The Super Bowl Halftime Show is a major American tradition—and, given the blockbuster audiences each year, it’s one rife with opportunities for performers to make a mess of their moment onstage. Here are 11 of the most controversial things to have happened at halftime show performances over the last few decades of televised football history, from Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction to some lesser-known showtime flops.
1989: An Elvis Presley impersonator fails to impress
In the first few decades of halftime shows, the performers were marching bands or Disney floats—not quite the spectacle we’ve become accustomed to. That changed in 1989, when the NFL went for a 1950s-theme extravaganza showcasing the talents of one “Elvis Presto,” an Elvis-Presley-impersonator-slash-magician who bizarrely attempted to perform the world’s “largest card trick” mixed with a song-and-dance routine (and, yes, audience participation was required). Another pitfall of the year: millions of sets of 3D glasses were distributed to viewers, but the technology did not end up being up to par for primetime.
1991: New Kids on the Block take primetime
For the first time, major star power was booked for 1991’s halftime show. But in a twist, most audiences didn’t even see the performance, as the network aired a news report about the ongoing Gulf War instead of giving audiences escapism in the form of New Kids on the Block. The group was paired up with a chorus of children dressed up in cutesy costumes—this was a Disney-produced show, after all—and ended up playing the sappy tune “This One’s for the Children” instead of any of their bigger hits.
1992: An ice show misses the mark
Olympic champion skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill were brought onto center field to show off their skills on ice for 1992’s event, a choice that proved to be a mismatch between the football audience and ice skating fans. The winter-themed showcase (“Winter Magic” was the title) featured a series of old-school dances leading up to the Boitano and Hamill spotlights. Both skaters were positioned on separate, tiny synthetic ice rinks, leaving them little space to move all that much. Luckily, singer Gloria Estefan finished off the show on a stronger note.
1995: An Indiana Jones theme goes awry
1995 was an interesting year in Halftime Show history; produced by Disney, the show decided to go with an Indiana Jones reenactment on center field featuring a Harrison Ford impersonator and a veritable army of grass-skirted male dancers paying homage to the game trophy. (This was just before the opening of Disney’s Indiana Jones theme park ride—a not-so-subtle bit of promo.) Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett also made incongruous appearances.
2004: Janet Jackson flashes America
At the end of a high-energy show headlined by Jackson and her crew of hardworking dancers, Jackson and surprise guest Justin Timberlake made the unimaginable happen, and 140 million viewers were briefly exposed to on-air nudity in what would soon be called “Nipplegate.” The fallout was swift and vicious, as Jackson was targeted for the indecent exposure in a moral and legal crusade. Much of the rest of her performance’s high notes—including shout-outs to the audience to reject bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance—have since been forgotten, overshadowed by the scandalous display.
The flash, by the way, lasted 9/16 of a second.
2007: Prince's risqué performance
In a virtuoso solo show, Prince put on the spectacle of a lifetime. The controversial part wasn’t his iconic playing, though—it was his use of an unusually-shaped guitar that inspired comparisons to phallic imagery. During his rendition of “Purple Rain,” he had his silhouette displayed on a large, blank, flowing sheet, leading to the projection of an outsized shadow that seemed potentially too risqué for TV.
2011: Fergie's attempt at Axl Rose falls flat
A rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, performed by the Black Eyed Peas’s Fergie singing the part of legendary Guns ‘n’ Roses star Axl Rose and accompanied by famed guitarist Slash, left most viewers scratching their heads at the vocalist’s over-acted, over-stylized delivery and suggestive dancing. (The rest of the show—a future-themed affair helmed by the Black Eyed Peas—also left viewers cold.)
2012: M.I.A. flips an unexpected bird
In the midst of Madonna’s show, guest performer M.I.A. slipped in a little politically-incorrect gesture of her own. Over 200 complaints flooded in to the Federal Communications Commission, the NFL and NBC made a public apology for the slip-up, and the NFL sought over $16 million in damages from the outspoken Sri Lankan singer. Ultimately, she reached a confidential settlement with the league—and future performers were reminded of the sensitivity of American audiences to public obscenity.
2014: The Red Hot Chili Peppers play unplugged
While feedback was generally positive for headliner Bruno Mars, the secondary performance by rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers inspired some controversy of its own when viewers noted that the musicians’ instruments were actually unplugged. The band’s bassist, Flea, later explained that given time limits and the need for technical perfection, the NFL requested a prerecorded version of the bass, drums, and guitar, and left the band no room for argument on the matter.
“The NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period,” he wrote on the band’s website, although purists still weren’t pleased.
2015: Katy Perry's "Left Shark" goes rogue
Katy Perry’s poppy, colorful Super Bowl set was filled with animatronic stage sets and goofy costumed “palm trees,” but in the end, it was the Left Shark that stood out and stole the show, breaking from choreography to go rogue with a few improvisational moves. Instantly made viral, most people were amused by the dancer’s onstage bumbling—but the story didn’t quite end there. Perry’s lawyers actually prosecuted people trying to make and sell copycat shark costumes.
2016: Beyoncé shocks with "Formation"
Coldplay was 2016’s official headliner, but when Beyoncé showed up with a troupe of dancers for the Black-Panther-inspired “Formation” debut, she stole the show completely—and inspired plenty of controversy for its racial-justice-associated theme. Strung with a bandolier of bullets across her chest, Queen Bey showed America that she was more than just a pop vocalist, foreshadowing her transformation with Lemonade into a voice for black womanhood. Even Saturday Night Live recognized the surprise performance with a skit.