The Forgotten History of the First Star-Laden Super Bowl Halftime Show

The 1991 Super Bowl halftime show starring New Kids on the Block was the first to feature a contemporary pop music artist. Yet it was overshadowed at the time, and remains forgotten even as it began the star-laden halftime shows to come.

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Until 1991, Super Bowl halftime shows were known for being largely dull affairs featuring college marching bands and local artists. But that changed at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Florida, as the halftime show starring New Kids on the Block was the first to feature a contemporary pop music artist. Disney, the sponsor of the show, thought putting the heartthrobs front and center would be a significant moment in the history of the halftime show.

Yet the performance was overshadowed at the time, and it remains largely forgotten now, even as it can lay claim to beginning the star-laden halftime shows of today. For one, part of the New Kids on the Block halftime show wasn't even seen live on TV, as ABC bumped the set until after the game in favor of Gulf War coverage. New Kids weren't even the most memorable musical performance of the night. Far from it, in fact, as this was the year Whitney Houston delivered a rousing take on "The Star-Spangled Banner" that would become a giant hit.

As we come up on the 10-year anniversary of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, think-piece chatter will no doubt touch on the overblown extravaganzas that halftime shows have become. Bruno Mars will probably not be able to top Beyonce's explosion of Beyonce last year, but not for lack of trying. Still, the New Kids on the Block's performance in 1991 was the start of the Super Bowl halftime's status as a pop culture phenomenon. And it's high time it got the credit it deserved, despite being overshadowed in its time.

To understand the importance of that New Kids show, one can't emphasize enough how lame Super Bowl halftimes were before then. Filled with college marching bands and kitchy tributes to time periods or deceased singers, the halftime was mostly treated as a break from the TV. But that began to shift in 1989. Late last week, USA Today argued that the 1989 Super Bowl halftime show was the big game-changer, the first halftime to try to appeal to non-football viewers. It starred a 2,000-large crew of dancers, elements of 3D TV (the red-and-blue glasses kind), and an Elvis impersonator. But "Elvis Presto" does not a starry lineup make.

Two years later, a Disney-sponsored event hoped to put the Super Bowl halftime show firmly on the pop culture map, enlisting the New Kids on the Block at the peak of their popularity. The heartthrobs would perform "Step by Step" and "This One's for the Children" alongside Disney's cartoon characters and a few thousand local kids. The crowd certainly enjoyed the show, as veritable squeals erupt when the boy band emerges to perform.

But with the U.S. in the midst of the Gulf War, ABC reckoned that the public was not interested in entertainment. Instead of showing the New Kids performance live, ABC executives decided to play an ABC News report on the progress of the US forces in Operation Desert Storm. After the game ended, then, ABC finally played a condensed version of the halftime show for those still awake. Not all ABC affiliates even bothered to do that; some turned right into their regularly scheduled programming. Yes, the first major Super Bowl halftime show was not even seen during halftime.

Those who watched and listened to the Super Bowl were far more interested in Whitney Houston anyway. Her pregame performance of the "The Star-Spangled Banner," spurred by the heightened patriotic atmosphere, is still remembered as one of the best moments in the history of live TV. Houston's national anthem was so moving, in fact, that it was released as a single and launched to the top of the charts. It would be the first time the national anthem was certified platinum.

Consider the New Kids on the Block halftime as the anti-Janet Jackson, then. Little-watched, overshadowed by bigger news, and long-since forgotten. But even the biggest extravaganzas have their humble beginnings. Beyonce and Bruno Mars and Janet Jackson just owe theirs to Joey McIntyre.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.