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Maroon 5 Will Be Tolerated: On the Agreeable Blandness of the Super Bowl Halftime Act

Prominent enough to qualify for the Super Bowl gig, but inoffensive enough to risk taking it, the band will offer a handful of recognizable songs—and likely few memorable moments—when they take the stage this Sunday

Elias Stein/Getty Images

On Tuesday, in an extraordinary and borderline sacrilegious move, the NFL announced the cancellation of what is historically Super Bowl week’s single most beloved event: the halftime show press conference. From Katy Perry’s “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” to Lady Gaga’s charmingly poor spiral form to Prince cutting off the first question to play a full-band mini concert instead, it is a hallowed tradition. But these are troubling times, and the seven (!) members of this year’s superstar halftime show act, Maroon 5, are determined not to be troubling men.

“Maroon 5 has been working hard on a Pepsi Super Bowl LIII halftime show that will meet and exceed the standards of this event,” began a terse NFL press release that meets and exceeds the standards of strained, knock-kneed corporate-speak. “As it is about music, the artists will let their show do the talking.” The concern, undoubtedly shared by band and monolithic sports league alike, was that Maroon 5 might do or say something uncouth and controversial. That’ll be the fucking day.

The halftime show is a perilous and thankless gig with an ever-dwindling talent pool from which to draw: We’ve pretty much run out of classic-rock dinosaurs, Taylor Swift is a Coke girl, and Bhad Bhabie is still a year or two away from being ready. But the righteous specter haunting Super Bowl LIII is Colin Kaepernick, who remains unsigned after his 2016 police-brutality protests, a state of affairs that reportedly led Rihanna to turn down this year’s halftime gig in solidarity. Maroon 5, your consolation prize, spent weeks very publicly struggling to get anyone—Nicki Minaj? Usher? Lauryn Hill?—to join them onstage in Atlanta, mindful of the optics of a largely white L.A. rock band representing such a diverse and rap-driven city. And while Big Boi and Travis Scott have since signed on, Scott, at least, has taken heavy fire from the likes of Jay-Z and Meek Mill for doing so.

The end result is that on Sunday, Maroon 5 will very likely play “Girls Like You,” their recent no. 1 smash featuring a relatively muted guest verse from Cardi B. And they will very likely not be joined by Cardi B herself.

Maroon 5 were designed for precisely this moment. They are one of the few remaining major rock bands and pop hit-makers prominent enough to qualify for the Super Bowl gig, but also inoffensive and apolitical enough to risk taking it. They are one of the few remaining major rock bands, period. Apolitical is, to be fair, a relative term. Stringy-heartthrob frontman Adam Levine was an outspoken supporter of gay marriage, and the band’s done a goodly amount of charity work in the past 15-plus years, including this week’s extra-conspicuous $500,000 donation, alongside the NFL, to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. But rock band is a relative term, too.

The sociopolitical noise will likely drown out Maroon 5’s actual music on Sunday. This band is not quite bad enough for that to qualify as a blessing, but not quite good enough for it to be a travesty. They’ve got some jams. They’ve even got some guitars. But their genre designation is just as muddled as the rest of their impersonal persona. They’re big enough to take that stage, definitely. But they’re also small enough to still be dwarfed by it.

How truly alarming it is to reflect on how long ago 2002 was, exactly. After Levine and some high school buddies flopped with a notably Weezer-esque grunge-pop band called Kara’s Flowers, a renamed and reinvigorated Maroon 5 debuted that year with Songs About Jane, a blockbuster multiplatinum debut full of white-funk guitar strut and unconvincing bad-boy posturing. “I think I should go, the things I’ve done are way too shameful,” Levine purred on one of the songs that was not a hit single. He doesn’t get any more specific. You wouldn’t like it if he did.

This occurred in the thick of the fabled “Rock Is Back!” revolution, one year after the Strokes’ Is This It? and one year before the White Stripes’ Elephant. But Levine’s oft-shirtlessness and louche pout and blooming love for elaborate tattoos aside, these fellas were clearly soft-rock cuddle monsters to their cores: His swooping falsetto on the exquisitely wimpy “She Will Be Loved” remains Maroon 5’s purest and most pleasurable contribution to our culture. I will get goosebumps when they play it at the Super Bowl, and I will admit that to nobody. Songs About Jane is one of those uncomfortable deals where Jane is the real name of Levine’s real-life ex-girlfriend, but it mercifully can’t muster much emo-band-caliber hostility. And overall, this record is basically Justin Timberlake’s Justified (another 2002 smash) for people who require a band format and some prominent guitars to listen to pop music while convincing themselves they don’t really like pop music.

