MJ Studies Today LXIII

Abstract:  Every year top acts perform at halftime in the American Super Bowl championship football game.  This much-anticipated aspect of Super Bowl Sunday owes its status to Michael Jackson’s performance at the 1993 game, held at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California.  Since then many other well-known acts have headlined the Super Bowl halftime show, but Jackson’s mini concert continues to be the yardstick against which all others are measured.  Columnist Kerry Hennigan looks at this iconic event and its place in the history of live entertainment and Super Bowl Sunday.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’”, dedicated MJ pilgrim and blogger.  Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology and numerous other subjects that take her academic interest.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXIII: Michael Jackson’s pivotal role in the history of Super Bowl Sunday’s iconic half time show. (14-03-2021).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 7, No. 3 (2021). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxiii/

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Michael Jackson’s pivotal role in the history of Super Bowl Sunday’s iconic half time show. By Kerry Hennigan

© Kerry Hennigan
“Did you know that @michaeljackson's 1993 Super Bowl XXVII #halftime show at the #RoseBowl was the first #SuperBowl performance by a major artist? It received higher ratings than the game itself and set the tone for the performances we see today.”

- Rose Bowl Stadium on social media, 7 Feb 2021 [1]

The end of January or early February is traditionally the time when two American football teams play off in the annual Super Bowl final. An important part of that tradition – more important than the game itself for some viewers – is the half time performance by a popular recording artist or artists. But, while there has long been half time entertainment, it is only since 1993 that this part of the Super Bowl program has established itself as a major event in its own right. It is fair to say that Michael Jackson’s role in its development and his actual performance, remains a watershed moment in the history of Super Bowl Sunday, the annual occasion described by one writer as “for better and for worse, the most American event the world has ever known.” [2]

The King of Pop’s show during halftime of Super Bowl XXVII became a landmark in live televised entertainment and paved the way for the many top name stars that subsequently graced the half time stage, including Madonna, McCartney, Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2, Beyonce, Gaga, Springsteen, Bruno Mars, and Coldplay. “The late, great Michael Jackson, though, gets our nod for the best one yet. Not only does his five-song strong setlist still hold up but it was ol’ MJ who spawned the phenomenon of pop-stars taking centre-stage at half-time,” wrote Darragh Murphy in 2016 on the eve of Super Bowl 50. [3] It is also probably fair to say that, with the growing international television audience, there were many in 1993 able to view the half time show who previously had not a clue about the significance of the Super Bowl as a game, or why it was such a big deal in the United States.

That year, the game was to be played at the Rose Bowl stadium in Los Angeles. In order to convince television viewers not to turn off during half time and risk them not turning the game on again afterwards, the National Football League (NFL) figuratively shot for the moon, courting none other than Michael Jackson for a half time performance. Jackson was enjoying success with his “Dangerous” album and had already performed the first leg of his world tour. Not being much of a sports fan, he wasn’t interested in the NFL’s proposal until it was pointed out to him how many viewers his performance would reach through the television coverage. “Michael wasn’t too aware of the Super Bowl. He wasn’t too aware of how big this was,” recalls Arlen Kantarian, the half time show’s executive producer. “He just said, ‘Why don’t we call it the Thriller Bowl?’” [4]

Jackson had not long launched his “Heal the World Foundation” for which his tour sponsor Pepsi Cola had coughed up a significant donation as part of their sponsorship of the Dangerous World Tour. [5] The NFL does not pay its half time performers, rather the artists reap their rewards in increased record sales and global coverage. Jackson could not resist getting his “Heal the World” message out to all those potential viewers, many of whom might not have purchased his latest album or ever attended one of his live performances. When sponsor Frito Lay came up with a donation of US$100,000 for the Heal the World Foundation, Jackson agreed to do the show.

There is probably not a Michael Jackson fan alive (of a certain age, at least) who does not know the resulting performance song for song, and Jackson’s every memorable move. Probably most memorable was his entrance to the stage, shooting up from beneath it and then standing still for nearly two minutes while pandemonium broke out in the packed arena surrounding him. Jackson knew how to work a crowd, and this opening, which mirrored his stage entrance in his Dangerous concerts, set the scene for the explosion of pyrotechnics and music that followed. “He was an expert at timing,” Jackson’s long-time tour director and friend Kenny Ortega said in 2009. “He understood how to work an audience as good as any other entertainer that I have ever seen or worked with in my entire career.” [6]

Nevertheless, Jackson’s lead guitarist Jennifer Batten recalls the superstar being nervous. “He was under a hell of a lot of pressure that day. Everything had to go right because it was live and would [eventually] live on YouTube forever.” [7] The songs were a medley consisting of “Jam”, “Billie Jean”, and “Black or White” the latter featuring clouds of smoke billowing so thickly from beneath the stage that Jackson himself was momentarily almost hidden from sight. This moment subsequently produced footage and images that have become iconic in their own right and synonymous with Jackson’s power to command the stage. The singer then changed the tempo completely. He tied his hair back into a ponytail, took up a baton and pointed it at one section of the crowd who duly lifted up cards displaying artwork representing children of the world. Eventually the entire audience was transformed, one section after another, into an impromptu gallery of the drawings – a lead into Jackson’s primary showpiece.

It remains a performance like no other, with children and young people flooding the arena to congregate around the stage and join the choir in singing “We Are The World”. Jackson gave a spoken introduction in what was (for some) a surprisingly deep voice before he commenced singing “Heal the World” surrounded by children in various national costumes and ranging in age from toddlers to teens. Such a scenario today would prompt caustic comments from Jackson’s critics, but at that particular moment in time, Sunday 31 January 1993, it was the King of Pop showing his concern for and promotion of the thing he cared about most. As a large globe of the world inflated behind him, he encouraged all and sundry to make the world a better place for all its citizens, without discrimination.

