There are few sporting events that command as much excitement and attention as the Super Bowl. Today, it is likened to a national holiday, and we don’t play about our teams. Broadcast in more than 170 countries, the Super Bowl is one of the most watched sporting events in the world, with elaborate halftime shows and new commercials adding to its appeal. But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1967, the University of Arizona Band, Grambling College Band, and trumpeter Al Hirt performed at the first Super Bowl halftime show in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Grambling State University, a historically Black university, was initially criticized for performing in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots, but it is now seen as a trailblazing performance.
Marching bands and trumpeters? It seems like a far cry from what we’re used to seeing now.
On April 15, 1990, a sketch comedy series called In Living Color exploded onto to our televisions. Created by Keenan Ivory Wayans, the show spoke loudly to the power of Black life and helped launched the careers of Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and more. When Jennifer Lopez was still Jenny from the block and before being a Super Bowl LIV halftime headliner, she was dancing as a Fly Girl on In Living Color. The show forever changed the landscape of television.
During the 1992 Super Bowl XXVI, Washington led the game at 17-0 against Buffalo at halftime. Those who didn’t get up for bathroom break watched Olympic figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano skate atop oversized plastic snowflakes in the middle of the field and Gloria Estefan perform winterized renditions of her popular songs.
Meanwhile, In Living Color was doing something that had never been done before. They lured viewers away with their own halftime show airing on Fox. Over 25 million viewers flipped the channel to watch a 20-minute special that poked fun at the game. It definitely stayed true to the culture of In Living Color — pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally would see on primetime television.
I remember watching the special and enjoying it more than the game. It was hilarious! One of my favorite segments, Men on Football featured recurring gay characters, played by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier. With their “two snaps up,” they joked that football is essentially a homoerotic sport. They played on the overt masculinity that exists in football, wearing football jerseys and black under the eyes. Wayans and Grier were brilliant, jokingly disrupting the narrative about what was masculine.
In Living Color, during its five seasons, proved that Black television could be popular and lucrative. A brand-new Fox network was able to find its niche by producing and airing Black television shows, beginning with In Living Color. Network executives had realized that Black viewers were a huge segment of the total television audience. They jumped at the opportunity to position themselves as urban and to establish Fox’s reputation as a network that was different — in other words: catering to Black people.
Fox figured out how to be the go-to spot for young, urban individuals, mainly Black, who were going to college and making money. They cornered the market on how to use them for marketing and how to sell to them. In order to do that, they had to put people on television who looked like them. That is when we started to see more great shows including Roc, Martin, and Living Single. It led the way for people to realize that Black dollars and Black people are profitable.
In 1993, the NFL hired none other than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, as the halftime performer. It was a groundbreaking performance garnering over 130 million viewers. His five-song halftime mini-concert was one of the most viewed television spectacles of all time and paved for big-budget performances. We’ll never forget the world’s most infamous wardrobe malfunction, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry riding that giant, golden lion before sharing the stage with Missy Elliott.
It might surprise you that Super Bowl halftime performers do not get paid. Nope, not one cent. But they don’t need to. On the world’s biggest stage, the exposure, music and product sales, and social media glow-ups are the return on their investment. Prime example: Rihanna’s 2023 halftime performance.
Her savviest move was halfway through her set. As she prepared to sing the intro to All of the Lights, a dancer handed Rihanna a makeup compact. She quickly blotted setting powder from her Fenty beauty line across her cheeks. Not even five seconds went by, but the internet streets went crazy.
Google search traffic for Fenty skyrocketed compared to previous weeks, and the company was ready, adding a special Super Bowl section to its website. AdWeek reported the performance earned Fenty $5.6 million in media value over the next 12 hours. Brilliant strategy.
Don’t mind me, I’ll just be rooting for my hometown Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday. I’m also looking forward to Usher’s halftime performance, which means bathroom and snack breaks have been moved to before the second quarter and after Mr. Raymond’s performance.
While most performers are tasked with shrinking their entire music catalog into 13 minutes, Usher has revealed that he managed to get 15 minutes. Two-minutes may not seem like a lot of extra time, but it truly is on Super Bowl Sunday. You can rest assured that Usher will be taking advantage of every second. Again, brilliant strategy.
None of this brilliance would even be possible if it wasn’t for Keenan Ivory Wayans. He deserves all the credit for his trailblazing vision. We would still be watching marching bands, trumpeters, and ice skaters for halftime. A collective “thank you” will never be enough.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.