Big Game, Big Acts: How Up with People Forever Changed the Super Bowl Halftime Show

There’s a direct line between Up with People and Rihanna.

No, seriously. 

The soap-scrubbed faces and glistening smiles of the wholesome performance troupe of fresh-faced American teens and twentysomethings led, somewhat circuitously perhaps, to Bad Girl Riri.

Just bear with us here.

In 1971, Up with People became the first non-marching band to perform during the halftime of the Super Bowl at the fifth edition of the game at the Orange Bowl in Miami. 

After the merger with the American Football League that created the modern NFL and birthed the Super Bowl, the game’s organizers followed the tradition of the (then still far more popular) college game and featured bands, typically show bands from historically Black colleges and universities. Then, as now, the game was held either indoors or at a warm weather site and the featured band tended to be local: Grambling State’s Tiger Marching Band or Southern’s Human Jukebox when it was in New Orleans and Florida A&M’s Marching 100 when in Miami. There might be a “star” featured here and there as a soloist — trumpeter Al Hirt made a few appearances, as did Carol Channing — but there was very little to make viewers think the NFL’s championship game could do halftime any better than a typical college game.

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PONTIAC, MI – JANUARY 24: Members of the group Up With People perform at halftime at Super Bowl XVI between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals at the Pontiac Silverdome on January 24, 1982 in Pontiac, Michigan, near Detroit. The 49ers defeated the Bengals 26-21. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

But, in its way, Up with People, the non-profit group with the high-minded goal of building unity and understanding through song and dance, created the modern Super Bowl halftime.

Consider this: Up with People was the first halftime performance with full concert sound, which was set up in under four minutes, a requirement due to the time constraints of halftime. Up with People was the first to install theatrical lighting in the ceilings of domed stadiums — both the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, the Superdome in New Orleans — which was necessary because, at the time, stadium lights couldn’t be turned off to suit a performance and back on in time for the game. They were the first group to perform (relatively) contemporary music. No, their 1976 medley of “Take Me Home Country Roads,” “City of New Orleans” and “Philadelphia Freedom” wasn’t setting any decibel records and, yes, the inclusion of “Born in the U.S.A.” at their Super Bowl XX performance in 1986 — the group’s last at the big game — continued the great tradition of completely missing the point of The Boss’ song; nevertheless, the oft-mocked do-gooders did, slowly, tug the Super Bowl halftime show into what it is today.

By the way, Up with People is still out there. A 2020 tour was suspended due to the pandemic, of course, but according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, the group sold 1,203 tickets over two shows in 2015 at Arizona’s Fox Tucson Theater.

In 1991, New Kids on the Block were featured, but what we currently conceive of as the modern halftime show launched with Michael Jackson’s heavily-advertised performance in 1993. That show was a response to Fox counter-programming halftime with a live episode of “In Living Color” that drew 25 million viewers and an estimated 10 ratings points from CBS during halftime of the 1992 game. With all four networks now having some stake in the NFL, successful counter-programming is rare these days and attempts are confined to cable. The WWE’s 1999 Halftime Heat empty-arena match between The Rock and Mankind is the only real ratings success since the NFL’s change to major halftime acts. The 2005 “wardrobe malfunction” performance of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake led to a period where the NFL booked “family-friendly” legacy acts. Prince being regarded as family friendly would have surely confused the Parents Music Resource Center; but even Tipper Gore couldn’t deny how cool it was to see him wailing “Purple Rain” as rain began to fall over Miami in 2007. 

Since the Black Eyed Peas’ performance at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas in 2011, the legacy acts have given way to contemporary hit makers, with R&B and hip-hop artists featuring prominently, particularly since Jay-Z’s Roc Nation took on production in 2020. Jeb Bush, of all people, praised Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s performance that year as “the best Super Bowl halftime show ever.” Please clap.

The halftime show — for which the performers still receive no appearance fee, though expenses are covered — is now part of what Americans expect, along with the game itself and those extravagantly expensive commercials, on Super Bowl Sunday.

And we have Up with People to thank (sort of).