The Super Bowl halftime show has traditionally been one of the most coveted gigs in music, with speculation about which megastar will light up the game reaching Oscar-worthy levels in the run-up to the late-fall announcement.
So why did the NFL and Maroon 5 wait nearly three months to confirm that the California pop group would be taking the stage in Atlanta on Feb. 3 at Super Bowl LIII with Travis Scott and Big Boi? Billboard reported in September that M5 would headline the set, which comes mid-way through what is annually the most-watched block of TV real estate. But neither the band nor the NFL would comment on the record at the time. Or for several months afterward.
The first official confirmation from the notoriously controlling league and the radio-friendly band came on Sunday (Jan. 13), less than a month before the big game. The word finally came after months of reports that everyone from Rihanna to Cardi B, Adele, JAY-Z and P!nk had passed on the unpaid performance for various reasons, from scheduling conflicts to a reluctance to dance, and, most importantly, as a show of solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a prominent activist now best known for taking a knee during the National Anthem in 2016 in protest of racial inequality in the U.S. That move, of course, led to Kaepernick’s exile from the league and a raft of similar protests from fellow players.
In the interim, a change.org petition urging M5 to drop out of the show has garnered more than 85,000 signatures, soaking up a lot of the media coverage that would normally have been reserved for the headliner hyping what is surely a bucket list opportunity for the veteran group with a squeaky clean image.
“This is a tricky year for it [playing the halftime show] and I’m not sure what the right answer is,” says a veteran music industry source familiar with the mechanics of Super Bowl halftime performances; the source spoke to Billboard two days before the official announcement. “The announcements are always dictated by the NFL, but it’s way different this year because it’s in Atlanta — the de facto home of hip-hop — and there are issues there because of stories about how they reached out to hip-hop acts and they didn’t want to perform.”
Add to that the poor optics of two black hip-hop artists — Scott and Big Boi (born Antwan Patton) — performing in majority African-American metro Atlanta following the NFL’s roll-out of a controversial new Anthem policy before the 2018-19 season, which many saw as an attempt to silence any on-field protests. Those suggested rules, widely panned but currently on hold and yet to be enforced, would force players to either stand (and face a team fine for any display deemed disrespectful) or stay in the locker room. Together they create what the source deems a “very difficult” situation for Levine and the band members, all but one of whom are white.
“I don’t know what else they can do. If they’d known what the reaction would be maybe they would have thought twice about it, but it’s one of those feather-in-your-cap, check it off the list things. Who wouldn’t want that?” says the source. “It’s an unfortunate combination of the year and the city.”
Before Sunday’s announcement, Jeff Rabhan, former artist manager (Jermaine Dupri) and current chair of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, said he suspected that the league decided to hold off on making a formal statement as long as possible to avoid further controversy and keep the focus on the playoffs for now. “They chose an old-school way of dealing with it: just don’t talk about it and maybe it will go away,” he said. “Which doesn’t work.”
While Maroon 5 released a one-minute video on Sunday (Jan. 13) hyping the performance, they have not yet made any public statements or appearances promoting it. That’s in contrast to Scott, who told Billboard on Sunday — just before the NFL’s release — that he would not accept the invitation until the league agreed to join him in donating $500,000 to a social justice cause. Spokespeople for the NFL and headline halftime sponsor Pepsi had not responded to Billboard‘s request for comment at press time.
A source with first-hand knowledge of the discussions, however, described the long wait to announce the band’s performance as “frustrating” for all the artists, especially since most of them have been confirmed for weeks, or even months. All three acts have ties to Irving Azoff’s Full Stop Management, though neither rapper has ever appeared on a Maroon 5 album; Levine is featured on “Mic Jack” from Big Boi’s 2017 Boomiverse solo album. Cardi B, featured on their current smash, “Girls Like You,” pointedly will not be appearing with the band, but rather playing an ancillary show sponsored by Bud Light on the night before the game alongside Bruno Mars.
What explains the eerie silence from the typically amiable, press-friendly M5 front man Adam Levine? “It’s probably coming from Maroon 5’s people, who didn’t want to allow the message to get out so they had weeks and weeks of hate mail and torture,” says a long-time publicist (unaffiliated with the band) who predicts the furor will likely continue, but not necessarily stick to the Grammy-winning band with more than 20+ million in career album sales. “It’s moronic on the one hand that they’re even doing it — it’s not the biggest gig of your career when more than 50 percent of the world hates you for making the choice. I think it hurts their brand and it’s a total mistake on their part. But in the scheme of things in terms of America right now, people will probably forget it as soon as it’s over.”
What would the publicist have done if they’d been in an early meeting about the show? “I would say as a publicist we recommend you don’t do this,” the publicist says, adding that they would likely have pursued the same tactic that the band and their reps have: months of radio silence. “It doesn’t matter how huge a stage it is, there’s a bigger upside to say you passed [on it]. If it’s a done deal, though, I would say: Don’t call attention to the fact that you’re doing it, because there’s no upside to that. Just let the gig happen, let those who know know and treat it like a regular TV booking, which you might not really publicize that much.”
Levine appeared on Ellen in November, nearly a month after the news first emerged, and the singer played coy with DeGeneres during an appearance that should have been his first promotional push for the typical halftime media blitz. “It’s a great event, and there’s going to be a band performing or an artist of some kind performing halftime… and it’s going to be great regardless of who it is,” Levine said cryptically. “Whoever is lucky enough to get that gig is probably going to crush it.”
