There was never gonna be a totally happy ending to Maroon 5’s decision to play halftime at Super Bowl LIII. As we’ve already written about extensively at Billboard, from the moment the band accepted the gig, they’d locked themselves into being The Band That Sided With Management among much of the music industry and its sideline commentators.
From there, they were left with two choices: They could choose to use their platform to express solidarity with embattled quarterback/activist Colin Kaepernick and his cause, or, they could close ranks, keep a low profile and let their long run of radio smashes do the talking. The former would risk alienating both the league and the more conservative-leaning sections of their fanbase — and potentially even Kaepernick supporters, who would deem any gesture as too little, too late. The latter would reinforce the perception all the band’s critics had long held about them, no matter what charitable donations they make: that they don’t really care about the cause or the sociopolitical moment or really anything outside of their own perpetually prosperous career.
It probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise which route the band took. While ideologically split Super Bowl parties across the country waited in trepidation to see if Maroon 5 would take a knee during their set, the likelihood of that actually happening was about as high as Janet Jackson hugging it out with Justin Timberlake onstage in Minnesota last February. The shut-up-and-play-the-hits approach was the path of least resistance, and that’s generally been the band’s preferred terrain for the great majority of their 15-plus-year career in the spotlight. Appropriately for a group whose frontman has been a reality TV star for nearly a decade now, Maroon 5 weren’t here to make friends.
So naturally, Adam Levine & Co. kept it simple at Super Bowl LII: six songs (plus an extra two from guests), all monster hits, and no real surprises. The band no doubt anticipated that a healthy dose of fans tuning in for them would have the strongest emotional attachment to their first (and most fondly remembered) album Songs About Jane, so half the songs (“Harder to Breathe,” “This Love” and “She Will Be Loved”) came from that blockbuster 2002 set. Throw in “Moves Like Jagger” and “Sugar,” at least one of which you’ve heard at every wedding since 2014, and their most recent slice of top 40 ubiquity “Girls Like You,” and boom, you’ve got yourself a Super Bowl set. Two Hot 100 No. 1s (“Makes Me Wonder” and “One More Night”) left on the table, along with about an extra dozen other adult-pop standards? No matter: Maroon 5 played what they needed to play, got in and got out while Levine’s increasingly bared torso was still glistening.
As for the other two songs: A Squidward-intro’d Travis Scott arrived on a fireball to hype the crowd for a verse and a half of his own “SICKO MODE,” while ATLien ambassador Big Boi cruised in on a Cadillac to the strains of the Purple Ribbon All-Stars’ “Kryptonite (I’m On It),” and hopped out to spit a minute or so of his OutKast classic “The Way You Move,” alongside hook man Sleepy Brown. Aside from some mild backup jamming at the end of each song, little effort was made to integrate either guest appearance into M5’s larger set, and Levine was left with the unenviable task of trying to not look like a doofus while bouncing and swaying alongside the two rappers — neither of whom seemed particularly interested in acknowledging his presence. It was another item on the checklist marked off: Atlanta was acknowledged, hip-hop was officially in the building, now back to “Sugar.”
Did the band sound good? Yeah, the band sounded good. The setlist allowed Maroon 5 to accentuate their funkier corners, with pockets of fairly legitimate capital-R Rocking to at least inspire some gentle nods and murmurs of approval among your traditionalist relatives. “Harder to Breathe” and “This Love” remain undeniable jams of their era, and while the newer songs grate and ingratiate in equal measure, they’re so woven into the pop culture fabric of this decade that begrudging their presence would be like getting mad at Modern Family reruns on TBS. If you watched this set without any context or background knowledge, you’d probably leave halftime decently entertained, mildly confused and very slightly impressed, and then you’d forget all about all of it by the fourth quarter. And the group would probably be more than OK with that.
But of course, there’s no divorcing Super Bowl halftime from its larger context at this point, and on those grounds, well, Maroon 5 are who we thought they were. They’re not part of the movement, they’re not cooler than you think, and they’re certainly not ever going to be the band who bites the hand that feeds. They’re a highly proficient and monstrously successful pop-rock group, which they have been for over 15 years, and likely still will be tomorrow and until further notice. But when the history books are written about this moment in time, Maroon 5 should probably get comfortable with which side they’ll end up appearing on. They will be loved, but they might not be all that fondly remembered for this one.