Top Super Bowl Music Moments
The Super Bowl is no longer just a championship game. More than a half-century on, professional football’s top contest has become an all-encompassing event. A destination. As American sports’ grandest annual shindig has evolved into a cultural touchstone, our collective focus on the big game has shifted from pass rushes and pancake blocks to also include—for better or worse—pop star performances, soda spots and more.
Not surprisingly, the notes sounded around this spectacle have changed dramatically over the years. Local marching bands and sartorial trumpeters gave way, almost all at once, to iconic acts and international headliners. Much love to the Grambling State Marching Band, and with all due respect to Ella Fitzgerald, most of the Super Bowl’s best musical moments have come during the game’s modern era. And it began with a bunch of lovable lunkheads from the City of Broad Shoulders:
Super Bowl Shuffle, 1985. The introduction of a music-minded, die-hard fan to Bears wide receiver Willie Gault led to one of the goofiest, most beloved episodes tied to the NFL’s end-of-season romp. When Gault gathered up Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, William “The Refrigerator” Perry and a cast of other characters from the dominant 1985 Bears team to rap (poorly) and dance (with multiple left feet), “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was born. Even in the kitschy ‘80s, the song and accompanying video came off as silly. But the players’ discordant efforts were embraced, and the track became such a crossover hit that it reached No. 41 on the Billboard 100 and was nominated for a Grammy (seriously!) in the Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.
Whitney Houston, Super Bowl XXV. The year was 1991, when Houston was arguably at the height of her powers—shortly after the release of the last of her studio hit albums and ahead of her brilliant film debut in The Bodyguard. No matter the arc in her creative timeline, on this night in Tampa, Florida, Whitney was a force of nature. Her soulful, stunning voice and palpable joy elevated her performance to perhaps the most notable individual anthem rendition this side of Marvin Gaye’s funky and incomparable riff at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
Michael Jackson, Super Bowl XXVII. Two years after Houston began the shift away from stodgy, antiquated Super Bowl acts, the world’s biggest star at the time momentarily turned the Rose Bowl in Pasadena into the center of the universe. Introduced by a voice-over from James Earl Jones, Jackson rocketed out from under a stage on the 50-yard line, clad in a black-and-gold uniform befitting the King of Pop. Ripping through a medley that included “Billie Jean” and “Black or White,” Jackson finished with a rendition of “We Are the World.” Complicated figure? Sure. But in this moment, Jackson was a literal game-changer.
U2, Super Bowl XXXVI. In a Super Bowl played only months after 9/11, U2 played a bracing, heart-bursting halftime show at the New Orleans Superdome. The highlight: Bono delivering a solemn take on “Where the Streets Have No Name” and opening his jacket to reveal an American flag liner, with the names of every victim of the attacks scrolling on a stage monitor in the background. The band, sometimes panned for its earnestness, brought catharsis to an entire country in a three-song set.
Prince, Super Bowl XLI. In the canon of great performances—not merely Super Bowl halftime shows, but all of them—the Purple One’s sublime 12-minute romp at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium in 2007 deserves special mention. Prince, wielding a sparkling-purple guitar and practically floating across a specially designed stage—both fashioned in the shape of his titular symbol—shredded through a set of perfectly plucked covers, from Bob Dylan to the Foo Fighters. He closed on a transcendent version of “Purple Rain” as the skies, on cue, opened up over south Florida. We may never see anything like it again.
The commercials. Pick just one? Impossible. But there have been some transcendentally memorable moments, depending on your age, taste and sense of humor. Beyond the beloved rock anthems in car commercials (Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, David Bowie) and contemporary cameos (Drake, Eminem, L’il Wayne), there have been some truly brilliant uses of music and nostalgia to bridge generations. One favorite: Honda’s “Matthew’s Day Off” spot, featuring actor Matthew Broderick in an homage to his titular character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, chock full of nods to the 1986 classic—including a background soundtrack of Yello’s “Oh Yeah” (trust us, you’ll know it when you hear it.)
What’s your favorite Super Bowl music moment? We’d love to hear from you!