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Prince’s Super Bowl Halftime Show: The Full Story
Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Prince’s Super Bowl Halftime Show: The Full Story

Not even a freak storm could stop Prince’s Super Bowl halftime show from becoming the greatest in the event’s history.

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One of the most prestigious events in both the sporting and music-industry calendars, the Super Bowl halftime show was in a precarious position by the time Prince staged his iconic performance at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, on 4 February 2007, during Super Bowl XLI. Immediately hailed as one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows of all time, Prince’s 12-minute set not only reasserted his claim to being the greatest live performer on Earth, it also gave the halftime show a welcome boost in the credibility stakes. From Purple Rain to biblical downpours, this is the full story of how Prince pulled off his remarkable Super Bowl halftime show – and why no artist is ever likely to top it.

Listen to the best of Prince here.

The backstory: “You can’t push the envelope any further than I pushed it. So stop!”

Once a must-see event for millions of households across North America, the annual Super Bowl halftime show had lost some of its shine following Janet Jackson’s 2004 appearance, during which a “wardrobe malfunction” led Justin Timberlake to briefly expose her right breast on live television. Seeking to reduce the risk of further controversies, the NFL played it safe in subsequent years, hiring Paul McCartney (2005) and The Rolling Stones (2006) as Super Bowl headliners – beloved classic-rock acts who could put on a dependable show, and whose establishment-baiting days were far behind them.

Prince himself weighed in on the controversy, which had seen the US Federal Communications Commission receive over half a million complaints, leading them to attempt to fine broadcasters CBS $550,000 for violating indecency laws (the Third Circuit Courts Of Appeals voided the fine in 2011). “Look at this situation with the FCC after Janet,” Prince said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Alluding to his own risqué past – which included releases such as the Dirty Mind album and the song Darling Nikki, the latter of which led to the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center and the use of “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stickers on album covers – he added, “We’ve pushed the envelope off the table and forgotten there was a table. You can’t push the envelope any further than I pushed it. So stop! What’s the point?”

The invitation: “I recall them sitting there in awe”

Prince was in the middle of promoting his 2004 album, Musicology, when he told Entertainment Weekly, “We’ve gone too far now.” And it was shortly after he wrapped up the Musicology Live2004ever tour that the NFL began to float the idea of Prince as the perfect Super Bowl halftime show performer.

Two years later, Prince hosted an intimate dinner for NFL organisers at his rented home in Los Angeles. After his critiques of past Super Bowl halftime shows pushed the NFL to ask what he would do instead, Prince led his guests to a room where his band was set up, and treated them to a private performance which left them in no doubt that Prince was the artist they needed to book. “I recall them sitting there just, like, in awe,” Prince’s keyboardist Morris Hayes told The Ringer in 2020. “They were like, ‘We’re done. We’re good.’ It was crazy.”

The rehearsals: “He put a lot of effort into the halftime show”

Prince was staging his Per4ming Live 3121 residency at Las Vegas’ Rio All-Suite Hotel And Casino when he began to plan his Super Bowl halftime show. As well as earmarking classics from his Purple Rain album for inclusion in the setlist, Prince looked wider afield, considering songs by R&B and soul pioneers Ike And Tina Turner (Proud Mary) as well as rock icons past and present – Queen (We Will Rock You), Bob Dylan (All Along The Watchtower) and Foo Fighters (Best Of You) – among them, as he aimed to present the Super Bowl’s global audience with swathe of music history. “It’s like, ‘No it’s not about me. It’s about the music, it’s about this moment,’” his backing singer Shelby J said, recalling Prince’s approach towards crafting his set.

“He put a lot of effort into the halftime show,” Don Mischer, Executive Producer of Super Bowl XLI’s halftime event, would later tell journalists. “He’s been very conscious of music that will work in a stadium and that will work for football fans, and that’s familiar.”

Prince had toured his Musicology album on a stage shaped as his “Love Symbol” and placed in the middle of the arena venues he had sold out throughout 2004 – perfect for the centre of a field in a sports stadium, but impossible to fit into the club-sized venue Prince was using for his Vegas residency. Bits of tape marked the band’s positions on the floor during rehearsals, which later relocated to Prince’s Paisley Park complex, in Minneapolis; but it wasn’t until three days before the Super Bowl itself that Prince and his band got to rehearse at Dolphin Stadium. With only three hours to work out the logistics of having the “Marching 100” Florida A&M University Marching Band enter the grounds, and to ensure the 600-plus volunteers, who had been practicing one night a week for four weeks, could seamlessly assemble and then disassemble the “Love Symbol”-shaped stage with zero delay to Prince’s performance or to the game, by the time it came to the event, Prince had only found time for one complete dress rehearsal inside the cavernous venue.

The press conference: “Contrary to rumour, I’d like to take a few questions right now”

Prince publicly announced that he would be headlining Super Bowl XLI on 1 February 2007, at a press conference held in Miami Beach Convention Center. Tradition had it that each halftime-show performer would agree to a public interview alongside that year’s singer of the national anthem – in this instance, Billy Joel. Prince, however, demurred, preferring instead to deliver a brief performance with his band – thought he would have his own fun with the journalists gathered in Conference Room C, unsure which of the day’s Prince rumours would come to pass.

