How Michael Jackson Revolutionized the Super Bowl Halftime Show Forever

From the outlandish costumes, grand synchronised dance routines, dazzling pyrotechnics, lightning-speed outfit changes, surprise entrances, to grand exits, the Super Bowl half time show has become a standout musical event the World of entertainment looks forward to every year.

Obtaining the 12-to-15-minute halftime slot is a career milestone for many artists. Which over the years has been occupied by a roaster of A-list stars, including Beyonce, Madonna, Diana Ross, Aerosmith, U2, the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Prince and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few.

With big budgets on the table and the pressure of the whole world watching, the show creates an atmosphere where artists want to bring their A-game. However, the halftime show hasn’t always been this much of a massive spectacle. Well… not in till Michael Jackson catapulted himself onto its now legendary stage.

Since the very first Super Bowl championship was televised in 1967, the half time show has always been featured. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, halftime was no different from what you might see at a normal college game. In other words, university marching bands, drill teams and other performance groups trotting out some intricate choreography while playing patriotic or popular songs.

For years, the league had packed its halftimes with a roster of fading stars and the unhip: Mickey Rooney, Pete Fountain, Carol Channing, the Rockettes, Disney characters and even an Elvis impersonator. It wasn’t until boy band, New Kids on the Block, took the stage in 1991 that fans started to see the mid-game break as a concert-like performance.

However, the game plan was still working fine for the NFL, as viewership and advertising rates kept increasing. But in 1992 Fox boss, Rupert Murdoch, spotted a weakness: the Super Bowl’s halftime acts weren’t cool enough. Some decent names performed, but not the really big ones. People stopped watching at halftime, especially the young audiences’ advertisers craved.

The halftime show for 1992’s Super Bowl was legendarily awful. Titled ‘Winter Magic’, a celebration to the season and the Winter Olympics, the show featured drill teams, professional dancers (including ballroom dancing couples), rollerbladers and kids in MC Hammer style-pants rapping about ‘Frosty the Snowman’. Former Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill skated to an equally cheesy rendition of ‘One Moment In Time’ and even singer Gloria Estefan couldn’t save the show, as she performed during its finale.

Fox, which had not yet become a partner of the NFL, saw an opportunity to make a score for themselves. During the 1992 game, Fox had its popular show ‘In Living Color’ do a live Super Bowl spoof, complete with a game clock so viewers could see when the second half of the Super Bowl was going to start and switch back to CBS. You could practically hear viewers changing channels, Fox beating CBS’s official halftime show in the ratings for the first time ever, drawing in over 22 million viewers away from the halftime performance.

No surprise that twentysomethings with a couple of beers in them, would rather watch a show produced by Rosie Perez with Keenan and Ivory Wayans and Jim Carrey, than figure skaters and kids rapping about a snowman.

The NFL grasped the need to enlist big-name, contemporary, broad-appeal artists to keep viewers from straying. By 1993, Michael Jackson wasn’t all that contemporary, 10 years removed from the heady heights of ‘Thriller’ mania and with grunge, alternative rock and hip-hop ascending in popularity, however his multi-generational appeal and ability to consistently draw in large television figures made him an ideal choice.

Radio City Productions, who would produce the halftime show, attempted to court Michael Jackson to serve as the headline act by meeting with him and his manager, Sandy Gallin, in Beverly Hills. “Michael wasn’t too aware of the Super Bowl. He wasn’t too aware of how big this was,” recalls Arlen Kantarian, the show’s executive producer. “He just said, ‘Why don’t we call it the Thriller Bowl?’”

“We knew we were explaining this to somebody who would then have to explain it to Michael,” Senior Vice President of Special Events at the NFL, Jim Steeg, said. In subsequent meetings, Jackson displayed a naïve curiosity about a world he knew little of. “He’d ask: ‘Who plays in it? What is it?’” Kantarian said. Jackson’s interest became riveted on the Super Bowl being broadcast in more than 100 countries, including third world nations, and on United States military bases.

“He said, ‘Man, I’ll never tour there,’” Kantarian recalled him saying. “We talked to him about the blue-collar football fan that might not otherwise be a Michael Jackson fan and about how he could build a new fan base. He got that as well. He was very sharp and very shy but understood what a big moment this could be for him.” As part of the negotiations, Jackson’s team asked for $1 million, a bargain you would think, but the NFL did not pay its halftime performers, a policy that remains to this day. “You’ve got to be kidding” Sandy Gallin said, “This is Michael Jackson!”

Although the league refused to pay appearance fees for Super Bowl halftime performers, the NFL and Frito-Lay agreed to donate $100,000 to the Heal the World Foundation — a charity that was founded by Jackson — as well as allocate commercial time to air an appeal for the foundation’s Heal LA campaign, which aimed to provide health care, drug education, and mentorship for Los Angeles youth, particularly children affected by the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

However, Jackson’s team had conditions, of course. Michael wanted 3,500 “volunteer fans” to surround the stage, providing an MJ-in-concert experience rather than a bathroom break for rich, beer-drinking football fans in the stadium, and for him to perform the newish ballad “Heal the World” for the entirety of the 12-minute performance. Kantarian said that he recalled Jackson pushing to sing newer songs from ‘Dangerous,’ and not previous hits like ‘Billie Jean’. According to Kantarian, Jackson said, “Billie Jean’s just a tune, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a new world, this has to be about ‘Heal the World.’”

However, Jackson did not win every argument. The Super Bowl was still the Super Bowl and producers talked him into performing a medley of his hits — ‘Billie Jean,’ ‘We Are the World’, the newish ‘Jam’ and ‘Black or White’ — in addition to an elaborate show-closing version of “Heal the World.”

