As we have learned in the last 30 years or so, it is impossible to discuss the life of Prince without considering, to some degree, his prolonged rivalry with the other tortured genius/decadent weirdo of his era, Michael Jackson.
With the exception of “Thriller,” Jackson’s greatest work and the best-selling album of all time, Prince outshines the Self-Proclaimed King of Pop in nearly every important way. MJ also had the superior singing voice, but Prince was a more accomplished musician, remained relevant well past the peak of his fame, and, while Jackson’s face melted into an unsettling glob of latex and cartilage, Prince’s mug produced the greatest passport photo of all time just two months before his death.
In his never-ending duel with Jackson, Prince also dominated the category of Best Super Bowl Halftime Show. In part because Prince had easily the greatest Super Bowl halftime show ever, and Jackson had by far one of the worst for a mainstream, headline musical act. That said, it’s worth revisiting Jacko’s completely bananas performance at Super Bowl XXVII for two reasons. 1. It was completely bananas. 2. It changed the halftime show for the better.
First, consider the five halftime shows prior to Jackson’s performance at the Rose Bowl in 1993:
- Super Bowl XXII: “Something Grand,” Starring Chubby Checker, The Rockettes, 88 grand pianos, and the combined San Diego State University Marching Aztecs and USC Marching Bands
- Super Bowl XXIII: “Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D,” Starring Elvis Presto, South Florida-area dancers and performers, with 3-D effects
- Super Bowl XXIV: “Salute to New Orleans & The 40th Anniversary of Peanuts,” starring Pete Fountain, Doug Kershaw, Irma Thomas, Nicholls State University Marching Band, Southern University Marching Band, USL Marching Band
- Super Bowl XXV: “Small World Tribute to the Super Bowl,” Starring New Kids On The Block, Disney Characters and Warren Moon
- Super Bowl XXVI: Winter Magic, A Salute to the 1992 Winter Olympics, Starring Brian Boitano & Dorothy Hamill with Gloria Estefan.
Dear Motherfucking God.
The only then-popular musical acts on that list are Gloria Estefan and the New Kids On the Block. Estefan showed up only for the finale of her halftime show. Likewise, NKOTB didn’t even appear until 10 minutes, 40 seconds into a 14-minute halftime. Not only did the New Kids have to share their stage with President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, Mickey Mouse, Canadian Football League legend Warren Moon and like a zillion dopey kids, the show didn’t even air during the game. Nope. Instead ABC News used that time to update viewers on the first Gulf War’s 11th day of combat. Plus, Whitney Houston upstaged any hope for a memorable halftime when she opened the game with a bravura rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that might be the most patriotic thing that ever happened.
Enter Michael Jackson at Super Bowl XXVII.
Although his cringe-worthy performance is rife with the audience-trolling garbage that plagued his career from about 1992 on, Jackson at least set up a template that showed the broadcast networks how to make big, popular musical acts the centerpiece of Super Bowl halftime. The fact that we now get a Prince, or Madonna or Springsteen, etc., at halftime is due entirely to Jackson blazing this trail. That said, watching his performance 23 years later … his appearance was a spectacular failure. And that’s especially disappointing, because this probably marks the last occasion on which Jackson still had fans who weren’t sad, broken weirdos.
The performance begins with a pretty cool bit for 1993. Smoke arises from a Pasadena Jumbotron high above the field. Michael Jackson appears on the screen, then emerges above the screen, as if he had emerge from inside of it. Jackson is going to do his show from up there? WTF? Then he pops out of another Jumbotron on the other side of the field. Michael Jacksons everywhere. Magical? Sure. We’ll grant you that was some sweet, early-90s-grade magic. If you find this cheesy, remember that it was designed for an America that had only recently sorted out the ruse behind Milli Vanilli.
Next, smoke arises from the stage at midfield and The (actual) Gloved One vaults out. It’s a pretty sweet entrance, but everything then goes to shit as one of the greatest performers of his day demonstrates how to make the worst possible use of 12 and a half minutes.
After landing his jump from beneath the stage, Michael Jackson stands silent and motionless for 75 seconds, basking in audience affection. He then turns his head and doesn’t move again for another 17 seconds before opening his set with a 46-second version of fucking “Jam.” What. An. Asshole. One of the most prolific hit-makers of all-time, he was a quarter of the way through his set and had only given us 3/4 of a minute from the fourth release off “Dangerous” (at the time his worst album by far).
He then works the hell out of his crotch to kick off a scant 1 minute and 2 seconds of his best song, “Billie Jean,” before downshifting back to “Dangerous,” for 2 minutes and 43 seconds of “Black Or White.” Dude. He then doesn’t start his next song for ANOTHER MINUTE! He just soaks in the kind of ovation that “Black Or White” could only have received in 1993.
And the next song. Wow. The next song is “We Are The World.” Note, the song has started, but Jacko isn’t singing. No, instead of Michael Goddamn Jackson, we are listening to a choir of 3,500 Los Angeles children performing an eight-year-old charity jingle. Meanwhile, the creative force behind Thriller, for Christ’s sake, is holding what appears to be a magic wand. He directs the Rose Bowl audience to flip over cards, covering the stadium in giant, creeptastic drawings of children. Note: After his final “Woo!” in “Black Or White,” we won’t hear Jackson’s voice again for another 2 minutes, 18 seconds. When we do, he is not singing. In an uncharacteristically deep speaking voice, Michael lectures us:
Today, we stand together all around the world joined in a common purpose to remake the planet into a haven of joy and understanding and goodness. No one should have to suffer, especially our children. This time we must succeed. This is for the children of the world.
Seven months later, this man is publicly accused of child molestation for the first time.
And now, with a solid two and a quarter minutes left, we finally cue “Thriller” for the big finale, right? No, because we’re closing on “Beat It” with special guest Eddie Van Halen? Oh, sweet, child. So naive. MJ cues up a heaping pile of Go Fuck Yourself. We ride out on “Heal The World,” a song that would go on to become a No. 1 hit. In Poland. Michael touches like all of the children in Pasadena (probably slightly less unsettling at the time than it is now). An inflatable globe rises behind him. Symbolism. Halftime over. The Cowboys and Bills somehow waste less time in the second half of a 52-17 Dallas victory as the NFL’s premier comedy team of Don Beebe and Leon Lett upstage the King of Pop. MJ’s career is over, but somehow continues unmercifully for another 15 years.
Dave Brown is a writer and business lawyer in Boston. He was really into “Dangerous” when it came out in 1992.