The Most Controversial Performances In Super Bowl History

The moment Lady Gaga was slated to take to the field for the halftime show of Super Bowl XLII, people began waiting with bated breath to see what kind of mess she was about to get us into. Eagerly, we anticipated what could be in store for us, as even after a couple of so-so albums (three of them, if you count the Tony Bennett collaboration Cheek to Cheek among the ones you didn't care for), she has still managed to entrance us with her unpredictability above all else. But when the time came on Sunday night, the show went off without a hitch and without controversy, with early consensus being that she brought her showmanship to the table, first and foremost, with some putting it in the terms of disappointment that she played it safe.

Though history will decide if Lady Gaga ends up on a list like this once all said and done, here are some of the most enduring and memorable controversial moments the Super Bowl has brought us over the last half-century and change.

Super Bowl XXXVIII - Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson

How could we start anywhere but here? It cannot be overstated how much this controversy absolutely dominated the culture for, like, an entire year. It's even said the incident was the spark that led to the creation of YouTube. President George W. Bush, and the candidates seeking to defeat him in his 2004 election bid, even had to discuss their opinions about it. And most importantly, the FCC lost its mind. Fines were levied to networks to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Threats were made. Network TV shows shied away from risqué content of any kind for months, scared to incur the FCC's wrath as they cracked the whip in a reactionary effort to make sure nothing like this ever happened again.

This was more than just a brief flash of bare flesh during intermission in a game of bloodsport. The incident, in which a nipple was revealed to audiences around the world for 9/16ths of a second, turned into a cascade of controversies. There were even controversies within the controversy. Many felt Timberlake threw Janet Jackson under the bus to take all of the heat for the incident, as though it was her fault, coasting on with his career while Janet was left to face most of the media's harshest scrutiny and blame, which included blacklisting her songs and videos from radio and TV stations all across the country. It was bad, folks. Just one bit of proof that 2004 was a really strange year.

Super Bowl 50 - Bruno Mars, Coldplay, Beyoncé

You remember this one. What more is there even to say? This show was great by any critical measure, but some sports fans were still offended to their cores. Much noise was made about the costuming and politics behind the 2016 show, particularly as they related to the then-recently-released single "Formation." Arguments were put forward about the song and performance being anti-police, bringing Black Lives Matter politics down onto the gridiron long before Colin Kaepernick took to his knee. It was, in many ways, a reprise of a similar controversy that came out of the more overtly political "Formation" video.

So did Queen Bey deliberately court controversy? Perhaps. And to her benefit. The Formation World Tour, announced in a commercial that aired immediately after the halftime show to a maximum audience of eyeballs, went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars later in the year, some of which came from selling official merchandise to concertgoers that read—what else?—"Boycott Beyoncé."

Super Bowl XLVI - Madonna, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., LMFAO, CeeLo Green

If you had the chance to flip the bird to over a hundred million people, and you didn't take it... well, that'd be almost sort of lame. So of course M.I.A. just up and did it in 2012. Never known to be anything but bold, the musician, alongside with fellow rapper Nicki Minaj, joined Madonna on stage, taking to the wings up front like a fierce vanguard for the Queen of Pop. The moment itself is brief but beautiful—M.I.A., not on stage for long, finds the camera, locks in, and raises up that middle finger to the line "I don't give a sh*t."

Why did she do it? That's still a mystery. Anyway, a month later, the NFL sued her for 16.6 million dollars. A settlement between the two was reached, but not disclosed.

Super Bowl XXIII - Elvis Presto

Controversial before it ever hit the stage, this 1989 3D extravaganza was an embarrassment to many involved that has only gotten more and more gloriously cheesy with age. Watching the footage today, compared with modern production values, it is almost unfathomable that this hokum aired during a Super Bowl. There were two main goals for the show. The first, reportedly, was to put on a massive production, larger in scale than attempted in the twenty-two previous matchups. To this end, two thousand dancers were hired, and the show was aired in primitive, largely ineffective 3D. That's right, with the paper glasses.

The second goal was to put on a show that non-fans of football would enjoy. The result was a mostly slick but unbelievably corny montage of songs inspired by the 50s, culminating in the "world's largest card trick," which, as performed by the singing, dancing Elvis Presto, plays like the sort of thing that would be eye-roll-worthy even in a sideshow town like Branson, Missouri. Anyway, if you only watch one halftime show on this list, make it this one. Though its size and scale of the production helped pave the way for what the halftime show would soon become, it's still rather unlike anything you've seen before.

Super Bowl XLVIII - Bruno Mars, Red Hot Chili Peppers

Nothing riles up the average music fan like a good old-fashioned lip sync controversy. It's a classic! A performative bamboozle! And we've been raking artists over the coals for it since the days of Milli Vanilli. This one from 2014 is a variation on the theme, technically everything but a lip sync, as lead singer Anthony Kiedis' vocals were reportedly the only live element of the show.

Viewers crowed during the show upon noticing the band was clearly playing instruments that weren't plugged into anything, essentially miming along to their own pre-recorded track, recorded live days earlier. For RHCP's part, the fault here is hugely overblown. Miming performances is and has long been a common practice when it comes to one-off performances on televised specials, and bassist Flea said as much in his own explanation a couple days after the game was over. "There was not any room for argument on this," the musician wrote. "The NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period."

So while viewers may have felt deceived to see the band clearly playing unplugged instruments, the band's justification was pragmatic. They didn't need them; why use them? And frankly, if you think every other Super Bowl show is a note-for-note completely live production, we have a bridge in San Francisco we'd like to sell you at a steep, steep bargain.

Super Bowl XLI - Prince

This is the best halftime show of all fifty-plus of them by far. The people who complained about this 2007 halftime show might be among the most uncool rubes that ever existed in all the world. But complain they did, on grounds of immorality and perversity, with echoes of the Timberlake/Jackson reaction resonating strongly in the noise.

The truth is, this show was a Prince concert, and occasionally at a Prince concert, you're going to see something sexual. In fact, you're going to see some of the most sexual moves in all of music history, and if you didn't, you'd ask for a refund, furiously. Turns out a lot of people just wanted to watch football, not see Prince make tender love to his guitar. (Of course, as in the example of the Chili Peppers, this particular part of the performance was mostly mimed). M.I.A. even cited this performance in the process of protesting the massive fine levied against her for her middle finger, with her lawyers claiming that a lone extended digit was nowhere near as "offensive" as, they write, "[Prince] caressing the neck of his stylized trademark guitar... as if stroking an erect oversized phallus." The only problem with this comparison is that while what M.I.A. did was cool, it wasn't quite as, um, awesome.

America's game

Though many predicted controversy, with some of the world's most out-there voices predicting "Satanic ritual," Gaga's show was almost refreshingly conventional. Not every show needs to be a sociopolitical battleground, after all, especially one that's meant to entertain a lot of different kinds of people. So there was pop, there was dancing, there were hits, and lots and lots of "rah-rah USA"—everything you need to support the American pop culture diet.

Future years will bring wilder shows, and they'll also bring some boring ones. But every year will be a spectacle of some sort, be it freaky, funky, or familiar. And that, dear friends, is why we call the Super Bowl the greatest show on Earth.