After it was announced that Michael Jackson would be headlining the next Super Bowl halftime show, top brands were keen to snap up advertising slots in hopes of the event achieving similar viewing figures to that of Jackson’s HBO special ‘Live in Bucharest’ just a few months earlier, which broke records becoming the channel’s highest rated special ever.

One advertiser, Pepsi, planned to launch its new Michael Jackson ‘I’ll Be There’ commercial during 14 of the international broadcasts of the event. In It a modern-day Michael Jackson teams up with an 11-year-old Michael of the Jackson Five era to do a reprisal of the latter’s 1970 hit, ‘I’ll Be There’. However, launching a new creative effort during a Super Bowl telecast was not without its expense, a 30-second spot costing $850,000 at the time. In comparison, for the same slot on the top-rated comedy, ‘Roseanne’, costed approximately $300,000 that same year.

In preparation, Jackson brought his own band and dancers to perform on a set that weighed 12 tons and had to be built quickly from 26 separate pieces — without damaging the turf for the second half. Producers arranged for 275 people to do the job in less than six minutes.

A few days before the game, Michael Jackson and his crew rehearsed in a tent outside the stadium. “We all knew, just by reading, about how Michael is a perfectionist,” Kantarian said. “But to see how he repeated the same choreography, 12, 14, 16 times, was just incredible.” Jackson’s choreographer, Vince Paterson, tried to convince him to try new moves for the show, but MJ didn’t want to complicate things. “That was one of the little points of contention between us for that project,” Paterson recalls. “I kept saying, ‘But Michael, we’ve already done this,’ and he kept saying, ‘But everybody will love it!’”

Just days before the game and his much-anticipated performance, Michael Jackson said during a Super Bowl press conference, “I can’t think of a better way to spread the message of world peace than by working with Radio City and the NFL and by being a part of Super Bowl 27”. Show producer, Don Mischer adding, “It’s professionally rewarding to be involved again with Michael Jackson, I worked with Michael on the ‘Motown 25’ television special, where he immortalized the moonwalk. And I know he’ll give as powerful and surprising a performance at the Super Bowl.”

When January 31st, 1993, came around and Michael Jackson finally arrived backstage at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, he was reportedly jittery. “That’s the only time I ever felt that Michael was nervous”, said Jennifer Batten, his lead guitarist at the time, “because that’s a hell of a lot of pressure. If something goes wrong, that’s forever”.

Michael Jackson started his halftime performance by first appearing at the top of the stadium’s two jumbotrons, with the use of body doubles. Michael is then catapulted from the stage eight feet into the air, from a machine known as the toaster, then holding a pose in his black-and-gold military jacket and sunglasses as the crowd roared. “He said, ‘Don’t queue the music to start, or anything else, until I break my wrist. I’m gonna feel it. I’m gonna feel it,’” Mischer recalls. “His fans are screaming, but he just doesn’t give me the cue… It got down to me saying, ‘Come on, Michael! Jesus Christ!’ It finally came down to a minute and 35 seconds — that’s like $15 million worth of advertising time.”

Michael stood completely frozen and silent, bathing in anticipation for almost two minutes before his long-time guitarist got the signal to begin. Jackson’s performance included a medley consisting of ‘Jam’, ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Black or White’. The finale featured an elaborate audience card stunt, in which the entire crowd turned over cards to reveal giant cartoons of children holding hands. It also included a video montage showing Jackson participating in various humanitarian efforts around the world, and a choir of 3,500 local Los Angeles area children singing ‘We Are the World’, later joining Jackson as he sang his single ‘Heal the World’ with an inflatable globe appearing from the centre of the stage.

With a strong global message, Michael Jackson’s halftime show was a major success, marking the first time in Super Bowl history that ratings increased between halves during the game. The event went down in history as one of the most-watched events on television. The historic event was said to have attracted over 133 million viewers, which set a huge record at the time. Nine days later, Jackson would conduct a live television interview with Oprah Winfrey, which also broke records by garnering the highest ratings for a television interview in history, which remains to this day.

The performance also helped Jackson’s album sales, with ‘Dangerous’ rising 90 places in the album chart, seeing an 83% increase in sales and moving 21,000 copies in the United States during the week following the iconic performance.

Jackson’s appearance also started the NFL’s trend of signing top acts to appear during the Super Bowl to attract more viewers and media interest. In the last 30 years, the Super Bowl halftime show has featured some of the hottest superstars and jaw-dropping performances which often garner more attention than the game itself, whether for good or bad.

Eleven years after Michael Jackson, another Jackson, this time his sister Janet, caused wide-spread controversy and a tabloid thunderstorm when she bared her breast (or had it stripped bare by Justin Timberlake) during her halftime performance, causing the Federal Communications Commission to fine CBS $550,000. Although Michael’s original Super Bowl performance didn’t go without its complaints, as the King of Pop grabbed his crotch repeatedly, especially as he sang ‘Billie Jean’. “We talked to him about that during rehearsals,” said Jim Steeg, “but he did better than we thought. Still, we got a lot of letters about that.”

This milestone performance not only set the record for television viewership, but it also inspired the momentum of popular artists to follow the blueprint Jackson laid out for them. Michael Jackson turned the halftime show into a prestige musical event — and reminded the world that he was still the superstar to beat. It was one of the final times Jackson was fully in command of his own image and career. As Don Mischer recounted, “he was a gentle, quiet man. But when he stepped onstage, he became a general.”