Months of controversy surrounding this year’s Super Bowl halftime performance coalesced Sunday night into a Maroon 5-led set that had all the pomp and circumstance of a slowly deflating football. Brief appearances by rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi — and an even briefer tribute to late SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg — added little to what will likely go down as the most joyless and inconsequential halftime gig since the game began incorporating pop acts almost three decades ago.
The show was the end of a months-long lead up that saw Maroon 5 allegedly try and fail to book more exciting acts to join them on stage — including their “Girls Like You” collaborator Cardi B, who declined, citing the league’s continued blackballing of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial injustice; he then found himself unsigned, and is currently pursuing legal action against the NFL and its owners for preventing him from playing.) Adam Levine and company were eventually able to entice Scott and Big Boi, who both accepted the band’s invitation despite the messy politics surrounding it all. (As part of his announcement — and as a likely way to deflect from the criticism surrounding his decision — Scott and the NFL donated $500,000 to a nonprofit organization, Dream Corps.)
Despite recent standout halftime performances from Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, the NFL certainly didn’t mind playing it safe this year. In Maroon 5, the league found as bland and inoffensive a global act that you can recruit for a show this size, all while skirting any heavy political implications. The band spent the last few months ducking questions about their participation, despite continued protestations from Kaepernick’s supporters. In his lone softball interview leading up to the show, singer Adam Levine preferred to side-step any mention of Kaepernick, instead going for a milquetoast, we’re-just-here-to-play-music strategy. “No one thought about it more than I did,” he told Entertainment Tonight, about his decision. “I spoke to many people, most importantly though, I silenced all the noise and listened to myself, and made my decision about how I felt.”
Levine also threw in a “no haters” policy for good measure. “You know, I think when you look back on every Super Bowl halftime show, it is this insatiable urge to hate a little bit,” he added. “I am not in the right profession if I can’t handle a bit of controversy. It is what it is. We would like to move on from it and speak through the music.”
But it’s hard to speak through your music when you’re treating it like a 3 a.m. karaoke bar session.
Stepping out onto a stage shaped like a giant M, the band opened with an uninspired take of their 2002 debut single “Harder to Breathe” before transitioning into the fun but sleepy fellow Songs About Jane cut “She Will Be Loved.” The studio versions of each track have aged relatively well, but the Super Bowl takes sounded muddled on stage, with Levine’s nasal, high-pitched tone struggling to break through the noise.
Things looked like they might pick up with the long-rumored SpongeBob tribute, as Squidward made a cameo via the famed “Band Geeks” episode of the show. (The tribute came following a Change.org petition that asked for the NFL to honor the show’s creator, who passed away in 2018.) But Travis Scott crashed any hope of an extended SpongeBob appearance, as the Astroworld MC made his intro into the stadium via fiery CGI meteorite to perform a heavily censored, auto-tuneless version of No. 1 hit “Sicko Mode.” An appearance by former OutKast member Big Boi, who rolled onto the stage in a Cadillac (sans fellow dope boy Andre 3000) to sing “Kryptonite” and Speakerboxxx cut “The Way You Move,” was a welcome addition, but, like, Scott, he was ushered out as quickly as he came in to make way for more Maroon madness. The group then returned, closing out with cuts “Sugar” and “Moves Like Jagger,” as a shirtless, glistening, tattooed Adam Levine stood center stage. It was supposed to be a crowning end to a major performance. But it’s hard to pull off Mick’s dance moves when it looks like you’d rather be anywhere else.