Super Bowl XXX Halftime Show: Diana Ross (1996)

Diana Ross Super Bowl 1January 28, 1996 was a milestone date for the National Football League; football fans across America gathered around TV screens for the 30th anniversary of the Super Bowl.  The Super Bowl is, of course, routinely the biggest television event of the year in the United States; this time around, it featured the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers in an eagerly awaited matchup.  For many, this particular Super Bowl is remembered as the one that brought the Steelers’ perfect Super Bowl record (4-0) to an end, as the Cowboys clinched the victory 27-17.  For others, Super Bowl XXX is most memorable for its halftime spectacular, starring the one and only Miss Diana Ross.

Miss Ross had already appeared at football’s biggest night, singing a stellar rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XVI in 1982.  She was coming off her most commercially successful period ever at that time, following the releases of 1980’s diana and 1981’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love, both platinum smashes, and a string of major top 10 hits.  After a commercially cool period (not to mention time off to get married and give birth to her two sons), Miss Ross was back in the public eye in early 1996, publicizing her 1995 Motown release Take Me Higher.  Though not a big seller, the album did produce a #1 dance hit in the title track, and her cover of “I Will Survive” gained her a lot of traction.

The singer spared no expense in promoting Take Me Higher, clearly her most aggressive attempt at having a hit record in some time.  She appeared on several late-night talk shows, toured in support of the album, and collected several televised honors (including a World Music Award Lifetime Achievement and induction into the Soul Train Hall Of Fame).  However — there is no doubt that Super Bowl XXX gave her the largest opportunity for publicity she’d had in years.  In fact, according to Wikipedia.com’s article on the game, the NBC broadcast of Super Bowl XXX drew in 95.13 million viewers in the US, breaking the record for the most watched sports event ever on American TV, and becoming the second most-watched TV program ever.  Clearly, if ever the pressure was on for Diana Ross, this was it.

Diana Ross Super Bowl 4Considering that the Super Bowl was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 1996, it’s entirely appropriate that Diana Ross was chosen as the night’s key entertainment, being that she was also roughly 30 years into her career as a hit-maker.  The very first Super Bowl was held on January 15, 1967; at that time, the Supremes were the biggest group in the world.  Thus, Diana’s halftime performance was a collection of her hits over the years, serving as not only a celebration of her own discography, but also of hit music over the previous three decades.  Very few artists could be considered the “musical soundtrack” over a span of 30 years; Diana Ross is one of them.

Opening with a quick montage of pictures and video clips from Miss Ross’s career — and an announcer introducing “the legendary performer who has entertained millions of people around the world” — the show begins with Diana standing on a heart-stopping pyrotechnic crane, being swung high above the diamond-shaped stage and the back down again as she sings the chorus to “Stop! In The Name Of Love.”  Perhaps the biggest achievement here is that Diana doesn’t appear completely terrified for her life, although it certainly looks as if she could take a nosedive right off the crane at any moment.  Once she’s helped onto the stage by two of her several dancers, she immediately launches into Supremes hits “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Baby Love,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.”  Each song quickly segues into the next, with Diana bouncing all over the stage, interacting with her suit-clad dancers and seemingly having a ball.  The staging here is extremely impressive; the field is covered with various groups of dancers in formations captured by aerial cameras.

Diana Ross Super Bowl 2After these Supremes songs, Miss Ross flashes-forward to her RCA years, shimmering in her red mini-dress to the strains of her 1981 solo hit “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.”  It should be noted that the singer looks fantastic; her red lips match her dress and her mane of hair perfectly frames her face, and she looks incredibly trim and fit (especially considering she was about to celebrate her 52nd birthday).  That said, she’s in decent voice — not great voice.  She sounds fine as she breezes through the familiar melodies of the 60s Supremes hits, but her performances on the solo songs — especially “Why Do Fools…” and then “Chain Reaction” — reveal that she’s a little hoarse and perhaps a bit out of breath.  Rather than focus on her vocals, she was likely far more preoccupied with the visual aspect of the show, something that makes sense given the context of the performance.  Super Bowl Halftime shows, to be fair, are never about showcasing great singing; they are entertainment spectacles meant to keep energy high during the mid-game break of the football game.