While everyone from comedian Amy Schumer to the NAACP and Rev. Al Sharpton have spoken out about the booking over the past four months, Maroon 5’s team appears to have taken the road suggested by the publicist: near-total silence. (A spokesperson for the band declined to comment on the record.)
Gaga’s appearance was announced relatively early, followed less than two weeks later with the “Shallow” singer telling Carson Daly that she wanted to “Push the Envelope” and was launching a “Guest of Honor” contest with sponsor Pepsi that December. “I’m absolutely honored to be doing the Pepsi halftime show. We’ve already been thinking of all the different ways we can make this a special experience for all the NFL fans,” Gaga said at the time. By this time in January 2017, Gaga was taking fans behind the scenes for the set she said, “I’ve been planning since I was 4.”
Even with the drama surrounding Timberlake’s return to the Super Bowl following 2004’s notorious “Nipple-gate” performance with Janet Jackson, and hot-take controversy over whether he would invite Jackson back as a sign of good faith, didn’t fully overtake the NFL’s typical “nothing to see here” narrative. Timberlake hit the late night shows to promote his halftime, joking with Stephen Colbert in late November and dropping the first in a series of BTS videos in mid-January.
Vic Oyedeji, who began the Maroon petition drive and was also behind the #NoKaepernickNoNFL petition urging people to boycott the NFL until Kaepernick was signed by another team — which racked up more than 208,000 signatures — tells Billboard he started the Maroon drive because he knows the halftime show is the highlight of the Super Bowl, regularly besting the actual game in ratings. “When Rihanna turned it down and Amy Schumer and JAY-Z spoke out I knew I had to create a petition to see what folks had to say about it,” he says. Oyedeji says he’s very pleased with the effect and the conversation he’s sparked, even after the news that the show will go on as planned.
“I have mixed emotions about it and I’m kind of disappointed that they decided to perform,” he says. “But I’m glad that that stage has now been tainted, and anyone who performs on it starting this year is — in effect — aligning with the NFL. And that’s why these artists backed down, and now it will be harder to find artists to perform. I’m very proud of that.”
“They [the NFL] got spooked by the petition and they did what they always do: they thought, ‘If [the Maroon 5 booking is] a total win for us, we don’t need the controversy,'” says Rabhan. The former major label A&R exec, who has attended several Super Bowls — including 2003’s, where former client Michelle Branch played a pre-game set alongside Santana and Beyoncé — says he spoke to a very prominent member of Atlanta’s hip-hop community before the announcement who said the NFL “didn’t even try” to make a sincere effort to reach out to the city’s large African-American music community to land a headliner who better represents the city’s rich R&B and rap history.
He also notes that he didn’t fully agree with the aim of Oyedeji’s petition. “It wasn’t asking for anything except to put pressure on them [Maroon 5],” he says. “Do they not want anyone to play? Is it boycotting Maroon 5? Because they haven’t done anything wrong here, they’re just a band in the business of performing for people. As a manager, that’s a difficult situation, because in general I believe in communicating.” When the petition first came out with its plea to Maroon 5 to take an opportunity to “stand on the right side of history” and choose the players over the league, Rabhan says the group had an opportunity to say “we support this and it’s important to us… we’re big football fans and we stand behind Colin, we support everyone’s opportunity for freedom of speech, we support the players and we’re not choosing a side.'”
What would he have counseled if he was their manager? In Rabhan’s book, getting out in front of a controversy is best policy, rather than avoidance, which he believes only stokes the fires. None of it surprises him, though, as Rabhan mentions that he’s worked with the NFL Players Association in the past at Tisch and has gotten a first-hand taste of the “iron fist” the league’s owners rule with. “By not accepting it or caving to the pressure you don’t forward the movement at all and you’re not changing minds,” he says. “But to say nothing, or not take a stand, that’s the [traditional] playbook and that’s where the NFL has gotten hurt over the years.”
The longtime producer of the halftime show, Ricky Kirshner, and the longtime director, Hamish Hamilton, as well as more than half a dozen prominent publicists who’ve worked with past halftime performers declined to speak on the record with Billboard about the glaring delay in the Maroon 5 announcement.
In light of the weekend confirmation, Rabhan sent Billboard an updated perspective on Monday (Jan. 14): “I’m glad the NFL finally realized that bringing Pepsi into Coca-Cola’s hometown was dangerous enough,” he says of the No. 2 cola brand entering Coke’s corporate backyard, and the wise decision to add ATLien Big Boi to the roster. “But not having someone from ATL’s rich musical history share the stage with Maroon 5 would force every self-respecting southerner to take a knee as well.” Additionally, a number of other prominent ATL acts will be playing Super Bowl adjacent parties during the week, including Migos, Lil Jon, Ludacris, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby and Future.
Speaking of taking a knee, Oyedeji tells Billboard he’s come up with the perfect answer for how M5 and their collaborators can rise above the noise, a suggestion he added to his petition page on Monday. “I have nothing against the band, this isn’t about them and they just got caught in the crossfire,” he says. “I’m saying the only way for them to preserve their reputation is to take a knee during their set to show the hundreds of millions of people watching their solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and the players who are protesting police brutality.”
What else could help tamp down the stigma? “A great performance with Travis [and Big Boi],” says the veteran source familiar with the machinations of halftime shows, who doesn’t expect M5 to make any statement during the show. “People are gonna hate online either way.”
Additional reporting by Jason Lipshutz.