On Sunday, tens of thousands of rabid football fans will descend upon Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. They will consume lots of alcohol. They will paint their faces. They will scream and howl as the Patriots and Rams engage in brutal 22-man warfare with the highest possible stakes. Oh, and about two hours into this, they will all pause everything to watch a 12-minute Maroon 5 concert.
The Super Bowl halftime show has become the spectacle within the spectacle. It used to be filler entertainment while the players hydrated and tended to their wounds. Now it serves a higher purpose. It is about world peace, joy, introspection and even grief. It’s also sometimes about giant metallic lion puppets and dancing sharks.
How are we to interpret these hopelessly silly, desperately hopeful rituals? By ranking them, of course. At FiveThirtyEight, we don’t have the technology to make slideshows, but we do have math and a history of applying convoluted methodologies to questions that don’t really need answers. So let’s get started.
First, we need to manage expectations: We are not ranking halftime performances, rather the sheer star power that the NFL assembled on stage each year. We’ll talk about how the shows went, but only in relation to their artists’ success on the Billboard Hot 100 chart before the Super Bowl. Our methodology favors shows with many artists because they’re more likely to excite an audience diverse in age and musical interests. Purists may have enjoyed the simplicity of seeing The Who perform without any interlopers in 2010, but anyone who wasn’t excited by a few 60-something British rockers playing their decades-old hits was left with bupkis.
We chose Michael Jackson’s 1993 halftime appearance as the starting point for our analysis. His performance — widely considered one of the best — is the beginning of the modern halftime show. Viewer ratings for the 1993 show exceeded ratings for the actual game, and a blueprint was formed for years ahead. To get a sense of how MJ changed the game, note that the previous year’s show included a salute to the 1992 Winter Olympics and a bunch of kids performing a rap arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman.”
To measure the success of the featured artists — excluding cameos from the likes of Jessica Simpson, who kicked off the 2004 show by asking the audience to “choose to party” — we created a metric called Performer Points. Our methodology for calculating these points is simple:
- Artists are assigned points for each of their songs to make the Billboard Hot 100 list since the list began in August 1958.
- A song appearing at No. 1 is worth 100 points.
- A song at No. 100 is worth 1 point.
- We count each week separately, so songs rack up points for staying on the chart.
- Performers listed as the main artist on a track get full credit.
- Featured artists or guest vocalists get only one-third of the song’s points.1
- Performers get one-third of the points from their former band’s hits. That means Paul McCartney gets only a small boost from hits by the Beatles. The weights compound, so if an artist’s former band was merely featured on a song, the artist gets one-ninth of the song’s points.2
If any of that seems confusing, let’s look at an example featuring one of this year’s performers, Atlanta rapper Big Boi.
When we add up all the points, we can see how successful the artists were for every Super Bowl. Here’s what that looks like for the 2019 halftime performers.
Super Bowl LIII nets a respectable 65,065 total Performer Points. That’s seventh on our list of best Super Bowl lineups since 1993. We’ll see whether that translates to a memorable show on Sunday, but the past five years could give us a sense of whether our methodology has any predictive power.
It’s easy to dunk on the Black Eyed Peas, and their uninspiring halftime show in 2011 didn’t make it any harder. Fergie, will.i.am, Taboo (!) and apl.de.ap (!!) closed out their headlining set with “Where Is the Love?” on a giant stage shaped like, you guessed it, the word “Love.” The only problem was that part of the letter “v” was literally missing. Now at least we have some data to back up what everyone was thinking the next day: Usher should have headlined. By 2011, he had already reached Billboard’s top 103 with 14 tracks, including classics such as “My Boo” and “U Remind Me.” Usher went into the halftime show with almost twice as many Performer Points as the Peas, and though he performed one of his weaker hits, “OMG,” he still managed to hit every cue, leaping over will.i.am’s head and into our hearts.
I have a confession: I’ve always thought of the 2012 halftime show as “the one with Nicki Minaj.” Looking at the chart, it’s clear there’s recency bias at work — Minaj has become unavoidable since 2012. But at the time of the Super Bowl, her only top 10 hit4 was “Super Bass.” Madonna, on the other hand, stands on top of our individual power rankings with more than 59,000 Performer Points, thanks to her trove of hits dating back to the 1980s. Credit to Madge for almost single-handedly dragging this riot of grecian beefcakes and vogueing into the top five — Katy Perry and Lady Gaga could never.