The fact that Jackson did it on the biggest platform he had ever commanded (with an estimated one and half billion people in over 80 countries tuning in), has ensured that his message, along with the song “Heal the World”, has become enshrined in the history of the Super Bowl halftime show and of the Super Bowl phenomenon itself; of the Rose Bowl, where it took place; and of live entertainment broadcasts. Despite the many major stars that have followed in Jackson’s footsteps, it remains strongly argued that nobody has done it better. “We will never see [another] talent like his in our lifetime,” says Jennifer Batten. “I’m pretty sure that only comes around once per century. He was a creative tornado. When he was getting ready, his hair done, he was also writing lyrics. Creativity flowed through him.” [8]

Super Bowl XXVII pitted the Buffalo Bills against the Dallas Cowboys in what turned into a one-sided game resulting in an overwhelming victory for the Cowboys. The game itself has become forgotten or forgettable in terms of its standing in the history of the contest. The same can certainly not be said for Jackson’s halftime performance, which scored a US audience of 133.4 million viewers and which continues to be referenced by fans and industry observers, not to mention the many artists who have followed in his footsteps. [9]

Postscript – Super Bowl 2021:

Following the performance of singer The Weeknd at halftime of the Super Bowl in 2021, social media erupted with comments from viewers who saw him as “impersonating” Michael Jackson. The Weeknd previously stated the King of Pop had been a major influence on his style, and his 2021 halftime appearance, for some, validated that acknowledgement. Whether intended or not, such imitation is not always viewed complimentarily. “I feel like I’m watching Tito do a Michael Jackson impersonation,” said a Twitter user. Others were happy for the “MJ vibes” The Weeknd was giving off in his performance. What cannot be disputed, is that Michael Jackson remains the yardstick nearly three decades after launching himself onto the halftime stage at Super Bowl XXVII. [10] [11] [12]


[1]  Rose Bowl Stadium official Facebook account.  https://www.facebook.com/RoseBowlStadium/posts/4244379665643813

[2]  Adam, Epstein.  “How the NFL Super Bowl became a cultural phenomenon.” Published electronically on Quartz, 31 Jan 2020.   https://qz.com/1794113/how-the-nfl-super-bowl-became-a-cultural-phenomenon/

[3]  Murphy, Darragh.  “22 Reasons Why the Super Bowl is the Greatest Show on Earth.”  Published electronically on Sports Joe, 2016.  https://www.sportsjoe.ie/us-sports/22-reasons-why-the-super-bowl-is-the-greatest-show-on-earth-11084

[4]  https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/flashback-michael-jackson-reclaims-his-pop-throne-at-super-bowl-xxvii-129576/

[5]  Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXXIV Sponsoring Michael Jackson – the matter of Pepsi Cola and their association with the King of Pop. (14-10-2018).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, no. 2 (2018). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxxiv/

[6]  https://www.cinemablend.com/new/Interview-It-Director-Kenny-Ortega-His-Last-Work-With-MJ-15418.html

[7]  Manchester Evening News.  “Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten on what it was really like to work with the King Of Pop” by Katie Fitzpatrick (27 Sept 2016).  https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/showbiz-news/michael-jackson-guitarist-jennifer-batten–11943953

[8]  Ibid

[9]  Andrews, Travis M. “From Elvis Presto to Michael Jackson: How the Super Bowl halftime show found its groove.”  Published electronically 2 Feb 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/02/02/from-elvis-presto-to-michael-jackson-how-the-super-bowl-halftime-show-found-its-groove/

[10]  Eels, Josh.  “Sex, Drugs and R&B: Inside the Weeknd’s Dark Twisted Fantasy.”  Published electronically 21 Oct 2015.  https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/sex-drugs-and-rb-inside-the-weeknds-dark-twisted-fantasy-176091/

[11]  Chaudhury, Bhagyasri.  “The Weeknd trolled for giving Michael Jackson vibes at Super Bowl LV, Internet says ‘NFL ordered MJ from Wish’”.  Published electronically 7 Feb 2021.  https://meaww.com/the-weeknd-michael-jackson-super-bowl-lv-halftime-performance-reactions

[12]  Wilkins, Matthew.  “Twitter is overrun with nostalgia as fans say The Weeknd’s Super Bowl performance had major ‘Michael Jackson vibes’.”  Published electronically 8 Feb 2021.  https://www.sportskeeda.com/esports/news-twitter-overrun-nostalgia-fans-say-the-weeknd-s-super-bowl-performance-major-michael-jackson-vibes

Essential viewing:

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” Healed the World | Super Bowl XXVII Halftime Show | NFL https://youtu.be/-VhFiSHeBn4

Super Bowl XXVII Halftime Show:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idg8TNknvDU

Jennifer Batten.  “#7 Behind the scenes of Superbowl XXVI and a little more of Bubbles the chimp.”  https://youtu.be/N3S06eIUJbQ

Further reading:

Hennigan, Kerry.  “Michael Jackson on Tour – Staging ‘the Greatest Show on Earth’ (and then topping it)” Published electronically 7 Sep 2017.  https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/michael-jackson-on-tour-staging-the-greatest-show-on-earth-and-then-topping-it/

Hennigan, Kerry.  “The Songs that Made the Show that Made History – revisiting Michael Jackson’s performance at Super Bowl XXVII on its 25th Anniversary.”  Published electronically 9 Feb 2018.  https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/the-songs-that-made-the-show-that-made-history-revisiting-michael-jacksons-performance-at-super-bowl-xxvii-on-its-25th-anniversary/

Illustration:  “Setting the benchmark” photo montage compiled by Kerry Hennigan.  No copyright infringement of photographs or logos  is intended in this not-for-profit educational exercise.