Thanks to Maroon 5’s remarkably innocuous headlining performance at Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII halftime show, the pleasant but largely forgettable halftime shows by Timberlake (at last year’s Super Bowl) and Coldplay (at the 2016 game) almost seem like powerhouse displays of musical greatness by comparison.
Taking the stage at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the second-lowest scoring first half in Super Bowl history, Maroon 5 — led by singer Adam Levine — quickly reinforced that this is a band which happily embraces pop music, for better and (more often) worse.
Or as Levine noted in a 2010 Union-Tribune interview: “Pop music has never been a bad word to any of us. We’ll continue to embrace it, continue to do it, unapologetically, and just continue on. There is a lot of ‘catchiness’ and ‘pop-iness’ in a lot of our songs, but we’ve worked really hard on every single one of them. We don’t overlook anything.”
But there is a world of difference between making slick, sleek songs that are undeniably catchy, rather than slick, sleek songs that also have purpose and undeniable musical and lyrical depth.
One need look no farther than Prince’s galvanizing performance at the 2007 Super Bowl to see how the combination of great songs and stagecraft can result in a halftime show that is simultaneously entertaining and exciting, uplifting and provocative, imaginative and inspirational.
Of course, it’s unfair to ask any act — let alone one as vanilla as Maroon 5 — to rise to Prince’s level.
But Levine and his band were so bland and inoffensive Sunday that no amount of pyrotechnics could disguise just how empty their 13-minute performance was. The only real fireworks were, well, the real fireworks that shot into the air at the end of halftime show.
This held true with or without the fleeting cameos by Outkast co-founder Big Boi (with an assist from Sleepy Brown) and Houston-bred hip-hop star Travis Scott, who performs his own show Monday night at Pechanga Arena San Diego.
Scott and Big Boi were a late addition to Sunday’s halftime show. The performances of Scott's “Sicko Mode” and Outkast’s ebullient “The Way You Move” might have provided a boost, but they were each dispensed with in a minute or less.
Why? So that Maroon 5 could zip through truncated versions of such hits as “This Love,” “Sugar,” “She Will Be Loved” and the show-closing “Moves Like Jagger,” which was preceded by Levine removing his tank top. (Clearly, the Janet Jackson-inspired “no bare nipples at the Super Bowl halftime show” rule only applies to female performers.)
In its recorded version, “Girls Like You” memorably teams Maroon 5 and Cardi B. On Sunday, she was replaced by a gospel choir after she turned down an offer to perform at the halftime show.
Cardi B did so to show her support for now-unemployed San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked a national controversy during the 2016 NFL season. That controversy stemmed from his taking a knee while the national anthem was played before each game, in order to demonstrate his opposition to racism and police brutality against people of color.
“I (had) to sacrifice a lot of money to (not) perform,” Cardi B told the Associated Press. “But there’s a man (Kaepernick) who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him.”
Scott, meanwhile, only agreed to perform earlier this month after the NFL joined him in making a $500,000 donation to Dream Corps, a charity founded by CNN commentator Van Jones "to inspire action, serve justice and improve people's lives.”
And Maroon 5 got Sunday’s halftime show headlining slot only after several other major acts — reportedly including Rihanna, Jay-Z and Pink — declined to perform out of solidarity for Kaepernick.
Tellingly, the annual Super Bowl week press conference by the halftime show headliner was canceled this year, the better to help Maroon 5 and the NFL impersonate an ostrich and dodge any uncomfortable questions about potentially controversial topics like, you know, race.
Eager to quell any such charged issues, the Super Bowl telecast included the words and images of Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech.
Moreover, the NFL had King’s daughter, Rev. Bernice A. King flip the coin to decide which team — the Los Angeles Rams or the New England Patriots — would receive the opening kickoff. Standing next to her on the stadium field was fellow civil rights pioneer John L. Lewis, the 17-term Representative for Georgia's 5th congressional district, and Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Their presence lent a welcome air of dignity and gravitas to the game. Earlier on Sunday, Ava DuVernay, the director of the Oscar-nominated 2014 film “Selma” — which chronicles King, Lewis and key events in the civil rights era — announced she was boycotting the Super Bowl. “to watch this game is to compromise my beliefs,” she wrote on her Twitter page. “It’s not worth it. #ImWithKap.”
From the NFL’s point of view, then, Maroon 5 was a very safe bet — a well-oiled, multimillion-selling pop hits machine guaranteed not to create any controversy, or much of anything else.
By that standard, mission accomplished and a question raised.
Namely, where is Katy Perry’s left shark from the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show when you really need it?