It’s weird to hear the Super Bowl halftime show refer to itself as one of the biggest nights in music. The NFL doesn’t carry the same luster that it used to. Years of mishandling moral quandaries about players’ mental health and wellness, domestic-violence policy, and players’ right to protest have, at times, turned American football into a political battleground, more a representation of irreconcilable differences than an opportunity for a country to come together as a united front. People are souring on the game as it refuses to adapt to changing times. As viewers’ allegiances divide, it increasingly falls to the halftime special to award the night a measure of togetherness. Every year, the NFL offers up access to one of the largest television viewing audiences of the year in exchange for a moment’s alignment with A-list pop-star savvy. For a while, there was value in using the space as a bully pulpit, as Beyoncé did when she marched her dancers out onto the field in Black Panther gear and rankled a portion of the country just by being loudly, proudly black on television, and as Lady Gaga did in her disruptively LGBTQ-friendly performance of “Born This Way.” The more tenuous the league’s grasp on politics gets, the harder it is to find good talent willing to align itself with a brand that seems tarnished. This is how we get a Maroon 5 halftime show.
Now, give a hardworking SoCal rock band its flowers. Maroon 5 outstripped and outlasted nearly every other act in the sentimental adult-contemporary bro-pop wave it washed in on. Cruise the shelves of any college dorm room in 2004, and you were likely to find a copy of Room for Squares, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, or Songs About Jane, epochal slabs of note-perfect Ken doll soul that nudged a certain brand of 20th-century stoic into greater command of its emotions (or at least the appearance of it). While their contemporaries followed their muses off the beaten path, Maroon 5 stuck it out in the middle of the road, coasting on singer Adam Levine’s beautiful voice and face for television and the band’s knack for a sun-kissed melody and a dab of funk and disco. In 2019, Maroon 5 is a mercenary, almost infernally effective singles band whose successes stick with the gory determination music critics forget about when they call a song an “earworm.” The misses sound like made-for-television rom-com soundtrack music, like bad parodies of the real thing. Maroon 5 is like salted peanuts. You get a taste for ‘em sometimes, and then you get enough in your system to remember the blandness of the aftertaste.
Last night, Adam Levine was tasked with occupying the role of the biggest front man in the country, and he responded not with a reminder that his band has been firing off platinum singles for nearly 20 years, or a reminder that what first grabbed us in the Songs About Jane era was a voice so smooth that it couldn’t be denied, but with a slow, cynical striptease. The performance was light on the pleasing melisma and brash falsetto that power the band’s greatest hits and, as the night’s arsenal of sight and sound tricks unfurled, heavy on displays of the singer’s arm and chest tattoos. The show belonged to the guests. Travis Scott’s SpongeBob intro and cartoon-meteor crash landing were the first inkling that the night had bigger plans than your run-of-the-mill awards-show medley does (and even that turned out to be cribbed in part from a clever fan tweet). The marching band and gospel choir that came out during “Girl Like You” — because Cardi B declined an invitation to do her verse from the remix — blew Levine out on his own stage. Big Boi and Sleepy Brown’s brief run through OutKast’s “The Way You Move” made the marquee act’s funk feel light in the britches. The hometown hero crashing a hokey laser light rehash of “She Will Be Loved” to the tune of “Kryptonite (I’m on It)” was the coolest moment in the 15-minute spectacle.
The guests felt like saves, but they also punctuated how safe and frankly cloying of a choice Maroon 5 was for this moment. In a showcase for a league haggled by the sense that it does not value its players’ issues off the field, Maroon 5 gave the NFL the one thing it wants the most: razzle-dazzle without politics. The peace-and-love display overhead during “She Will Be Loved” was pat. The most controversial flourish was Big Boi getting an “ATL, hoe!” chant past censors. It’s fine for this band to not have a prickly political bone in its body. It’s not okay to cross a picket line and act like no one’s fighting. Maroon 5 took a gig several performers have expressed reasonable reservations about and opted to “move on from it and speak through the music.” But the music didn’t say much. The “moves” didn’t hold a candle to Jagger. Thing is, in divided times, “no comment” is a comment. Playing this show as dryly and safely as Maroon 5 did was a scab gesture. One hopes the exposure they were paid in is worth the respect they stand to lose.