Along with nearly everything else in modern American life, professional football has seen itself smack-dab in the middle of the culture wars over the last few years — but one aspect of the NFL has been at the center of controversy for much longer than that. Ever since Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during her performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show (a cultural calamity that happens to have its 15th anniversary this year), the annual performance has wavered in and out of contentiousness. But the last half-decade of Super Bowl halftime shows have gone off largely without incident. From Left Shark and Bruno Mars performing “Give It Away” with Red Hot Chili Peppers to Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake doing their respective big-spectacle things, you might think these largely unremarkable instances of mass spectacle have brought us to the era of the totally depoliticized Super Bowl halftime show.
And you’d be 100 percent wrong. This year’s Super Bowl halftime show, featuring Maroon 5, Travis Scott, and Big Boi, and set to take place in the middle of the big game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is shaping up to be an absolute mess of the NFL’s own design. Maroon 5’s participation was only confirmed on January 13. In case you’re wondering whether this could technically be referred to as “cutting it close:” Timberlake was formally announced as last year’s halftime performer a full five months before the broadcast.
The Super Bowl halftime show isn’t the only time that the entertainment world has been cutting it close over the past few months: this year’s Oscars currently face a precarious hostlessness after comedian Kevin Hart’s total self-combustion following the unearthing of homophobic Tweets that led to his pulling out of the gig. The scramble to find someone — anyone — to host the ceremony has been frantic and fascinating to follow, and the news surrounding who, exactly, would end up taking the stage at the midpoint of Super Bowl LII has similarly proven more interesting to monitor than the actual performance itself can possibly be.
A month after initial reports of Maroon 5’s involvement emerged, it was revealed that Rihanna had already turned down the gig in support of perpetually league-benched NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick. Despite reportedly being in talks to perform her collab single “Girls Like You” with the band, Cardi B has repeatedly insisted that she’d also refuse to perform in support of Kaepernick; a week after a report near the end of 2018 that Maroon 5 was struggling to find someone to appear onstage with them, Billboard reported that Travis Scott was set to make a guest appearance during the band’s presumptive performance — a decision that was widely criticzed in light of Rihanna and Cardi’s public stances and resulted in alleged backroom chats with Jay-Z, a public rebuke from Al Sharpton, and a recirculation of a 2014 interview with Hot 97 host Ebro in which Scott spoke disparagingly of Mike Brown — the teenager murdered by Darren Wilson that year in Ferguson, Missouri — and the protests that followed.
Along with the confirmation of Maroon 5’s performance, Scott’s involvement was finalized, as was Big Boi’s — a disappointment, to be sure, for the hopefuls who put their names to a Change.org request for a Spongebob Squarepants tribute following the death of show creator Stephen Hillenburg. But the mere decision to perform during the show itself — previously a silly slice of pop-culture spectacle that once sunk to the ham-fistedness of conducting an arena-wide magic trick — has become justly politicized, an act of pure self-promotion (performers don’t get paid for the gig) that stands to reflexively represent a socially clueless perspective in a socially clued-in pop cultural world.
Both Maroon 5 and Scott — who are coming off of a successful year in the pop world, each having scored No. 1 hits in 2018 (“Girls Like You” and “Sicko Mode,” respectively) — have attempted their own form of image-repair in response to the widely-perceived forced error that is playing this year’s show.
Scott has attempted to beat back some of the criticism he’s faced in recent months by insisting that the NFL donate to Dream Corps (a charity probably not coincidentally affiliated with Kim Kardashian) — but that hasn’t stopped Kaepernick himself from signaling his disdain regarding Scott’s decision to perform.
Scott has inarguably taken more heat for his decision than Maroon 5 — who have cannily avoided the bulk of public criticism by doing almost nothing at all. This week, their non-avoidance strategy took on a literal form when it was announced that they would be scrapping the traditional pre-halftime show press conference. The sole interview that frontman Adam Levine has given on the subject, to Entertainment Tonight, avoided addressing the reasons for the controversy, offering a “no haters” perspective instead: “It’s this, like, insatiable urge to hate a little bit,” he stated. “We would like to move on from it.”
Maroon 5’s music has achieved an inoffensive level of ubiquity over the last decade; their mid-tempo pop has sometimes felt as if it’s everywhere, from drugstore speakers to anthropomorphic-hamster car commercials and everything in between. This year’s Super Bowl halftime show will essentially mark the biggest stage on which millions of Americans have been forced to listen to Maroon 5 — a moment of temporary ubiquity achieved regardless of what stances they publicly take (or don’t).
Even so, Maroon 5’s halftime show performance — an unmistakable apex for a pop-rock band that’s survived myriad shifts in both genres — seems like a precipice moment in their career, and the increasingly assured potential for their halftime show to become an image-sullying moment is all the more ironic when considering the band’s proximity to hip-hop and R&B in recent years. Besides Levine’s own collaboration with West on the latter’s 2005 album Late Registration, Maroon 5 have worked with a coterie of black stars over the course of their career, from Rihanna and Cardi to SZA, Future, ASAP Rocky, and Kendrick Lamar.
“Something unique to this band is that we have always looked to hip-hop, R&B, all rhythmic forms of music,” Levine told Variety last year. “All of the innovation and the incredible things happening in music are in hip-hop. It’s better than everything else. Hip-hop is weird and avant-garde and flawed and real, and that’s why people love it.” The statement itself is very no-duh — any hearing person from the past 25 years could cite hip-hop’s guiding dominance in popular culture — but it also speaks to a deeper truth regarding the appeal that Maroon 5 have cannily courted over the years. What good is your appreciation for a culture-driven genre of music if your actions aren’t aligned with the culture itself?