After “Chain Reaction” (an interesting choice of song, since it wasn’t a big hit in the United States, although it points to the fact that the Super Bowl is more than just an American sporting event), Miss Ross begins one of her signatures tunes, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”  Her voice sounds much better here, as the singer digs a little deeper and displays some vocal muscle while accompanied by a choir of kids surrounding the stage.  Within seconds, the field at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe Arizona is being filled with robe-clad choirs, and the familiar wordless hook of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” begins.  This is a rapid fire-paced version of Diana’s first solo #1 hit, notable for the fact that by the end, Miss Ross is again precariously perched on a very small and very high platform, wearing a shimmering gold jacket that appears to stretch out for miles.  This points to the intelligence of Miss Ross in using costumes as part of the visual spectacle, in this case literally incorporating her costume as part of the set (much in the way she opened her Broadway show An Evening With Diana Ross by using her dress as a projection screen).

Diana Ross Super Bowl 3But Miss Ross is about the take the show to a whole new level — literally — by closing out with snippets of “I Will Survive” and “Take Me Higher” (from her recent Motown release) as a helicopter flies into the stadium and lands on the stage.  Her voice has moments of power, despite sounding rather hoarse again, during “I Will Survive” — she’s a little thin on the verse, but recovers on the familiar chorus.  Any shakiness can be forgiven, however, considering she’s about to sit on the edge of the helicopter and be lifted out of the stadium, making perhaps the most memorable departure of her career (after a whole collection of memorable entrances, of course).  As the chopper flies away, the show comes to an end; the entire halftime performance takes right around 12 minutes, with the singer incredibly touching on ten songs in that time, from 1964’s “Baby Love” to the two 1995 releases.

Reaction to the Super Bowl XXX Halftime Show starring Diana Ross was largely favorable, and has remained so over the years.  In 2013, Billboard Online named Diana’s halftime show as number 9 in the top 10 best Super Bowl halftime shows, writing, “Diana Ross may be one of popular music’s original divas, but the Supreme singer capped off her Halftime duties in Tempe, Arizona with a gesture so grand, it was practically absurd. Ross ended her Motown-hit-studded performance, which included ‘Baby Love’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On,’ by exclaiming, ‘Oooh, here comes my ride!’ She then flew off in a helicopter with her arms wide open, kicking up her heels ecstatically during the very appropriate finale, ‘Take Me Higher.'”  SI.com — the website of Sports Illustrated Magazine — did her one better, placing her at number 8: “Diana Ross sang a few lines from a dozen of her classic hits while making four costume changes. For her exit, she hopped into a helicopter, swung her legs out  the side and flew off into the sunset — to the strains of ‘Take Me Higher.’ Now that’s a diva!”

Diana Ross Super Bowl 5Although the show has its detractors, there’s no denying that Diana Ross succeeded from a visual standpoint.  The 12-minute performance is impeccably staged and never is there a major visible mistake or missed cue.  Considering the vast majority of halftime shows are handled by several popular music acts, the fact that this one featured only Diana Ross makes it even more impressive; she certainly shoulders all of the responsibility effortlessly.  This certainly wasn’t a great showcase for Miss Ross as a vocalist; she is capable of far better live vocal performances, as proven by some of her stellar late-show appearances during this period (especially her pair of performances on “Late Show With David Letterman,” two of her best of the decade).  However, it’s important that the show was 100% live; Diana refused to rely on lip-synching or backing tracks, which means the enormous audience was truly witnessing a live show.  The performance remains an important document of her abilities as an entertainer; after three decades of stardom, the singer was still able to rise to the occasion and captivate on the world’s largest stages.