if it were taking place in an amusement park, which it isn't." For instance, one show that isn't available for you to watch (that I know of) is the one that the music blog Idolator called "maybe the worst Super Bowl halftime show ever": the one in 1995 with a fake Indiana Jones in it who rescues the Vince Lombardi trophy. No, really! I have no memory of this at all, but no less a source than the Indiana Jones wiki swears that it contained both the Miami Sound Machine and a performance of "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" (I vote that this was a mass delusion and never actually occurred.)

Starting in 2000, more pop musicians showed up, some of whom skewed young, compared to what you get now. Alongside musicians like Phil Collins and Aerosmith who were there to please the parents, you saw Christina Aguilera, N'Sync, Britney Spears, and No Doubt. It was getting to be more MTV and less VH1, at least as those terms might have been defined back when both of those channels played videos.

Then this happened.

Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson perform at the 2004 Super Bowl.

hide captionJustin Timberlake and Janet Jackson in what did not turn out to be the most controversial moment of their Super Bowl halftime performance.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Just keep it tasteful, you guys, okay?

As you undoubtedly know, this became the "wardrobe malfunction" show. And the retreat was immediate. The next two came from Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, neither of them likely to incur the wrath of the FCC or lead to Congressional hearings. McCartney even asked the crowd to sing along with "Hey Jude." It's no "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore," but hey — he was fully dressed.

But Prince is not quite Paul McCartney, so when he showed up in 2007, this happened.

Prince performs at the 2007 Super Bowl.

hide captionPrince performs at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That is Prince, and that is Prince's guitar. It didn't create Jackson-Timberlake-sized talk, but there were people who, believe it or not, thought perhaps Prince was trying to create some kind of optical illusion with that silhouette (COULDN'T BE!), and once again, the halftime show started going to guys who are probably not going to get you in trouble: Tom Petty, then Bruce Springsteen, and now The Who.

So what can you expect on Sunday from Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the original band's surviving members? Probably about what you got from Bruce Springsteen last year: solid entertainment, nothing terribly surprising, a treat for fans, and a calming greatest-hits medley that non-fans can hum along with.

The halftime show, no matter how it tries to be special, can never really be special, because it's aiming to be a perfect weighted average of the tastes of everyone watching the Super Bowl. There are too many people watching for anything to slip by that isn't broadly unobjectionable, there's too much money involved to bring in anything fresh with unproven appeal, and there are too many logistics involved to try anything that hasn't been meticulously choreographed down to the last swaying arm.

There's an understandable reason it's often a synthetic show, even when there's a solid performer: it's designed that way. With palatability toward all and discomfort toward none, it's the fastest way to sanitize your favorite rock star. The Who can try to resist, but this will almost surely be the least dangerous performance of the band's career.

UPDATE: By special request in the comments, here are parts 1 and 2 of "Winter Magic," the 1992 show, and the Edward James Olmos-led 2000 show. Please enjoy.

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