Illustration of Allegiant Stadium. On the top of the image writes "Super bowl 2024" with the score of this year's Super bowl (25-22) with the Kansas City Chiefs emerging victorious over the San Francisco 49ers.

The secret to a great Super Bowl halftime show

The Super Bowl is one of the most important events in the American calendar, not just for its sporting significance but also for its entertainment value. Companies spend millions on securing celebrity cameos for a 30-second advertisement, some of which have gone down in history as iconic pieces of branding. But the main draw of the Super Bowl for non-sports fans is its illustrious halftime show, which has played host to some of the biggest stars in the music industry over the years.

Not all halftime shows are created equal, but before exploring what makes a great performance, let’s go over the basics. A Super Bowl halftime show takes place, of course, during the 20-30 minute halftime period in the Super Bowl, which is the annual championship game of the National Football League (NFL). The actual performance lasts for around 12-14 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to setting up and taking apart the stage for the show. The Super Bowl halftime lasts about 10 minutes longer than halftime during a regular NFL game.

The NFL does not pay their halftime show performers, but they do cover the expenses of putting on the show. The benefit for artists comes both from the prestige of the performance itself and the massive spike in streams and sales they receive in the days after the show. The Super Bowl regularly attracts over 100 million viewers and each game ranks among the most-watched television broadcasts of the year, so many performers use the platform to promote recent releases or share significant news. In 2012 Madonna debuted her new single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” during her halftime performance. In the week after the show, the song reached the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. More recently, Rihanna used her halftime show in 2023 to announce that she was pregnant with her second child.

Super Bowl viewership frequently peaks during the halftime show as fans of the headliner clamour to see what they offer, so putting on an impressive performance is paramount. By taking a look at previous shows we’ll explore what makes for an unforgettable halftime performance.

It makes sense to begin with the halftime show with the most live watchers to date, which was the 2015 halftime performance by headliner Katy Perry, supported by Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott. This is unsurprising: Perry was at the peak of her career coming off of another hit album – Prism – and its accompanying world tour, which was the highest-grossing tour of her career. She heavily leaned into the spectacle of the occasion and her own over-the-top aesthetics, beginning the show mounted on a large mechanical lion as she belted out “Roar”. For “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” she dressed in the beach-ready fashion that those singles were associated with. She also supplemented the show’s appeal for her younger fanbase with legends of older generations in Kravitz and Elliott, who slotted into Perry’s set nicely. Rather than feeling like a desperate ploy (as some legendary Super Bowl cameos have been viewed), it seemed that Katy genuinely wanted to spotlight these veteran artists in her performance, with Missy Elliott performing three of her own tracks while Perry prepared for her final number. Virality also played a role in this show’s success, with the iconic Left Shark meme of one of Katy’s backup dancers assisting the survival of the performance in popular memory.

Moving from a show that seemed to do everything right to spark the interests of an audience, it’s interesting that Lady Gaga’s 2017 performance also ranks very highly in viewership despite lacking many of the bells and whistles of Perry’s two years prior. The 2017 show received the most Emmy nominations (six) of any Super Bowl halftime performance to date, ultimately winning Best Lighting Design / Best Lighting Direction for a Variety Special. Unlike Perry, Gaga had no special guests; there weren’t any standout viral moments; and Gaga was not at the top of her game career-wise, coming off of the lukewarm reception to her most recent album Joanne. What made this performance one for the books was pure showmanship. Lady Gaga has been known since her debut in 2008 as an electrifying live performer, but the Super Bowl was undoubtedly one of her best. 13 minutes of hit song after hit song, with Gaga’s relentless energy pushing the show forward. The best moment of the show, ironically, was when she slowed things down for a piano performance of her most recent single “Million Reasons”, which shot into the top five of the Hot 100 after the performance. The timing of the show might have also had an impact on its legendary status: coming only two weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump, Gaga’s message of unity shone through in her reference to the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning and in her performances of songs like “Born This Way” and “Million Reasons”. This more tender moment made the big finale of “Bad Romance” all the more effective, with a poignant ending as Gaga jumped off the stage and cleanly caught a football on her descent: she had well and truly scored.

A more recent trend in Super Bowl performances is featuring a group of artists tied together by a specific theme. The NFL paid homage to legends of hip-hop in 2022 with a show co-headlined by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar, featuring 50 Cent and Anderson .Paak as guests. This show was the first Super Bowl halftime performance to win the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special. Two years prior, the halftime show celebrated the Latin culture of the Super Bowl’s host city, Miami, by featuring Shakira and Jennifer Lopez as headliners. Their joint show was comically referred to afterwards as 2020’s closing ceremony, since it was one of the last major events to take place before COVID-19 lockdowns began, but it wouldn’t have deserved such a title without both artists absolutely giving it their all, to the point that many observers asked why they hadn’t been invited to perform individually. The 2020 show combined elements of Perry and Gaga’s shows: like Katy, they brought on guests and bathed in spectacle, and like Gaga, they put their impressive performance skills on display first and foremost. The finale brought Lopez and Shakira together to perform their most uplifting songs, “Let’s Get Loud” and “Waka Waka”, and many saw Lopez’s feather cape depicting both the Puerto Rican and American flags as a dig at Trump’s rhetoric against the Latinx community. The performance was fantastic, but timing was also on the headliners’ side, as lockdown gave the show an unprecedented virality, having accumulated over 300 million views on YouTube to date, by far the most of any Super Bowl halftime show.

If we want to discuss good timing imbuing a performance with legendary status, then the most obvious place to go is Prince’s 2007 show, which is consistently ranked as the best Super Bowl halftime performance of all time. There was a clear moment where this show soared into the heavens of the pop culture zeitgeist when Prince closed the show with “Purple Rain” during a downpour. The preceding set was amazing, incorporating both Prince’s hits and covers of roof-raising tracks like “Proud Mary”, but perhaps no other single song has solidified a Super Bowl performance’s iconic status. It is simply one of the most mesmerising live music moments, full stop.

This year’s headliner Usher put on a great show but the inordinate amount of guest stars and set dressing (despite performing the first half directly on the football field) somewhat detracted from the talent on display. Usher clearly hasn’t lost his groove since his hit-making years and this show definitely felt like a celebration of his past as he gears up for a new tour. However, the sheer excess of the performance means it cannot hold much of a candle to the artistry of Prince, who made his musical magic feel effortless. Was it enthralling to see the likes of Alicia Keys, Lil Jon, and Ludacris perform their collaborations with Usher two decades on? Absolutely, but some restraint in extending invitations to guest performers would have benefited the overall sheen of the show. Why exactly did H.E.R. show up just to play the electric guitar? Why was Jermaine Dupri on stage for all of ten seconds? The performance still wouldn’t threaten Prince on pole position when it comes to halftime performances, but it would feel more connected and purposeful.

Image credit: Elliot Francolla