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Five for Friday: Great Super Bowl Performances

The first weekend in February, a Lady Gaga concert will erupt in the middle of a football game between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. Gaga anchors this year's Super Bowl halftime show and follows some esteemed – and, well, some not-so-glorious – performers. But even a lackluster Super Bowl halftime show provides notable talking points. Who, after all, can forget the dancing sharks that joined Katy Perry in 2015? Not us. And even those fans in 2009 that weren't high on Bruce Springsteen no doubt got a kick out of the Boss imploring Americans to put down the guacamole. So while Gaga will command our attention February 5, for now, we look back at some of our favorite Super Bowl performers.

Beyoncé
Last year wasn't Beyoncé's Super Bowl show to headline. That job fell to Brit-pop softies Coldplay. Yet it was Beyoncé's gig to steal. In a blistering, much-talked-about performance, Beyoncé took to the field with dancers in outfits inspired by the Black Panthers for her rendition of "Formation," essentially a call to arms for female solidarity. In the midst of such a dude-focused event, the action felt brave, so much so that critics were soon arguing the halftime show shouldn't inject politics into sports. We won't get into that debate here. Instead, we'll marvel at the song's minimalistic groove and militant, marching-band momentum.

Beyoncé, key album: Lemonade, a wildly diverse pop treatise on the black female experience in America, with nods to country and hard rock amid songs that explore the personal and the political.

Prince
In 2007, and amid pouring rain, Prince in 12 minutes put on one of the greatest live concerts in television history. Some needed context: The Super Bowl had been drifting toward classic rock prior to Prince, with Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones having recently appeared – moves designed to play it safe after 2004's controversial pairing of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Prince, however, proved it possible to not only have an outsized personality but perform an all-ages show that contained more than a hint of sexiness. Well, maybe all-ages is debatable, depending on your thoughts on the use of a guitar as a shadowy, slightly devious phallic symbol. Nevertheless, his appearance remains electric, as Prince, in stylish light-blue bell-bottoms, ricocheted through hits such as "Let's Go Crazy" and "Purple Rain" while sneaking in some Bob Dylan ("All Along the Watchtower").

Prince, key album: Purple Rain lingers as a must-own work of funk-inspired rock n' roll loaded with howling solos, colorful keyboards, and sexual cool.

Michael Jackson
The Super Bowl halftime show wasn't always pop-focused. Just a few years before the King of Pop headlined in 1993, the spectacle had been used to promote an Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Everything changed after Jackson. While this appearance was years removed from the height of his career in the early-to-mid 80s, Jackson remained a high-powered draw. And there's no denying the power of slinky anthems such as "Billie Jean" or even the guitar-based "Black & White." Largely, however, Jackson used the opportunity to convey a feel-good, unified spirit. Sing-alongs such as "We Are the World" and "Heal the World" closed the set. Bonus: Watch it for the lion-tamer-meets-military outfit Jackson sports at the beginning of the performance.

Jackson, key album: While Thriller and Bad should be in the music collection of anyone over the age of 40, the earlier Off the Wall remains the work that set the tone for much of modern pop.

Stevie Wonder
By today's high-energy standards, 1999's halftime show feels almost quaint, boasting the swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (remember that trend?) as well as a soul legend in Wonder and a Latin-pop crossover artist in Gloria Estefan. But there's no shame in good, wholesome family entertainment, especially when it's marked by Wonder's jazzy, light-stepping anthem "Sir Duke." Also, in another contrast to modern hyper-kinetic performances, Wonder casually rolled in via a vintage car. Dapper women then escorted him up some steps to play the early 70s hit "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." There were concessions to pop trends of the times, but not many. Even Estefan's take on "Turn the Beat Around" was a few years old by 1999. In hindsight, this remains the Super Bowl halftime show dedicated almost purely to songcraft rather than chart hits (the aforementioned Prince, of course, excluded).

Wonder, key album: Songs in the Key of Life remains a highly ambitious double album, one that almost plays out like a greatest-hits collection and merges jazz, and R&B with symphonic grandeur.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Good ol' American rock n' roll, delivered without frills. Considering the Gaga-headlined show is likely to be pure spectacle, let's go back to 2008 when one of our country's heartiest and long-lasting bands took the stage in formal wear and got right to the point. Playing four songs in about a dozen minutes, Petty strayed from the trend of overstuffed medleys, letting the audience soak up the arm-waving hooks of "American Girl," "I Won't Back Down," and "Runnin' Down a Dream. " The dip into "Free Fallin'" slowed the pace a little, but it's not often a rock-based halftime show completely drops the machismo.

Petty, key album: The Greatest Hits collection is a fine place to start, but so is Damn the Torpedoes, which boasts the fury of "Refugee," sweetness of "Here Comes My Girl," and the self-deprecation of "Even the Losers," all fit for air-guitaring.

January 27, 2017

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