Fans of Maroon 5 are no strangers to the disappointment the band can often generate with its music, so it’s unsurprising that the band’s first real foray into political controversy is similarly a letdown. That being said, there’s a lot that highly successful artists can learn from what Maroon 5 put forth Feb. 3 — a deeply frustrating halftime show at Super Bowl LIII.
When former San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick first announced that he would kneel during a performance of the national anthem at a game in 2016, the NFL initially supported him. After all, Kaepernick’s decision was a quiet protest, a symbolic display of solidarity with Black American civilians who had been killed in police shootings.
By the time Kaepernick was released as a free agent in 2017, hostilities toward the protest had only grown and festered, especially with encouragement from President Donald Trump, as he condemned the mostly Black NFL players supporting Kaepernick — who Trump referred to as a “son of a bitch.” Since his release, Kaepernick, who many argue is still a strong player with plenty to offer the NFL, has not been hired by any team.
Cut to 2018, when the NFL launched its search for an artist to headline the 2019 Super Bowl, which would take place in Atlanta — well-known as a home to many successful rappers, singers and other musicians of color. While the NFL typically doesn’t pay artists for their performances, they do offer an audience of over 100 million people and can accomodate exceptionally high production value (even with a history of technical difficulties and wardrobe malfunctions.)
Rihanna turned the gig down. P!nk turned the gig down. Eventually, so did Cardi B and André 3000, among others. While some artists cited more logistical concerns as the reason for saying no, Rihanna and Cardi B both made clear their disapproval of the way the NFL handled the kneeling controversy.
Fortunately (for the NFL), not all artists are so committed to a social and political stance. The NFL booked pop juggernaut Maroon 5 — a band so apolitical that, for a long time, its members had no idea that their latest album title “Red Pill Blues” was an unintentional reference to a men’s rights movement. Travis Scott and Big Boi would go on as supporting acts. All three performers drew immediate backlash for agreeing to do the show.
“When you look back on every single Super Bowl halftime show, people just can’t — it’s this, like, insatiable urge to hate a little bit,” lead singer Adam Levine responded when asked about the controversy. “I like to think that people know where I stand as a human being after two decades doing this.”
In a different interview, Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton emphasized that the band can “support being against police brutality against Black and brown people and be in support of being able to peacefully protest and still do our jobs.”
With their statements, Levine and Morton bring up an interesting question of how an artist should respond when their supposed social and political values conflict with their ability to continue their work. In this case, Maroon 5 answered that question incorrectly. Its latest album, “Red Pill Blues,” was certified Platinum last May. The band’s worldwide tour accompanying the album’s release has sold 96% of tickets and brought in nearly $17.5 million.
While the band already possesses enormous privilege, power and wealth, and when turning down the halftime show in no way would jeopardize the members’ careers, agreeing to the show is directly at odds with Kaepernick’s objective — an objective he gave up a multi-million dollar career for.
It’s evident that Maroon 5 really didn’t want to stir up any trouble by taking the gig. The band even tried to save face, donating $500,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in partnership with the NFL (Travis Scott and the NFL made a similarly sized donation to Dream Corps.) At best, the charitable act was a misguided effort to right some wrongs — at worst, it was a nonapology.
In some ways, Sunday’s halftime show was a manifestation of this caution — a profoundly bland, innocuous and unmemorable performance of classic Maroon 5 fare, including “Harder to Breathe,” “Girls Like You” and “Sugar.” An enormous display of floating lanterns optimistically spelled out “One Love.” One of these lanterns, interestingly enough, toted the word “kneel,” although the subtle nod was not even granted airtime. Travis Scott was introduced by a clip from “Spongebob Squarepants.” Big Boi, donning a luxurious fur coat, performed the Outkast classic “The Way You Move.”
In what seemed like a last-ditch effort to drum up some excitement, Levine stripped down for a shirtless rendition of “Moves Like Jagger.” If anyone hoped Maroon 5 might at least take a knee during the performance in a stance of solidarity, they’d be disappointed to see that the most kneeling that took place was Levine bending down to serenade a crowd of adoring fans.
In some ways, it’s a relief that the performance drew no controversy other than for being so uneventful. But ultimately, the easy-breezy performance (coupled with the cancelled pregame press conference) obscures the harmful actions that created it. Viewers weren’t forced to interpret aspects of the performance and relate them to modern events (the way that they might have in 2016, when Beyonce performed “Formation” in Black Panther-inspired dress as a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement), nor were they forced to ask why there may not have been a halftime show at all.
Maroon 5 shielded viewers from all these difficult questions, including the most important one that it was in a uniquely powerful position to reveal — why is it important that Kaepernick should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem without endangering himself or his career?
The halftime show presented a rare opportunity for the band and featured performers to educate audiences and support Black athletes in their protest against racially motivated police brutality. A platform reaching 100 million viewers is far too powerful to waste, but with its lackluster, politics-free performance, that’s exactly what Maroon 5 did.