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5 best Super Bowl halftime shows: Alan Cross

WATCH ABOVE: Grammy-winning artist Sting gave his pick for the Super Bowl as he's in Minneapolis with Shaggy for a pre-game concert on Super Bowl Sunday.

The biggest live TV event at which any artist can hope to appear is the Super Bowl halftime show, a 12-and-a-half minute slot with an audience of 100 million. The gig is so coveted that the NFL steadfastly refuses to pay those selected to perform. While certain expenses are covered, the league believes that the sheer exposure is priceless.

“Heck,” they’ve mused, “maybe the performers should pay us!”

But it wasn’t always this way.

READ MORE: Watchdog group urges Justin Timberlake to keep Super Bowl performance ‘child friendly’

Up until 1976, Super Bowl halftime shows were dull and boring with lots of marching bands and safe performers like Andy Williams and Carol Channing.

Watch: Andy Williams’ Super Bowl show

It took New Orleans to add some pizzazz to the proceedings with Super Bowl VI in 1972 with a tribute to Louis Armstrong starring Ella Fitzgerald. But then things retreated back to safety for 1973, 1974 and 1975.

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Watch: The 1975 Super Bowl halftime show

Then in 1976, America’s Bicentennial, producers decided to add a little more showbiz. And their idea of “showbiz” was those overly optimistic kids in Up with People. It was different than a marching band but compelling only to anti-rock’n’rollers and grandparents.  Football was serious business, filled with tradition and family values. This was no place for frivolity.

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It took many years of Disney-sponsored halftime shows (Remember the cringe-worthy “It’s a Small World” production of Super Bowl XI?), more Up with People appearances (including a weak tribute to Motown in 1982), and various generic salutes (music of the Caribbean, the big band era, Mardi Gras, movies and something called “children’s dreams.”)

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As bad as all that sounds, it was nothing compared to Super Bowl XIII in Miami (1989) when Diet Coke sponsored a show that featured an Elvis Presley impersonator doing card tricks.

Yes, card tricks.

Then again, Super Bowl XXV in 1991 featured both another tribute to Disney’s “It’s a Small World” and a performance by New Kids on the Block. Much of the set wasn’t even seen on TV as ABC kept cutting away for updates on the Gulf War. The halftime show wasn’t televised until after the game.

What we’d consider the modern era of Super Bowl halftime performances began in 1993 with game number XXVII when Michael Jackson was signed to perform. Jackson was still uber-hot as a pop star and when the TV executives looked at the ratings the next day, they realized that the halftime show could be a major, major draw.

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It was. And when it was all over, the NFL started asking itself “Why were we so determined to keep marching bands and the Up with People kids around for so long?”

The following year featured a big country jam at the Georgia Dome with Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt, the Judds and Clint Black. But then The Mouse flexed his muscles for Super Bowl XXIX, insisting on “A Tribute to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” with Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass Miami Sound Machine and, er, Tony Bennett playing the parts of square pegs going in round holes.

It was back to proper performers and proper music at Super Bowl XXX with Diana Ross, a Blues Brothers bash (featuring ZZ Top) for XXXI, a Motown review with The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reviews for XXXII and a Stevie Wonder appearance for XXXIII. The tradition of having the biggest musical names possible has continued ever since.

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Here are my picks for the five best and most memorable Super Bowl halftime performances since the NFL woke up in 1993.

1. U2, Super Bowl XXXVI (2002)

A moving tribute to the victims of 9/11 featuring Beautiful Day, MLK (a push for the new federal holiday) and Where the Streets Have No Name.

2. Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson, Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004)

The world lost its mind with the “wardrobe malfunction” scandal. It’s taken a decade-and-a-half for the NFL to forgive Justin Timberlake and invite him back.

3. Paul McCartney, Super Bowl XXXIX (2005)

The Hey Jude singalong was magical. I swear people were healed by this performance.

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4. Prince, Super Bowl XLI (2007)

A hits-fest from The Purple One. This may not only have been the best Super Bowl halftime show ever, but one of Prince’s greatest live appearances.

5. Beyonce, Super Bowl XLVII (2013)

Queen Bey won rave reviews from some and harsh criticism from others for her highly politicized set. Bey won in the end, of course, with sales of her music rocketing by over 200 per cent in some cases.

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How will Justin Timberlake fare with his Super Bowl LII gig? His new album, Man of the Woods, just came out Friday, so this is a terrific marketing opportunity for him.

But some people are rather nervous in a “Won’t someone please think about the children?” kind of way. After all, the lead-off single is called Filthy, which may have prompted this open letter from the Parents Television Council — the group that really, really hates Family Guy — urging JT to keep his performance “appropriate.”

And what are the chances of Janet Jackson making a surprise appearance sometime during the set? Vegas bookies are taking prop bets on the possibility and so far, the smart money is on “yes.” Given the declining attendance problems of the NFL, they could use a gimmick to keep people glued to the set for halftime.

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A full list of Super Bowl halftime performers in the modern era (i.e. 1993-present) can be found here.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.