I’m glad to see our formula isn’t totally set on picking shows from the past 10 years. The “Salute to Motown’s 40th Anniversary” in 1998 had all the intergenerational appeal that Madonna’s show was supposed to capture. The choreography seems a little hokey by today’s standards, but I could listen to this medley all day. Queen Latifah brings it, The Temptations sound fantastic, Boyz II Men gets a solid ballad in, Smokey covers all the old bases and Martha Reeves is so harmlessly, indescribably awful that you can’t help but smile knowing that social media didn’t exist back then.5
Super Bowl L — er, 50 — was billed as Coldplay’s performance, but the NFL let halftime show veterans Beyoncé and Bruno Mars “crash” it. This was a blessing for anyone not named Chris Martin. Both guest stars had more Performer Points than Coldplay, and they stomped away with the show. Beyoncé, dressed in a black leather homage to the Black Panthers, debuted6 “Formation” right there on the field and reminded us of just how powerful this 12-minute musical interlude can be.
We didn’t tweak the weights to get Nipplegate this high up, I promise. You can see on the chart why it’s such a good show. Janet Jackson was an appropriate headline pick, both in length of career and volume of hits. Nelly and P. Diddy were established emissaries from the rap genre, which the Super Bowl has rarely invited on stage. Justin Timberlake had teenybopper loyalty from his *NSYNC days and a new, prurient edge as a solo artist. And Kid Rock was … also there. Of course, nobody remembers anything about this show other than the words “wardrobe malfunction,” and I don’t think any chart could change that, so let’s leave things there.
You may be wondering where your favorite halftime show falls on the list. As we mentioned above, it’s a rough measure of the excitement people might have felt before the show began — Prince may be the best performer ever to take the halftime stage, but if you weren’t a fan, then there wasn’t much to anticipate. On the chart below, you can see how all the artists compare.
All the data we scraped also allows us to answer one final question: Which artists should the Super Bowl reach out to for the 2020 show? Assuming the league is aiming to please a range of viewers, we can grab the top 10 artists by Performer Points for each decade since 1990, as well as from the past two years for the Gen Z audience.
|3||Boyz II Men||Ludacris||Nicki Minaj||Cardi B|
|4||Whitney Houston||Kanye West||Taylor Swift||Kendrick Lamar|
|5||Janet Jackson||P!nk||Bruno Mars||Khalid|
|6||Celine Dion||Usher||Maroon 5||Ed Sheeran|
|7||R. Kelly||Rihanna||Katy Perry||Migos|
|8||TLC||50 Cent||Chris Brown||Imagine Dragons|
|9||Elton John||Nickelback||Lil Wayne||Bruno Mars|
|10||Toni Braxton||Alicia Keys||Justin Bieber||Halsey|
Drake would be the biggest get here for the NFL. Starting in May 2009, Drizzy held a spot somewhere on the Hot 100 for 430 weeks straight. Since 2010, he’s amassed 83,898 Performer Points. The closest runner-up in that table is Rihanna, who collected 48,153 points during the same period. If halftime producers haven’t already approached Drake, they’re sleeping on him.
It’s impossible to know who on our list has talked with the NFL. Stars are rarely as open about Super Bowl negotiations as Cardi B was this year, when one of her representatives told Page 6 that “she was not particularly interested in participating because of how she feels about Colin Kaepernick and the whole movement.” (Rihanna also reportedly declined to perform because of her support of Kaepernick.) Taylor Swift, for instance, seems like an obvious candidate. But she has shilled for Coca-Cola — a relationship that could be at risk if she were to perform in the halftime show that Pepsi has sponsored for seven years running.
Whomever the NFL picks next year, the pressure is on. Asking Maroon 5 to headline a show in Atlanta, a city abounding in talented rappers (Big Boi is the only homegrown artist on the bill), resulted in a social media backlash, and a petition with more than 100,000 signatures has urged the band to drop out to demonstrate solidarity with Kaepernick. USA Today even went so far as to publish an obituary for the halftime show as a cultural institution.
That seems a little premature to me. The Super Bowl has evolved before and could do it again. What used to be a variety show writ large, with inscrutable themes,7 Elvis impersonators and card tricks eventually embraced the market-certified success of singers like Michael Jackson and *NSYNC. The collective shrugs following picks like Coldplay, Justin Timberlake and Maroon 5, which has the second most Performer Points of any artist on our list, may herald the end of that era.8 The league has clearly taken note of this year’s controversy, announcing that the pregame press conference with Maroon 5 would not take place so that the artists could focus on their performance. What might come next for the halftime show is anybody’s guess, but one thing’s for certain: Everyone will be watching.
All images courtesy of Getty.