The modern communal pop extravaganza known as the Super Bowl halftime show can trace its roots to Jan. 31, 1993, when Michael Jackson took the stage at the Rose Bowl for Super Bowl XXVII, where the Dallas Cowboys would trample the Buffalo Bills, 52-17.
Before that, the halftime show was mostly an afterthought, occupied by college marching bands, Up With People and fading acts like Mickey Rooney (XXI) and Chubby Checker (XXII).
In 1992, Fox lured 22 percent of the audience from NBC by counterprogramming a special episode of In Living Color during halftime, and the NFL realized it had to up its game. It turned to Radio City Productions to mount something spectacular, which in turn offered the slot to Jackson. He asked for $1 million, a seeming bargain, but the NFL did not pay its halftime performers, a policy that remains. (Still, Justin Timberlake saw a 534 percent jump in song sales after he performed for an audience of 100 million at 2018’s Super Bowl LII; Lady Gaga’s sales increased tenfold the year prior.)
In the end, the league partnered with Frito-Lay to offer a $100,000 donation plus a 30-second TV spot to Jackson’s Heal the World Foundation, founded a year earlier to “improve conditions for children throughout the world.”
In a dramatic start to his set, Jackson was ejected onto the stage from below and stood frozen for 90 seconds. He then launched into a medley of “Jam,” “Billie Jean” (complete with moonwalk) and “Black or White” before concluding with the mushy “We Are the World” and the single “Heal the World,” surrounded by 3,500 L.A.-area kids. With 133 million tuning in, it remains the most watched halftime show and one of the highest-rated telecasts of all time.
Seven months later, Jackson would face his first accusations of child sexual abuse.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.