With over 100 million people consistently tuning into the Super Bowl every year, organizers consistently go all-out for the much-anticipated annual halftime show. And with any high-pressure live event, there are is little tolerance for error. So when something doesn’t go quite as expected, the internet lights up with viral memes and discourse.
Prior to the ’90s, the halftime shows usually consisted of university marching bands or drill teams. But since then, the NFL discovered they could increase viewership by making the halftime show a pop culture staple. Now, the performances invite the most recognizable names in music to take the stage with a past roster boasting artists like Michael Jackson, U2, Madonna, and more.
Let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable moments that have gone down at Super Bowl halftime shows of the last two decades. Cringey, hilarious, and just plain captivating, these halftime performances made a major impact in pop culture.
Shakira’s confusing tongue wag: 2020
— Andrés Morales! (@AndresMoraleFlo) February 8, 2021
Shakira and J. Lo’s 2020 performance at the Super Bowl halftime show was one for the history books. Not only was it the last large-scale music event before the pandemic effectively shut down live music, but it was also a major celebration of Latin American culture. J. Lo wore a massive feathered Puerto Rican flag cape and Shakira decided to honor the moment with a customary gesture. Moments into her rendition of “Hips Don’t Lie,” the singer leaned into the camera to stick her tongue out and make a high-pitched sound.
Many (white) people on the internet were perplexed by the gesture and it easily became the most-memed moment of the night. But it didn’t take long for others to point out the mocking was in poor taste. The tongue move is actually a zaghrouta, which translates to a ululation. It’s a part of Arabic culture meant to signify joy and is oftentimes used to celebrate weddings, engagements, and the birth of children.
Adam Levine ripping his shirt off: 2019
— niam (@niamreagan) February 5, 2019
As much work went into Maroon 5’s 2019 Super Bowl halftime performance, the most memorable part of the set didn’t come from the music itself. The 13-minute spectacle as a whole felt very disjointed and seemed as though organizers were trying to pack in as many stunts as possible in a very short amount of time. It included an abrupt transition to Travis Scott’s barely-integrated performance, a clip from Spongebob, Big Boi driving through the crowd in a convertible Mercedes-Benz, a gospel choir, and thousands of paper lanterns.
But despite all the on-stage antics, the internet was the most concerned with the moment Adam Levine decided to go shirtless for some reason. Like some of the women in Super Bowl halftime show history, Levine wanted to get away with an outfit change mid-set. But apparently, his idea of a wardrobe change was actually just ripping his clothes off. Levine started the set wearing a black trench coat and as the show progressed, Levine would shed more and more layers until he was in just a tank top. While singing Maroon 5’s final song of the evening, “Moves Like Jagger,” Levine decided to peel off his tank and toss it into the crowd, leaving him shirtless. The move received mixed reactions. Some praised Levine’s six pack with others chided him for a generally lackluster performance.
“Left shark’s” uncoordinated dance moves with Katy Perry: 2015
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2020
Katy Perry may have ridden into her 2015 Super Bowl halftime set on the back of a giant gold lion, but there was only one thing people were talking about after her performance. No, it wasn’t appearances by guests Lenny Kravitz or Missy Elliott. Instead, the internet was buzzing with jokes about one of her backup dancers.
The stage turned into a beachy paradise for her rendition of “Teenage Dream.” Perry was joined by dancers dressed as anthropomorphic palm trees and beach balls, and was flanked by two people in blue shark costumes. The shark to her right hit every dance move with ease, but the shark to her left looked as though it was struggling to keep up. As Right Shark confidently danced to the beat with precise movements, Left Shark continued to flail its way through the set by contrast.
After the performance, the internet was ablaze with talk of Left Shark’s fumbling movements and even Perry herself joined in on the memes. It wasn’t until the following year that the man underneath the Left Shark costume spoke out. His real name is Bryan Gaw and he had actually been a part of Perry’s dance ensemble for five years. Gaw described the movements as “free-style choreography” and later told NPR he didn’t get anything but love after his performance. He even put his Left Shark moment on his resume.
Surprise Destiny’s Child reunion: 2013
Unlike more recent performances, Beyonce‘s 2013 Super Bowl halftime show was remembered for its significance. Not only did it feature impressive visuals, awe-inspiring choreography, a flaming guitar, and a stage of all-female musicians, but it also had a surprise cameo by Beyonce’s Destiny’s Child group members.
Halfway through Beyonce’s set, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child were literally launched out of the stage. They fired off a brief medley of songs, which included “Bootylicious” and “Independent Women,” before joining together for a rendition of “Single Ladies.” The entire performance created such a buzz on the internet that it garnered 268,000 tweets per minute, making it the then-most-tweeted about event in the history of the social media platform.