The band was rewarded, in 2005, with the Grammy for Best New Artist, one year after Evanescence and one year before John Legend. They beat out Kanye West, who took it pretty well, or who at least wasn’t pissed enough to kick Levine’s gentle hook on “Heard ’Em Say” off that same year’s Late Registration. Maroon 5 themselves somehow took nearly five years to produce a sophomore album, 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, which debuted atop the Billboard album chart, gave the band its first no. 1 single via the synth-bass kiss-off “Makes Me Wonder,” and unfortunately also includes a hella-gross song called “Kiwi” with a chorus of “Sweet kiwi / Your juice is drippin’ down my chin.” The slinky guitars and leather-jacket-with-the-tag-still-on attitude remained, but the band was clearly aiming higher or at least further, allowing you to hear a stiff slow jam like “Wake Up Call” for the ersatz-Beyoncé trifle it was.

In 2011, Levine signed up as a judge on the inaugural season of The Voice, and unlike every other celebrity to slouch in one of those swivel chairs—with the exception of his jocular rival Blake Shelton, who often derisively and a little desperately refers to Levine as “Rock Star”—he’s never left. Maroon 5’s third album, 2010’s Hands All Over, was a relative disappointment until they re-released it nearly a year later with an insidiously peppy little tune called “Moves Like Jagger,” roping in fellow Voice luminary Christina Aguilera and further cementing Levine as the only member of the band whose name or face or dental records anyone will ever recognize.

So, listen. Maroon 5 clearly beat the hell out of, say, Imagine Dragons, and for all their mushiness still boast a sharper edge than, say, OneRepublic. Overexposed, from 2012, opens with the one-two punch of “One More Night” (with a watery-piña-colada bounce that aims for Rihanna and settles for that Sia song Rihanna rejected) and “Payphone” (with another one of Levine’s earworm falsetto swoops and Wiz Khalifa in one of his more tolerable moods). By now, big-shot pop-star-whisperers—Max Martin, Shellback, Benny Blanco—have colonized the album credits, and Maroon 5 are quietly surfing the same trendy waves (EDM, tropical house, Spotifycore) as every other boldface-name act willing to subvert its own boldness to make all the right charts and playlists. I am quite fond of “Sugar,” a feather-light jam from 2015’s V, and the contrived but awfully winsome video where the band crashes various weddings. If absolutely nothing else, this band can still make you momentarily wish you lived in California.

Theoretically, then, so far as the Super Bowl goes, these fellas hit that crowd-pleasing Bruno Mars sweet spot, energetic but never too aggressive, evoking pop music’s lustrous past (Levine throws out just enough woo-hoos to remind you of Michael Jackson), and at least attempting to convince you that streaming-era pop music has a viable, innovative future. Maroon 5 are deeply uncool people just shrewd enough to occasionally sound cool-adjacent: A fun experiment is to listen to V in full and imagine it’s a Haim album, which, uh, gender aside, it might as well be. As secretly mild-mannered bad boys go, Levine is more thoughtful and magnanimous than he appears, which is preferable to the opposite. This quietly huge-ass band was due to take this conspicuously huge-ass stage. But even in the past few years, that stage has shifted, and cracked, beneath them. Even agreeably bland might somehow still be too spicy now.

Maroon 5’s latest album, 2017’s Red Pill Blues, is the work of a well-oiled seven-man (!!) machine just clever enough to name an album Red Pill Blues but not quite smart enough to anticipate how that title would be received. “We didn’t really understand the whole men’s rights thing,” guitarist James Valentine clarified to HuffPost, adding that “we are all hardcore feminists.”

That hardcore feminism resulted in, unfortunately, the star-studded and awkwardly condescending video for “Girls Like You,” a particularly drowsy example of modern rock-band wokeness. “In so many aspects of our culture, 2018 has been the year of women’s rage,” my Ringer colleague Lindsay Zoladz wrote last year. “On the radio and on the charts, though, 2018 has been the year of the benevolent-yet-patronizing women’s empowerment anthem, as imagined by men.” Indeed, “Girls Like You” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, but it’s a melancholy bit of poetic justice that they’ll likely play it at the Super Bowl without Cardi B, undercutting that benevolence entirely. The song is still a perfectly hooky ode to female strength, but that strength will now manifest as an absence, not a presence. If Travis Scott does Cardi’s verse instead, look out.

The truth is that had Maroon 5 done that Super Bowl press conference, Levine would’ve given perfectly nuanced and respectful and evasive answers to the inevitable Kaepernick questions, which naturally would’ve still infuriated everyone on all sides of the issue. Red Pill Blues is full of great-taste guest stars (Cardi, SZA, Kendrick, Julia Michaels, Future) compelled to play PG-rated versions of themselves, and reviews have not been kind. (Pitchfork: “Adam Levine’s voice is one of the most benignly ubiquitous sounds in pop. It is air-conditioning, it is tap water, it is a thermostat set to 72 degrees.”) But on Sunday, the band will play “Wait,” a song you don’t think you know but that you definitely know, and you will inevitably think, Eh, this isn’t so bad, and then five seconds later cease thinking about it at all. Thoughtfulness, of either the political or musical variety, is a liability on a platform this large in an era this volatile. The best-case scenario for Sunday’s Maroon 5 show is that nobody remembers anything about it. The odds are better than you think.