In defense of the sellout

Why we love to hate Maroon 5

Adam Levine rehearses with Maroon 5 for his upcoming tour
Interscope Records/Courtesy

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Nobody particularly likes a sellout — except everybody does.

Taylor Swift, Coldplay, Panic! at the Disco and even Fall Out Boy all, to differing extents, started off as something really special — they each produced a unique sound and occupied a musical niche that fans at the time desperately needed filled. Taylor Swift’s angsty country jams, a la “Teardrops on my Guitar,” were rarely on the same playlist as Coldplay’s dreamy piano ballads — think “Yellow” — because they existed for different reasons and to please different people.

The sounds were dissimilar, but both were really, really popular. Suddenly, not only did fans want more from the bands, but there were more fans, and each of them came to the table with a different idea of what the band would be. The same way mixing all the colors in a paint palette renders a dreary, almost repulsive shade of brown, the desperate attempts of a band to appeal to more and more people led to an equally underwhelming (in its lack of imagination) brand of music — and that music was pop. “Teardrops on my Guitar” quickly gives way to “Look What You Made Me Do.”

In the music industry, sellouts are those that shift away from their original sound toward the more marketable pop genre — and, as a consequence, they’re also considered lesser musicians. But the pop sellout should not be scorned for their own musical evolution, regardless of its relationship to profit, and pop artists should certainly not be viewed as musically inferior to artists from other genres.

No band captures the nature of the argument as completely as Maroon 5 — perhaps the biggest sellout in music history.

Maroon 5’s first album, Songs About Jane (2002), was in many ways akin to a jazz album — a collection of soulful rainy-day ballads and achingly slow rock jams. Its next two albums, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long (2007) and Hands All Over (2010) were both explorations of funk — the rhythms were more upbeat and Adam Levine’s falsetto was a much more prominent, almost Bee Gees-like presence no longer confined to the occasional high note.

When Overexposed dropped in 2012, the album tried — but failed — to disguise itself as a disco extravaganza, but pop anthems like “Payphone” and “Daylight” simply couldn’t hide. V (2014), meanwhile, is entirely electronic pop. There are no rebellious guitar solos or playful keyboard underscores, and the falsetto that was once a rare treat now overstuffed the album — “Feelings” being the worst culprit.

It was a slippery slope. And then, Maroon 5 hit its longtime fans with the ultimate insult: its latest single, “What Lovers Do.” Scientific calculators have been known to produce more unpredictable results than this formulaic, uncreative single.

The numbers speak to the pursuit of commercial gain that led up to the creation of “What Lovers Do.” “Moves Like Jagger” (2010), Maroon 5’s most quintessential pop track, is credited with reviving the band’s career after Hands All Over underperformed. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, “Moves Like Jagger” sold 6 million copies, while Hands All Over has only 1 million in certified sales.

It’s no wonder that the producers of Overexposed and V ditched the funk and soul of albums’ past and tapped into the marketability of pop tracks like “Moves Like Jagger.” When it came time for the band to begin work on its sixth studio album, they simply followed the money trail straight to its recent discography, including “Don’t Wanna Know,” “Cold” and “What Lovers Do.”

In other words, there is no question of whether or not Maroon 5 sold out — they absolutely did. The only question that remains is this: Should we resent them for it? There’s certainly no shortage of people who would answer wholeheartedly yes.

In an article published by Junkee, Maroon 5 is considered the standard for “complete band erasure.” Reviews on Metacritic describe V as “plastic, unreal, and a pop disaster,” and lament that “Maroon 5 the rock band is dead, or at least on life support, buried under the pop trappings.

But these accusations deny pop music its rightful credibility — the genre’s profitability is wrongfully conflated with an artist’s lack of skill.

Pop is inherently formulaic, but it is not devoid of artistic creativity — if it were, the formula would work all the time. We know, however, that this is not the case; thousands upon thousands of pop songs have been released, and only a few have made their way to the ears of listeners, let alone to the top of the charts.

Take, for example, two songs: “Leaving California” from Maroon 5’s V, and “We Are Young” from the band Fun. Given that Fun lead singer Nate Ruess co-wrote “Leaving California,” the two songs are often compared and are — structurally, melodically and emotionally — incredibly similar. Despite these similarities, “We Are Young” has 9 million in sales to the few hundred thousand of “Leaving California.” If the artist’s name isn’t the deciding factor here — Maroon 5 is considerably more well-known than Fun, yet it performed far worse — then this difference can only be attributed to the complex unpredictability of a pop track’s success.

The idea that pop music should be associated with poor musicianship is entirely false. Levine, after all, co-wrote every single song on V, as well as “What Lovers Do,” just as he did for Songs About Jane. “Don’t Wanna Know” and “Sugar” were not cranked out by a computerized algorithm any more than “She Will Be Loved” and “Harder to Breathe” were.

If anything, the vocals in V — laden with far-reaching high notes — are more difficult to perform well than those of previous albums. In terms of the guitar, drums and keyboard, it’s true that these elements are not incorporated in a traditional, easy-to-pick-out-of-the-song kind of way, but a great pop song still has a catchy beat and is based in a satisfying combination of chords. We cannot claim that these elements are inherently present in a worse way, only a different way — a way that, for better or for worse, is really, really popular.

So maybe we shouldn’t shake our fists at Maroon 5 — or at Taylor Swift or Coldplay for that matter. At the end of the day, they’re giving us exactly what we want — indulging us in a guilty pleasure — and we love to hate them for it.

Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].