Fergie butchering “Sweet Child ‘O Mine”: 2011
It’s been just over a decade since the Black Eyed Peas took the halftime show stage and even ten years later, Fergie‘s performance of “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” is still hard to watch without grimacing. The show was meant to captivate a younger audience and contrast the prior year’s legacy act, The Who. In general, the group stayed true to the assignment – up until they decided to pander to an older crowd with a Guns N’ Roses cover.
Slash made a surprise appearance on the stage sporting his signature top hat and joined forces with Fergie to cover the band’s No. 1 track “Sweet Child ‘O Mine.” While Slash’s guitar sounded great, the same can’t be said of Fergie’s ill-advised decision to emulate Axel Rose’s wailing vocals and gyrating dance moves. The combo resulted in a jaw-droppingly bizarre performance which was most definitely memorable — just not in the way Fergie had presumably intended. The performance would be hailed in the following years as one of the worst Super Bowl halftime shows in history, and a poll by ESPN found 35 percent of respondents graded the event an “F.”
Bruce Springsteen’s iconic knee slide: 2009
Just remember at the Super Bowl halftime show 10 years ago Bruce Springsteen ran and slide his crotch into the camera on national television pic.twitter.com/hwFNKJct1Z
— chris quinn (@chrisvonquinn) February 4, 2019
During his performance at the 2009 Super Bowl halftime show, Bruce Springsteen made it clear that he does all his own stunts. During a rendition of his song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” The Boss ran across the massive stage and attempted an epic knee slide towards the camera, which is now officially dubbed the “Springsteen Slide.” But Springsteen over-shot his slide a bit and ended up barreling into the camera, knocking it over completely. Thankfully, he didn’t seem hurt and played it off as a happy accident. He didn’t even miss a beat in delivering his song’s lyrics.
After the performance came to an end, the rocker was still in good spirits about the mishap. “I feel like I’ve just taken a syringe of adrenalin straight to the heart,” he said, explaining exactly what went down. “Then the knee slide. Too much adrenalin, a late drop, too much speed, here I come Mike BOOM! And I’m onto his camera, the lens implanted into my chest with one leg off the stage.”
Prince bringing on rain during “Purple Rain”: 2007
2007 — Super Bowl halftime show — closing with ‘Purple Rain.’
Prince. Still miss him…pic.twitter.com/3wPrCFQY0y
— Rex Chapman🏇🏼 (@RexChapman) February 7, 2021
Prince‘s 2007 Super Bowl performance is remembered as one of the most awe-inspiring halftime shows. The set took place in the middle of an unexpected Miami downpour, but the weather ended up making the event all the more magical, particularly as he sang “Purple Rain.”
Before the show took place, organizers were told they shouldn’t worry about the weather because it hadn’t rained in the entirety of Super Bowl history. But the morning of the big game, the skies opened up in what was described as a torrential downpour. Prince decided to make the most of the moment. Totally unfazed by the weather, he went ahead with using four live electric guitars during his performance. The rain made the stage unbelievably slick, but the singer never faltered. In fact, he turned the dramatic weather to his advantage, especially during his rendition of “Purple Rain.” He even coaxed the entire crowd to sing along in harmony, creating a breathtaking moment even for those watching it from home.
Justin Timberlake giving Janet Jackson a wardrobe malfunction: 2004
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake‘s 2004 set is perhaps the most-talked-about Super Bowl halftime performances in history — and it’s one we’re now collectively revisiting with Jackson’s new documentary, Janet. The two singers were performing a sultry rendition of Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” track on stage. At the end of the song, Timberlake reached over and yanked off part of Jackson’s corset top, exposing her entire breast adorned with a gemstone nipple pasty. The infamous nip slip is frequently referred to as a “wardrobe malfunction,” though the way Timberlake ripped off Jackon’s top looked more than purposeful.
Over half a million FCC complaints came flooding in following the halftime show, prompting the FCC to launch an investigation. Then-chairman Michael Powell made a statement at the time, saying he was “outraged” by what he saw. “That celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better,” he said.
What people might not remember as much about the moment is the extent to which Jackson was reprimanded by the public. Though Timberlake joked about the moment in interviews, radio stations refused to spin Jackson’s then-new album Damita Jo and she was essentially dis-invited to the Grammys the following week. Jackson was then endlessly interrogated by the media after she declined to relive the incident in interviews.
Jackson addressed the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” in her recent documentary, where she essentially absolved Timberlake. While Jackson noted she asked him not to make a statement about the incident (which he clearly ignored), Jackson says the two are now on very good terms. “Honestly, this whole thing was blown way out of proportion,” she said in the film. “Of course, it was an accident. That should not have happened, but everyone is looking for someone to blame, and that’s got to stop.”
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.