In 2020, Latina superstars Jennifer Lopez and Shakira headlined the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime show. Their multicultural and politically charged performance was met with 1,300 FCC complaints, adding to the growing list of Super Bowl controversies—notably, all by top female MTV veterans. This essay historicizes and analyzes the reception of the most controversial halftime shows—performed by Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez—to theorize why they became so contentious. Situating these performances within the NFL’s history and its economic incentives for inviting pop stars into the annual championship event, I combine theories of branding with studies on music’s role in creating spectacle and nationalism at the Super Bowl to demonstrate how the game and its halftime shows operate within their own “branded spectacles.” I argue that it is when the often polarizing values of these branded spectacles overlap that they become incendiary—i.e., controversy ensues when the NFL’s displays of violent, hard-bodied, hetero-masculinity, and nationalist and capitalist messaging are juxtaposed within the same mediated space as the oppositional politics of musical performances featuring marginalized bodies otherwise unwelcome into the sport itself. This research engages with important conversations about the roles of branding and music in sporting events, demonstrating that it is not merely the sights but the sounds of these artists’ bodies that has grated most obviously against the “politically neutral” image that the NFL brand and U.S. media culture more broadly, has (until recently) claimed to maintain.

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