What Do We Want From Maroon 5?

Rich Polk/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, Calif. 

The pop group heads to the Super Bowl in the midst of an NFL controversy they won’t address. But what’s the best-case scenario in this sticky situation, anyway?

If you hadn’t noticed, the run-up to Maroon 5’s Super Bowl halftime show performance on Sunday (Feb. 3) has been… unique, to say the least.

After taking nearly four months (!) to officially confirm the group’s long-expected involvement in the halftime show, the NFL didn’t even deign to give the headliners their own press release, instead bundling Maroon 5 with guest stars Travis Scott and Big Boi in an announcement earlier this month. In interviews both before and after the confirmation, frontman Adam Levine has basically dodged questions about the Super Bowl, and this week, the band canceled their pre-Super Bowl press conference -- a tradition for halftime performers to receive softball questions about playing the big game -- in order to “let their show do the talking.” (On Thursday night, Levine gave an exclusive pre-performance interview to Entertainment Tonight on Thursday, in which he declared, “I'm not in the right profession if I can't handle a little bit of controversy. It's what it is. We expected it. We'd like to move on from it and speak through the music.")

In the meantime, Maroon 5 and their label, Interscope Records, donated $500,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters America. Presumably, the scrapped press conference and the charitable contribution resulted from the same issue: the controversy stemming from the legal battle between the NFL and quarterback/activist Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality in America. The league’s treatment of Kaepernick and his message -- he was left unsigned following the 2016 season, leading many to accuse the league of blackballing the former star QB -- has caused some artists, including Rihanna and Cardi B, to bow out of the halftime show; others, like Jay-Z, have denounced the Super Bowl platform; and Scott wouldn’t even commit to the performance unless the NFL donated a sizable amount to a social justice organization.

That leaves Maroon 5 in a situation for Sunday night where they will likely play their latest smash, the Cardi-assisted “Girls Like You,” without their star collaborator in tow. The pop-rock group, which has spent its entire career remaining effectively inoffensive and crowd-pleasing enough to command pop radio, has now become the unlikely eye of this storm. The yearly dose of Twitter snark toward any given Super Bowl halftime act would likely have been there for the band regardless, of course, but it’s now spiked with a controversy that has been addressed and legitimized by many of the band’s fellow A-listers.

For any artist, this moment should be a coronation: Headlining the Super Bowl halftime remains the most sought-after (and most-watched) performance in modern music, and is reserved only for superstars with the greatest mainstream sway. In this sense, Maroon 5 is practically tailor-made for the Super Bowl: they’ve got 15 years’ worth of hit singles, a run that goes up to last year’s Hot 100-topping “Girls Like You.” They’ve got a chameleonic ability to change their sound alongside evolving music trends without overreaching, and they boast a frontman who’s instantly recognizable, wildly handsome and a TV pro thanks to a long-running reality show.

They’re not “cool,” but this is not Coachella; this is a network television event, designed to be safe and mildly exciting for youngsters and oldsters alike. The important thing for the NFL’s sake is that Maroon 5 could rifle through a dozen different songs during their allotted time on Sunday night, and millions of viewers of all ages would happily (or unhappily) be able to hum along with every one of them while loading up on more buffalo chicken dip.

In another year, under different circumstances, Maroon 5 would be such an agreeable halftime choice that the week leading up to the big game would be downright dull, not to mention by the book. But now, performing at halftime has become such a thorny issue that, in light of the press conference cancellation, the band appears to simply be keeping its head down in order to get through this experience unscathed, while also making a charitable donation that should be commended (and will likely serve to deflect some criticism). It’s an admittedly awkward approach… but what else is Maroon 5 supposed to do?

The band could always address the elephant in the room ahead of the halftime show, and speak about their decision to accept the Super Bowl amidst the Kaepernick controversy. But the truth is, Maroon 5 waxing poetic about Colin Kaepernick, race relations and police brutality in America is a no-win situation. There is absolutely nothing the group could say to explain their participation in this year’s halftime that would satisfy all onlookers, or even a majority of them.

Such is the bind of performing on the biggest stage in the world. The Super Bowl halftime show is a place for mass appeal, not nuance, and little productive would come of Maroon 5 attempting to unpack such a complex issue within such a charged social atmosphere -- particularly while their still-scheduled performance remains at the center of it. Maybe a band more overtly political would be bold enough to tackle such a weighty topic… but Maroon 5 has never been that band, and they’re not going to become one now.

Similarly, the group making some sort of grand statement during the actual halftime show -- like taking a knee mid-song -- would almost certainly come off as superficial, and would definitely be interpreted in ways the band never intended, not to mention memed into oblivion. Pro-Kaepernick football fans would be gleeful as league officials watched on in horror, but given the band’s history, this is not the crew to pull off something this brazen without also seeming clumsy in the process. It’s too late for Maroon 5 to pull out of the halftime show, and because time-travel doesn’t exist, it’s impossible for them to have never accepted the gig in the first place. That’s ultimately what the Twitterverse seems to want from them, though -- to have declined the invite, and to let another, likely more openly conservative artist take center stage.

But for better or worse, this is the choice that Maroon 5 has made. No matter what songs they play or how well they perform, the band’s Super Bowl halftime show will forever carry a specific context for a certain population. Any future political gesture, or attempt to re-brand as “woke,” will be met with at least some eye-rolls, and accusations of being the headliner that crossed the halftime picket line when others would not. For some, the biggest performance of Maroon 5’s career will always carry an asterisk.

And for Maroon 5, that’s not a terrible fate. They’ve endured years of social media swipes -- again, they are not cool, nor have they ever been! -- on their way to being one of the most commercially successful artists of the century. They don’t need to re-brand to continue producing radio smashes, and the majority of their fan base won’t be impacted if they deliver a statement-free set on Sunday night. Whatever snark or scorn is coming Maroon 5’s way from a resoundingly apolitical Super Bowl set is a downpour the band can handle, and we will all move on, likely to focus on whoever accepts next year’s Super Bowl gig.

Maroon 5’s best path forward seems to be exactly the path they’ve chosen, then, of gritting their teeth through any backlash and treating the halftime show as business as usual. In the end, Maroon 5 seems keenly aware that what we want is too late for them to give.

Super Bowl 53


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