The unparalleled, decade-defining chaos of the 2001 Super Bowl halftime show

The dizzying mash-up of artists (including Britney Spears, Aerosmith, Nelly, *NSYNC, and Mary J. Blige) set the tone for 2000s pop culture.

The dizzying mash-up of artists set the tone for the 'everything ever, all at once' vibe of 2000s pop culture

Left to right: Chris Kirkpatrick and Justin Timberlake of NSYNC join Britney Spears, and Joe Perry of Aerosmith onstage during MTV's Super Bowl halftime show. (Scott Gries/ImageDirect via Getty Images)

Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).

As you may or may not recall, Super Bowl XXXV took place on January 28, 2001. The Baltimore Ravens won over the New York Giants, the Backstreet Boys sang the national anthem, and the chaos brought forth by the halftime show was nothing we could have prepared for.

That halftime show cemented exactly how messy the 2000s would turn out to be — a revelation first teased by the everything-goes nature of the new millennium and Y2K. In fact, thanks to such a public display of chaos and pandemonium, the 2001 halftime show officially laid the groundwork for a decade that was defined by pop culture gone rogue. Frankly, we weren't ready. But in the era of dial-up internet, how were we to know?

I certainly didn't. As a 15-year-old Alice Deejay enthusiast, I thought nothing of the Super Bowl or its impact on pop culture in general. In fact, the halftime show was always a mystery — namely, I had no idea why it existed or why I should care. To me, sports existed in one realm, and music sat squarely in another. As far as I saw it, there was nothing to glean from a pseudo-concert starring a handful of artists I may or may not have listened to sometimes. In 1999, Gloria Estefan appeared alongside Stevie Wonder (cool!) and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (huh?), while in 2000, Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, and Toni Braxton performed together — along with narration from Edward James Olmos (who, honestly, deserves a halftime show unto himself). The halftime show always seemed to reach out to an unrealistically wide cross-section of music fans. But Super Bowl XXXV, fresh into a century obsessed with everything happening all the time, shed any resemblance of order. We should've known then that we were watching the confirmation of a new norm.

Left to right: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Britney Spears, Nelly and Joe Perry of Aerosmith perform during the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXV. (Brian Bahr/Allsport via Getty Images)

I mean, to begin with, there was a sing-off. *NSYNC squared off against Aerosmith, while Britney Spears, Nelly, Tremors (whomst?), and Mary J. Blige appeared to help further create an unparalleled sense of turmoil — a feeling only exacerbated by the realization that *NSYNC and Aerosmith were the headliners. Even more astounding? The show was introduced by a pre-taped sketch centered around Dodgeball (a movie from the same year that I absolutely saw in theatres). An in-character Ben Affleck amps up Aerosmith and *NSYNC to the point of body checks and shouts before the boy band runs out to the field, JC Chasez clad in the shiniest outfit to exist in this world and Justin Timberlake sans his famous curls. (How dare he.)

And the hits just kept on coming. Each artist took turns singing their latest singles, evoking the vibe of a wedding DJ who's never mixed a playlist in their life (improved only when Aerosmith was joined by Britney for their rendition of "Walk This Way," but ruined by JT and Britney singing together and reminding us all that at one point, these people dated and once wore matching denim outfits). It was dizzying.

The thing is, that mish-mash of "everything ever, all at once" embodied the decade as a whole from the way pop culture was marketed and consumed. 2001 marked the first year in which the Super Bowl was produced by MTV, which not only brought forth a union between pop music and major sporting events but also explained the TRL-like quality that defined the whole spectacle. And watching series like TRL, where all genres were represented with little rhyme or reason, often felt the same. In 2000, the hottest single of the year was Faith Hill's "Breathe," followed by "Smooth" by Santana, "I Wanna Know" by Joe, and "Everything You Want" by Vertical Horizon. Random as that already was, it paled in comparison to 2001, in which Ja Rule and J Lo, Train (Train!), Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, and Lifehouse rounded out the top five. True, top 40 has always been a buffet of various genres and artists, but 2001's mayhem was less about the array of music available, and more about the way we were expected to consume it — mainly, we were urged to listen to all of it, all the time. (Taking a skim of the NOW! tracklistings after the turn of the century is a testament to that.)

NSYNC, Aerosmith, Britney Spears, Nelly and Mary J. Blige all perform during the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXV. (Doug Pensinger/Allsport via Getty Images)

From 2000 to 2010, our relationship with music shifted dramatically. Pre-internet, listeners had to quest for artists outside the mainstream, but downloading made all types of music widely available. And this was a great thing: thanks to at-home mixed CDs and eventually iPod playlists, it got easier to branch out and collide with acts you may not otherwise have met before. But in 2001, few were ready for that. And as a result, the variety and availability and constant stream of all types of music created a divide amongst listeners.

Thanks to the constant bombardment of vastly different aspects of pop culture, you were expected to be familiar with all of it — while actively rejecting the majority of what was popular. Some of us, high on the knowledge of indie or punk bands we knew not everybody listened to yet anointed ourselves as harbingers of taste. We decided bands like blink-182 had sold out because they were successful, or we'd argue to anybody who would listen that Christina Aguilera was better than Britney because of her vocal range. You were expected to know about and have an opinion on all of this. As a teen with the (slow, so slow) internet at your fingertips, you were supposed to be fluent in pop culture while simultaneously using niche aspects of it as a means of achieving social elevation and cultural clout. Years later, I'd secretly open my heart to Paris Hilton and the Pussycat Dolls but scream about the merits of Metric to overshadow my "pedestrian" (gross) interest in mainstream music. It was chaos in the most exhausting sense, dictated not by artists or fans, but by the all-powerful (at the time) networks and labels calling the shots.

The thing is, chaos in itself isn't necessarily a negative — and, outside of the sing-off and memories of JT and Brit, it's not like this particular Super Bowl halftime show was bad. But it was deeply, truly messy. And despite the performances themselves being fine, the lack of cohesiveness made the show seem like it was organized by some dude in a "how do you do, fellow youths?" t-shirt, holding up musicians to the masses and asking, "Do you like this? Would this be fine for you?"

Left to right: JC Chasez of NSYNC, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Mary J. Blige perform during the halftime show of the Super Bowl XXXV Game. (Andy Lyons/Allsport via Getty Images)

And that messiness is a perfect illustration of 2001 and the 2000s in general. It was easy to promote everything, to market all genres, and to insist consumers make as much space on their hard drives for Lifehouse as they did for Beyoncé. Pre-streaming services, we were forced to eventually learn on our own that you can keep an open mind while respecting your musical boundaries and particular mood, and that lesson took a few years to learn. Fortunately, two decades later, we've finally come to understand that chaos isn't something that should be thrust upon us — it's something we must choose for ourselves.


Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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