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Besides the game, a lot of people watch the Super Bowl for the halftime show

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Super Bowl 58 is coming up on Sunday - 58 - LVIII in the Roman numerals. For some viewers, the halftime show is the one that really matters, and the headliner will be Usher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

USHER: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: Beautiful. Usher at NPR's Tiny Desk. The Tiny Desk concert got him first. Let's talk about some of the best Super Bowl halftime shows of the past with Stephen Thompson from NPR Music. Stephen, welcome back.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how has the halftime show changed over the decades?

THOMPSON: Well, the very first Super Bowl halftime shows were performed by marching bands, and they eventually drifted to more, I would say, cheesy spectacle, lots of Up With People, lots of pageantry. Imagine, like, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade but fixed in one place. And then they would have - they'd have these themes like a salute to the big-band era, which even in 1980 was mining nostalgia for a long time ago. So those shows were very easy to mock, if you go back and find some of those old halftime shows on YouTube.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Then a big shift occurred in 1993 when they brought in Michael Jackson, but they still kept leaning pretty hard on these lavish medleys - lots of famous faces, silly themes. And that didn't really change all that much until that huge controversy with Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson's breast 20 years ago.

INSKEEP: Yep.

THOMPSON: And remember, even Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, they were part of a medley with this mish mash of other performers. After that, the halftime shows went through a phase where they mostly made the halftime show about one artist. And so for the last 20 years or so, the shows have been driven by major legacy acts in rock, pop, R&B, occasionally hip-hop and Latin music.

INSKEEP: I like that polite phrase, legacy acts. We're talking about stars of a slightly earlier era.

THOMPSON: Well, stars everyone can agree on.

INSKEEP: There - OK. Thank you. That's right. Some time has passed and people recognize that this person is deserving. So what's the best halftime show ever, in your view?

THOMPSON: I mean, you could have phrased this question honestly as like, obviously Prince in 2007 was the best halftime show. Who were the runners up? Because Prince had, to me, far and away the best one. He played massive hits. He threw in iconic covers. The showmanship was off the charts. That show was catchy and showy and provocative, and the drama just built and built to this wild crescendo as he played "Purple Rain" in what turned out to be the pouring rain. It is a perfect halftime show. Even nature got on board with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRINCE: (Singing) Only want to see you, see you laughing, yeah, in the purple rain. Purple rain.

INSKEEP: Sing with me. (Singing) Purple rain.

Stephen, come on.

THOMPSON: Steve, I don't sing in the morning.

INSKEEP: OK. Fine. Fine.

THOMPSON: All right. So, are you - who's the runners up? Who are the runners up then?

THOMPSON: I mean. Then you got to say, I think, Beyonce in 2013. She was born for lavish spectacle. She thoroughly delivered. Same goes for Lady Gaga in 2017. Katy Perry with Left Shark in 2015 was really weird and fun. Doctor Dre's hip-hop showcase in 2022 was really strong, U2 a few months after 9/11...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Definitely an iconic show. I thought the one in 2020 that was headlined by Shakira and Jennifer Lopez was really strong. When you've got Bad Bunny and J Balvin, and they're your supporting cast, you've put together something, I think, pretty great.

INSKEEP: OK.

THOMPSON: They've, I think, really taken the tediousness out of the Super Bowl halftime show. If you're not old enough to remember the '70s and '80s, people, Google the words Up With People halftime show. The absolute earth-shaking corniness of it will blow your mind.

INSKEEP: No. That's NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)