Let’s just start off by saying that, even if you’re a Patriots fan, Super Bowl LIII was an outrageous dud, start to finish. In all fairness, it’s hard to really say the expectations were high going in…
Ever since Michael Jackson took the stage back in 1993, the Half Time show has grown to become the biggest musical event of the year. Over the last quarter of a century, the performances have been a mixed bag – career defining (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga), victory lap (McCartney, Springsteen,) and downright bad (Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry) – but every one… especially in modern times… has been undeniably monumental in their own way. This year, the show belonged to Maroon 5. Before they even stepped foot on their uninspired “M”-shaped stage, there was very little hope this was going to be a good one.
On one hand, it isn’t completely fair to unload on Maroon 5. We need bands like them around that more or less split the difference between rock’s integrity and pop’s marketability; they kind of act as an equilibrium. The band may not exactly fit in either category, but their success has been strikingly consistent over the past 17 years, even if they’ve almost exclusively been a “singles” act – they have 18 top-20 singles to date. Yet, somehow, they just kind of exist, do nothing particularly exceptional but provide safe radio hits, and we all just kind of except it. I mean, the band has 7 members, 6 of which are virtual no-namers to the general public.
Being so exceptionally vanilla, of course, made them a safe booking for such a diverse market, particularly at a time when the NFL continues to stare down the barrel of controversy. This year, the slot became a symbolic picket line in the music industry. Legendary artists like Rihanna and Jay-Z turned down the gig – even despite the publicity, sales, and inevitable acclaim that they’d receive – as a direct protest to the league’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem to peacefully protest police brutality. Anyone who stepped onto this stage would have undeniably faced some amount of flack for doing so.
Although it was all but a sure-thing, neither the band, nor sponsor Pepsi, nor the NFL themselves even confirmed that Maroon 5, in conjunction with guest spots from Travis Scott and Big Boi, would take the stage until the 11th hour, a clear indication that this wasn’t an ideal situation for anyone. The band turned down the traditional press conference leading up to the big game, which could only be interpreted as an attempt at avoiding any uncomfortable conversation about their decision to play. Even the legendary Roger Waters threw in his two cents and urged the group to take a knee in solidarity during the performance. This year, things were unquestionably different.
Still, the show did go on, and how it went on was painfully predictable. The band obviously stuck to their hits, particularly from their first album Songs About Jane, released all the way back in 2002 (and is probably the best one they ever made.) In fact, they kicked the show off with their first two singles, “Harder To Breathe,” and “This Love.” It felt like a ploy to try and convince the masses that they were a legitimate rock band, or at least one that’s been around for a bit, but they didn’t quite set the stage for an energetic show. There were all of the usual tricks – fireworks, lights, crowd participation – and it all felt so contrived. This is a show where artists like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Madonna put on visual spectacles, and artists like Prince, Bruno Mars, and Bruce Springsteen captivated with their presence and musicianship. Clearly, this was an act that possessed the ability to do neither.
Before the band even settled in, following a petition-honoring SpongeBob SquarePants video interlude, Travis Scott took over for an all-too brief run through of “SICKO MODE.” He is one of the biggest artists in the world at the moment, coming off one of the most acclaimed albums of the last year, and his presence was painfully needed on this particular bill. He was smart to have the NFL make a donation to Van Jones’ Dream Corps in exchange for his appearance, knowing full well they wouldn’t have much of a choice… and he held up his end of the bargain. Travis was exciting, energetic, and proved he could have conceivably headlined the whole thing, but his part was over in a flash.
Instead of keeping the energy moving, Adam Levine and Co. took us in the complete opposite direction by transitioning into his group’s latest mega-hit, the dreadfully low-key “Girls Like You.” Sure, they couldn’t have reasonably left it out of the show, and of course had Cardi B agreed to appear (she similarly refused in protest,) it would have been a great moment, but going the gospel-route was just so tactless. When done right, putting a choir into a song can be pure magic, but it did absolutely nothing for this particular one and it came across as insipid. Even letting the soloist (who was very talented!) take over so prominently just felt stale. The group’s personal highlight of the night came with their next tune, “She Will Be Loved,” (another Jane cut) which at least came across as genuine. The drones and Chinese lanterns weren’t interesting visuals, but the song did its job.
To pick the energy back up, Atlanta native Big Boi strolled onto the stage and took over with his 15-year old megahit “The Way You Move.” This was a reminder that OutKast would have been an incredible booking for this year, especially when the Super Bowl was taking place in their hometown. Nonetheless, a verse and a chorus later, Maroon 5 was back in the spotlight, this time for “Sugar.” Being one of their biggest, most upbeat hits, it was a smart, albeit obvious choice to include in their set. By the time they brought their performance to a close with arguably their biggest single, “Moves Like Jagger,” it felt like the show barely even started. There was no way they weren’t closing things out with it, and it provided their biggest opportunity for a proper surprise in the form of Christina Aguilera, featured on the hit, or …I don’t know… Mick Jagger, himself. Even just a quick strut down the stage would have been a “moment.” Instead, all we got was Adam Levine ripping off his shirt and eliciting a simultaneous gasp from every middle-aged mom across the country.
There was no way this was ever going to be “good.” The conditions just weren’t right for it, even before the band was booked. For their millions of fans, this was no doubt a proud moment, and I’m sure the many middle of the road viewers found it to be pleasant enough, but the performance was in no way remarkable. Again, fireworks and marching bands just aren’t going to cut it anymore, and that’s just about all they had. This isn’t just the biggest event of the year in music; it’s the biggest in sports, advertising, and pop culture, and there’s no room for boring. The Black Eyed Peas’ performance in 2011 was universally panned, but at least they went down swinging! Maroon 5 makes unimaginative, vanilla pop music perfect for mass consumption, and that is exactly the kind of show they put on. Unless the NFL can right some wrongs and book an act worthy of a stage of this magnitude, the Super Bowl Half Time show will not be music’s biggest event for much longer.