Here’s why Usher should headline the Super Bowl halftime show
The R&B superstar has done nearly everything. Except this.
One of the big questions of the NFL season will be answered later this month when the league and its partners Roc Nation and Apple announce the halftime performer for Super Bowl LVII. While several names have been offered up as contenders for the Feb. 11 event in Las Vegas, one stands above the rest: the current King of Sin City, Usher.
Following a lackluster 2019 show headlined by Maroon 5, the NFL has emphasized its need for the highest levels of entertainment for one of the most-watched annual concerts in the world. In 2020, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira headed up the show that featured a host of Latin music stars such as J Balvin and Bad Bunny. Two years later, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were joined by Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and 50 Cent in Los Angeles for the Emmy-winning halftime show. And last year, Rihanna’s set became the most-viewed halftime performance in Super Bowl history. Even beyond the success of his current Las Vegas residency, Usher makes the most sense to perform during football’s biggest night. Not only is he a popular legacy act, he’s in the second prime of an already legendary career.
“There are so few artists who have the stage and performance experience, the all-around multi-entertainer experience that Usher has in 2023,” said music industry veteran and New York University professor Naima Cochrane. “There’s just not a lot of people who can tout his career stats or longevity. The fact that [the Super Bowl] would play to multigenerations, which I know is another thing the league looks for, is important.”
The timing is also fortuitous. Usher will celebrate 30 years in the industry next year — and 20 since his landmark album Confessions dropped. Kicking off the year on one of the most viewed stages in the world — in a city he currently dominates — would give the world a glimpse of a career that has few peers.
The most obvious reason Usher and this season’s Sin City Super Bowl makes sense is proximity. Usher has put on two residencies in Las Vegas, starting with his original show at Caesars Palace in July 2021, and his current MGM endeavor, My Way, The Las Vegas Residency. Based on data reported to Billboard Boxscore, the only tour of Usher’s that outgrossed his current residency was his OMG Tour in 2010.
“It has made more money than The Truth Tour, which supported Confessions,” said Eric Frankenberg, the senior charts/data analyst of touring and global music at Billboard. “That My Way residency, which has now played 59 shows, has made $64 million and sold about 290,000 tickets. Often, when artists come to Vegas, even with an established residency, it’s for five or six shows or eight or nine shows. It really illustrates how big of a success this has been for MGM that they asked him to play so many shows across a whole month at Dolby Live.”
Where Usher ranks all-time in Las Vegas residency history has yet to be decided. He’s been there two years. Artists such as Celine Dion, Elton John and Britney Spears had longer stays.
“On a per show level, he’s selling at the rate a lot of those people did,” said Frankenberg. “It’s really just a matter of how he wants to plot his touring career over the next few years.”
If the early 2000s is seen as the apex of Usher’s career, then what he has accomplished post-pandemic must be considered a second peak. The “Superstar” challenge — based on his 2004 classic record of the same name — was a social media phenomenon in 2021. His Tiny Desk Concert, aired in 2022, has 18 million views, making it one of the most watched in NPR Music’s history. Aside from the ticket sales, Usher’s Las Vegas residency has produced a plethora of viral moments after he serenaded A-listers such as actor Issa Rae, media personality Kim Kardashian, actor Keke Palmer (who co-starred with Usher in the video for “Boyfriend” following the controversy with her real-life boyfriend Darius Jackson), actor Taraji P. Henson, and rapper Saweetie, to name a few.
“Very few artists — and Stevie Wonder comes to mind because he’s one of my all-time favorite artists that have been able to transcend the teenager phase — Usher is one of the few artists to make that seemingly effortless,” said Gail Mitchell, Billboard’s executive director of R&B/hip-hop. “You never know the whims of music fans, but they stayed with him. I think the reason they stayed with him — the reason they stayed with Stevie — is because they’re already innovative. But they’re constantly looking to try new things, elevate themselves, and tackle new challenges.”
“You don’t see artists have later career runs like this, but it’s been cool to see with Usher,” said Dan Runcie, founder of Trapital, a newsletter on the business of hip-hop. “He’s always been in the mix and now it’s dope to see him a bit more in the legacy phase. So many people grew up on him and they still love his music — and he’s still able to perform at a very high level. Only a few artists have been afforded and given the deserved luxury to be in this kind of position.”
That’s why Usher and the Super Bowl makes so much sense. Yes, the Las Vegas connection is the most obvious. But to have Usher’s continued star power and relevancy at the NFL and Roc Nation’s disposal can’t be undervalued. Super Bowl halftime performers have generally been acts with massive crossover appeal, which comes from having a deep catalog, often spanning generations, and can command complete attention for the entire time they’re on stage.
Usher checks all of those boxes.
“Some might argue, ‘But the residency stage is an intimate experience.’ Whatever. Usher can do spectacle,” Cochrane said. “He can blow it up. Look what he did for the Global Citizen Festival [in Ghana last year]. That’s a stadium-size stage.”
For Mitchell, the thought of one of R&B’s all-time greats checking off one of the few boxes left in his career feels obvious. Especially this year.
“The songs sound just as good now as they did then, so that captures a lot of people’s eyes. L.A. Reid’s consulting him [at his residency]. So I can imagine the two of them with their heads together already if this happens — pulling off what I think would be a really cool chapter in the history of the Super Bowl,” Mitchell said. “Because when you break it down, I don’t know how many more people are out there.”
Of course, the NFL, Roc Nation and Apple have other options. Many boast legitimate cases to grace the stage in Las Vegas, but some come with baggage.
“Oh, they’re not putting Morgan Wallen on that stage,” Runcie said, referring to the country music superstar’s racist remarks in 2021.
“We keep talking about how hip-hop hasn’t had a big year this year, but I feel like no one music artist has really had a massive [year],” said Cochrane. “Unless you’re going to go with Bad Bunny. He could do it, but he’s too new.”
Then there are other names: Olivia Rodrigo, Dua Lipa or Harry Styles. All of them have had successful years, but none have Usher’s catalog (Confessions alone sold more than 10 million copies). Rapper Lizzo was in the running, but was reportedly dropped from consideration after she was accused of harassment and creating a hostile work environment by three of her former dancers. Beyoncé has already done the halftime show twice. Roc Nation founder Jay-Z is a curator for the event. Then there are rapper Drake and singer Taylor Swift.
Both tout catalogs that seem tailor-made for events of this magnitude. But with the Super Bowl being in New Orleans in 2025, and Drake’s ties to that city (re: rapper Lil Wayne), he seems more suited to help create a classic in the bayou. As for Swift, whose Eras Tour is set to gross more than $1 billion, scheduling appears to be the biggest monkey wrench. Swift is playing the Tokyo Dome from Feb. 7-10. The Super Bowl is on Feb. 11.
“We’ve definitely seen some changes since Roc Nation took over. I think that would lend itself to Usher performing,” said Runchie. “Usher is probably someone that without Roc Nation’s involvement, you may not have seen it, if it does end up happening.”
The Super Bowl halftime show has generated a bevy of discussions over the years — from obsession to controversy to a proverbial picket line involving race matters. What’s never been up for debate has been how massive the stage is.
“Even if you don’t care about the game, the idea of what the Super Bowl means demands a live watch,” said Cochrane. “You know there’s going to be a big moment. You know it’s going to be something special. You know it’s going to be something that you probably haven’t seen or presented in a way you haven’t seen done before. And it just doesn’t hit the same if you can’t be part of the conversation immediately. That’s why the halftime performance matters.”