Despite promises to “honour social justice”, Maroon 5’s Super Bowl Halftime performance is surprise-free, trite, and soulless

The Adam Levine-led band were joined by Travis Scott and Big Boi

There are many reasons why you wouldn’t turn down the Super Bowl halftime show. It’s billed as “the biggest show of the year”. It’s watched by hundreds of millions of people in the US alone and talked, written about, and dissected by many more all over the world. For an artist, it is priceless promotion and a crowning moment in anyone’s career.

In 2019, though, there’s one big reason why you might think twice about accepting such a prestigious booking. Just ask Cardi B, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and reportedly several other high-profile artists who are all said to have been approached to either headline or appear as guests at the sporting event but said no. That’s because of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose name you probably know not because of his football skills, but for the thing that has effectively halted his career on the pitch: standing up for what he believes in.

A quick recap: Kaepernick was the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem before games, starting to do so in 2016. It was his way of protesting police brutality and racial injustices across America or, as he put it in 2017: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” Other players began to join him, provoking the ire of Donald Trump and other conservatives. The NFL supported the players at first before doing a U-turn so hard they introduced a short-lived policy to fine those that protested on the pitch. Kaepernick hasn’t played a game since 2016 and has accused the NFL of colluding against him to stop him being offered a contract from any team in the league.

Look hard enough and you will always be able to find someone who is willing to sign up for something regardless of controversy. In the case of the Super Bowl, Maroon 5 are that someone – this year’s halftime performers, who reportedly struggled to find anyone to guest with them, until they bagged Travis Scott and Outkast’s Big Boi. The band and Scott have both given sizeable donations to good causes in the run-up to the event, presumably seeing that as some act of absolution, while Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine told Entertainment Tonight ahead of the game: “I’m not in the right profession if I can’t handle a little bit of controversy.”  

In the same interview, the singer promised to “honour social justice” in their performance and made some statements that were akin to saying they would let the music do the talking. Perhaps they were planning to drop in a pointed cover, end their performance by taking a knee, or do something completely unexpected and make an incredibly obvious political statement in one way or another.

Or perhaps not. For all his talk of the music being “the spectacle” and “speaking through the music”, their performance doesn’t say much at all. It’s awkward and lacklustre, completely lacking the soul you’d expect from someone who’d talked it up as the most excited they’d ever been. Of course, it doesn’t help that the majority of the songs in the setlist are cloying, saccharine pop, itself hardly likely to make you feel much at all. ‘Harder To Breathe’ segues unnoticeably into ‘This Love’ ahead of Spongebob Squarepants heralding Scott’s arrival in a cartoon fireball. The rapper’s moment in the spotlight is most notable for the amount of ‘Sicko Mode’ that was censored out.

‘Girls Like You’ brings a gospel choir and marching band, while ‘She Will Be Loved’ perhaps features the moment honouring social justice, if you can call it that. Lanterns float up into the sky during the song, spelling out “one love”. As far as gestures go, it’s unremarkable at best, completely void of any impact at all. Moment over, Big Boi appears on the pitch in a car before striding on stage in a giant fur coat to do Outkast’s ‘The Way You Move’ in yet another decidedly average point.

After ‘Sugar’, Levine takes off his vest (the whole performance has been like a whole, slow, top-half-only striptease that nobody asked for) to leave him shirtless for set closer ‘Moves Like Jagger’. This is perhaps the most awkward moment of the whole thing – the topless frontman lightly thrusting his way through the track with nowhere near enough swagger to pull it off, as the unfathomably enthusiastic crowd below reach their hands towards him. Unlike Janet Jackson, whose infamous “nipplegate” incident saw her turned into a pariah, he will likely not face any consequences for this move, despite it being as welcome as a kick to the face. It’s a relief when Maroon 5 eventually leave the stage, not least in case Levine starts removing any more clothes. 

Before the night got underway, Levine had pointed out people’s “insatiable urge to hate” the halftime performance and, by extension, the performers involved. Maybe there’s some truth in that but, in Maroon 5’s set, he’s given the world an easy target – one that’s boring, trite, and saying absolutely nothing of any value whatsoever.