“We hope we don’t wreck your ears too much,” Prince said as he took to the small stage following a glowing introduction from Don Mischer. “Contrary to rumour, I’d like to take a few questions right now.”

A single journalist had barely finished his question (“Prince, how do you feel about performing?”) before Prince launched into a breakneck version of Chuck Berry’s rock’n’roll classic Jonny B Goode. With his three-piece horn section racing behind him, he shifted gears into the Parade album highlight Anotherloverholenyohead, one of his two lookalike backing dancers, The Twinz, draping herself around him as he fired off an incendiary solo that exploded into a series of riffs that strafed The B-52’s Rock Lobster for good measure. Finishing the three-song set with Get On The Boat, from his recently released 3121 album, Prince may not have spoken much, but he answered any questions the press may have had regarding his intention to deliver the best Super Bowl halftime show in history.

The performance: “Can you make it rain harder?”

But not even Prince could have been prepared for the torrential rain that threatened to throw the whole event off course. For the first time ever, a storm marred a Super Bowl; usually, NFL organisers had access to a filmed halftime-show rehearsal which they could broadcast in the event of technical problems or freak acts of nature, but with Prince having claimed the footage for himself, the organisers no choice but to double down on the moment.

“It was like a scene from Moby-Dick,” Production Designer Bruce Rodgers later recalled for an NFL film crew. “The winds were blowing, the palm trees, and the rain was one of those Miami rainstorms that just would not relent.”

Naturally, the NFL were concerned – not just for the event, but for the safety of Prince and his musicians. But when Dan Mischer checked in on him, the star had one simple request: “Can you make it rain harder?”

With all-too-perfect timing, lightning cracked the sky as the lights dimmed in Dolphin Stadium. Unbeknown anyone at the time, a section of Prince’s stage had severed a cable during assembly, leading a brave crew member to risk electrocution as he jammed the open wires into a plug socket just seconds before Prince’s performance was due to start, holding them securely for the next 12 minutes, the unsung hero of the moment.

During his entire set, Prince looked immaculate, his doo rag not only keeping his hair in place, but also seemingly acting like a talisman against the elements. Via the television cameras at least, he seemed to be bone dry, strutting along the slippery, tile-like surface of his stage with death-defying confidence as he tore through Let’s Go Crazy in his trademark high heels. With fireworks introducing a brief fanfare from the song 1999, the “Marching 100” flooded the field for a bombastic take on Baby I’m A Star, the performance turning into an old-school soul revue as Prince rolled through Proud Mary before flashing his rock credentials throughout All Along The Watchtower and Best Of You.

Prince may have dodged the rain, but despite his own views on Janet Jackson’s “Nipplegate” controversy, he caught some flak from the self-appointed guardians of moral decency who were watching at home. While bringing his set to a close with an emotive Purple Rain, soloing on his trademark “Love Symbol” guitar, Prince’s shadow was thrown against a white sheet – a canny effect which added to the grandeur of the occasion, but which also led to a trickle of complaints from viewers who saw in it phallic iconography, as opposed to a rock icon delivering his signature song for all it was worth.

With the stadium awash in purple, and a battery of fireworks shooting towards the heavens, Prince threw his guitar to an offstage aide and raised his arms in the air, triumphant. “It was crazy,” Morris Hayes told The Ringer. “It was like, ‘Dude, you couldn’t ask for anything better than this.’”

The legacy: “A landmark appearance that will be remembered for years to come”

Performed live before 75,000 people, broadcast to 140 million more viewers at home, and racking up a production cost of $12 million dollars, Prince’s Super Bowl halftime performance was one of the biggest shows of his life. Calling it “a landmark appearance that will be remembered for years to come”, his former tour manager Alan Leeds – who had joined Prince’s employ during the tour in support of the 1999 album, and would go on to oversee every subsequent Prince tour of the 80s – also noted how the performance cemented his place among the most influential musicians of all time. “Here is an artist who hasn’t had a genuine hit record in many, many years and is still viewed in the fickle world of pop music as a major force,” Leeds told the Prince fan site Housequake.com. “If that isn’t successful strategy I don’t know what is.”

Prince’s appearance at Super Bowl XLI almost rendered the game itself an afterthought (the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17). But while commentators were still talking about its impact, Prince himself was, as ever, on to the next thing: this time, his record-breaking 21 Nights In London residency at London’s O2 Arena, for which he shipped his “Love Symbol” stage across the Atlantic, in order to set up shop in England’s capital city throughout August and September 2007.

Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to The Black Eyed Peas, Beyoncé to Bruno Mars, has performed at the Super Bowl since, but none have matched the drama – both on- and off-stage, of Prince’s legendary appearance at Super Bowl XLI. Years later, Production Designer Bruce Rodgers reflected on its lasting impact, and why the weather that threatened to derail the event ultimately made it all the more remarkable:

“To me, it’s about one guy in the middle of 100,000 people, and 100 million people on television, and it’s your moment to be Prince at the Super Bowl. And Mother Nature is dropping thousands and thousands of gallons of rain. I always thought how cool the guy is to rise up and just get stormed upon, and just bring what he brought. That was so special.”

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