Prior to 1993, the Super Bowl halftime show had habitually consisted of university marching bands, cheery tributes to Disney, and (God help us all) corny singing group Up With People. The 1992 halftime show, for instance, was hosted by Olympic figure-skating champions Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano and featured hundreds of Minneapolis residents performing a chilly, achingly over-the-top, Vegas-style show with Gloria Estefan, all somehow tenuously tied to the theme “Winter Magic.” Sensing a stinker that young people would absolutely not want to watch, Fox slotted an In Living Color special opposite the halftime show, even providing viewers a clock denoting when to click back over, and ended up contributing to the game’s 10 percent drop in ratings between halves.
This led to the NFL’s decision to spice things up in 1993, somehow convincing Michael Jackson to headline the halftime show of Super Bowl XXVII. Though an article in The New York Times suggests Jackson had no idea what the Super Bowl was before being asked, the show’s organizers, Radio City Productions, were able to convince Jackson to appear by reminding him that the game airs in over 125 countries, including a number of Third World nations. Arlen Kantarian, Radio City Productions CEO, told the Times, “We talked to him about the blue-collar football fan that might not otherwise be a Michael Jackson fan and about how he could build a new fan base. He got that as well.’” It’s worth noting that Jackson wasn’t paid for his services, a policy the Super Bowl has stuck with to this day.
Fast forward to Super Bowl Sunday, when Jackson performed for about 10 minutes to 98,000 screaming fans in California’s Rose Bowl, as well as about 135 million people—8.6 percent more than the previous year—watching at home. It’s still considered one of the most watched events in television history. While the performance itself was a little awkward—Jackson stood silently and received applause for the first 90 seconds and, watching the video, it’s clear he never actually sings live—it was astonishing, with 3,000 children performing “We Are The World,” and James Earl Jones providing occasional voiceover. It was the first Super Bowl halftime show that actually helped the game hold on to its viewers, and changed, fundamentally, the way producers and viewers think about the Super Bowl halftime show.
But at what cost? While it’s absolutely fantastic we’re not watching Warren Moon prance around with Minnie Mouse and hundreds of kids in football uniforms, Jackson’s performance at the Super Bowl set a precedent. Organizers must find a headliner each year, and one that meets a number of criteria. Said performer has to be well-known to not only young people, but also old people. The performer cannot be too controversial. The performer has to be special in some way—such as when Madonna performed in 2012 after she hadn’t done shows in years and brought a number of other smaller stars along to guest with her on songs. (That strategy paid off, by the way. Her halftime show was the first to generate bigger ratings than the game.)
Performers also have to be convinced. An artist has to be about to kick off an album cycle, or perhaps on the verge of a reunion tour. For instance, when The Who performed at Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, the group was coming off a massive two-year world tour. When Beyoncé performed this year, she was just about to launch her own world tour, and was simultaneously all over the TV because of her endorsement contract with Pepsi, one of the Super Bowl’s main sponsors.
That sort of mutually beneficial arrangement is starting to hogtie organizers, though. The idea that one performer has to be everything to all people has become false, and having spent the last 20 years blasting through every major and active mainstream act, the Super Bowl was forced to instead go with Bruno Mars as the headliner for Super Bowl XLVIII. While Mars has sold millions of records, his marketability is fairly limited, and he might not appeal to the baby boomers that tuned in to watch acts like The Who. Still, he’s young, so young people will tune in to watch the show, and advertisers love that.
While most performers wouldn’t shy away from a slot playing to 100 million people around the world, it stands to reason that the Super Bowl is running out of headliners to query. Almost every act that could fill a stadium—The Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney, Beyoncé—has already performed. Those that haven’t—Eminem, Jay Z, Kanye West—might be too “niche” (read: hip-hop and/or potentially controversial) to draw not only viewers, but also advertisers to the game. As Mike Ozanian wrote in his Forbes article examining Jackson’s halftime performance, “It wasn’t the competition on the gridiron that turned the Super Bowl into the world’s most valuable sporting event brand. It was the competition for the game’s halftime television audience.”
Over the last 20—and especially the last 10—years, music has become so fractured and segregated that there are very few acts now that can be all things to all people. Taylor Swift could headline, but even a notable band like Pearl Jam probably isn’t popular enough to do the Super Bowl. It’s evident in the way people complain about headliners at festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella. Red Hot Chili Peppers has headlined Coachella and Lolla before and will do so again, because it’s one of the only acts working today that’s both popular enough to seem like a “name” on the poster and palatable enough in its musical output that to appeal to a wide variety of fans.
Though acts like Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire are celebrated enough to sell out multiple nights at baseball stadiums, they’re still not household names—and there are fewer and fewer household names these days. Our households have become incredibly insular, content just to like what we like and—for younger people, especially—surround ourselves with the specific pop culture that we want to absorb, rather than what might be on the radio at the time. That’s one reason why album sales have slid, and why radio stations are faltering. Everyone just likes what they like, and while most people can get behind “Single Ladies” or “Billie Jean,” even the biggest bands these days aren’t really all that popular, relatively speaking. What happened with Michael Jackson in 1993 probably can’t happen again, but maybe that’s a good thing. It’s been 20 years; perhaps it’s time for another shakeup.