Maroon 5 avoided the sophomore slump with 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. However, the title implies something looming on the horizon that’s never to be reached, and that wordplay describes how their slump would materialize. It would be the gradual decline in the quality of their work, as they stuck to a consistent formula—three to four-minute upbeat pop songs perfect for radio—and innovated in all the wrong ways.
In an interview with iHeartRadio to promote the release of Maroon 5’s sixth LP, Red Pill Blues (2017), frontperson Adam Levine affirmed something he’d said in the past: “Between each album, if you don’t piss off a small portion of your fans, you’re not evolving enough.” This statement reinforces the image that Maroon Five often seek to portray: that they’re a “real band”.
In the past, Levine has expressed dissatisfaction with the “general perception” of Maroon 5 as a “manufactured pop act”. A Billboard cover story both confirmed and denied this idea, as Maroon 5’s marketing manager confessed to the various ways that the band stages photoshoots and videos to emphasize that they are, in fact, a “real band”. However, Levine also reminded readers that the band members met in high school and wrote their own songs. They’re not a group jumbled together by music industry forces, so it seems that they chose what they do, and they chose each other.
Whether or not Maroon 5’s posturing as an authentic group of creators is an act, the existence of doubt indicates something about the market gap they fill. All music acts, especially in the 21st century, are commercial entities, the caliber of their artistry—or lack thereof—notwithstanding. Any music act that makes it as far as Maroon 5 is bound to face this criticism because to make it to the top of the charts, an artist needs to make at least some concessions to capitalism. Although they started as an indie punk garage band called Kara’s Flowers, Maroon 5 evolved to fit into an era where sleek, commercialized pop that’s nearly devoid of personality dominates airwaves.
Using this strategy, Maroon 5 survived the emergence of pop-rock in the early 2000s that served as their genesis. They weathered its retreat and resurgence in the early 2020s with the emergence of 2000s nostalgia. They’ve also endured an onslaught of boyband crazes throughout the 21st century (NSYNC, One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer).
Maroon 5 accomplished this by positioning themselves as adjacent enough to boybands to remain relevant (one reviewer called Maroon 5 a “boy band in disguise”). They also presented themselves as mature enough to offer a reprieve from corporate-birthed teen pop. As a result, they’ve remained on the charts consistently for almost 20 years, with four number one hits sprinkled evenly across those years. In 2010, Levine said, “You get to a point where you can outlive your criticism, and I think we’re starting to turn that corner now”.
On It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, Maroon 5 revealed the shrewdness of their strategy for world domination. The album capitalized on the Top 40 appeal of their debut, Songs About Jane (2002), which, although viewed as a reference point for their original rock-influenced sound, was actually a centrist makeover of the band’s true debut five years earlier. In 1997, before they were a quintet, four members of Maroon 5 released an album called Fourth World under the name Kara’s Flowers.
On this album, the band works through pop-punk growing pains and crafts pop hooks hidden behind the strong electric guitar and quirky lyrics. Fourth World preempted the emo sound that would characterize the next decade. Songs like “Myself” deviate slightly from pop songs’ typical verse-chorus bridge structure, with the chorus only surfacing twice and a long bridge separating them.
Although these qualities strengthen the song, they don’t prime it for mass consumption. Levine laments, “I have told / All of my enemies / Very politely / To go home”, displaying wit that would fade throughout Maroon 5’s work. Why? Because they erased from their narrative the idea that they have any enemies at all (except for the people who don’t think they’re a “real band”). After being dropped by their label, the new passion of Kara’s Flowers became creating songs that would blend into the background of pop in the most innovative way possible. This process began as soon as they became Maroon 5.
Levine asserts Maroon 5’s integrity as musicians and songwriters. However, the group still fits the commercialized mold of contemporary music acts because they base the evolution of their sound on what will receive the most radio play, among other capitalist qualifications. Their pivot to slick synthpop on It Won’t Be Soon Before Long (which refined their already radio-friendly songs) was not just a response to the success of Songs About Jane. That said, it certainly grew that success. Considering this transition had already been underway, Maroon 5’s embrace of space-filler pop—which occupied radio space alongside Beyonce, Rihanna, and Adele—was actually a strategy for global domination.
The perceived weaknesses of It Won’t Be Soon Before Long function as strengths, alongside the album’s other positive attributes that immediately read as strengths. For example, the single “Makes Me Wonder” features some of the band’s strongest hooks. It kicks off with a shimmering guitar riff before exploding into a chorus that showcases Levine’s ease with his strong falsetto, alongside his ability to mold it around an earworm combination of notes. The second part of the chorus—where Levine sings, “But I don’t believe in you / Anymore, anymo-o-ore”—serves as a secondary hook. Here, the listener volleys back and forth between the introduction of the falsetto and the quick 1–2–3 punch that stretches out the word “anymore”. However, the album’s weaker moments, its ballads, also serve a purpose.
When viewed in the context of Maroon 5’s plan to create increasingly accessible albums, the ballads of It Won’t Be Soon Before Long serve as strategic fillers that, through their lack of uniqueness, draw attention to the record’s raison d’etre: its singles. First, it must be said that none of the ballads on It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, nor any of the ballads on following Maroon 5 albums, are as strong as “She Will Be Loved”, a single from Songs About Jane.
Although the song revolves around a cliche (“Beauty queen of only 18 / She had some trouble with herself”), the line “I know that goodbye means nothing at all” grounds the song as a thesis statement. Its chorus supports this argument, as Levine vaults into a falsetto on the words “She will”, which encapsulate the narrator’s longing, and falls to a low note on “loved”, which captures his pain. The song’s unique statement about the futility of separation and the endurance of pain and connection helps it function as an ideal pop song. It creates genuine meaning through broad, accessible generalizations.
Maroon 5’s following work wouldn’t accomplish this. Instead, their ballads resemble skeletons of meaningful pop songs whose hollowness performs a different, covert purpose: allowing the spotlight to remain on the commercially accessible songs. Even the genuinely earnest ballads on It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, “I’m Not Falling Apart” and “Won’t Go Home Without You”, while musically noteworthy, don’t tell unique stories. “It’s not over tonight / Just give me one more chance to make things right”, Levine croons in “Won’t Go Home Without You”. Another way to tag that quotation would be to say every man in a romantic comedy.
By crafting bland ballads that only serve to check off the “slow song” box, rather than expanding on the album’s (arguably nonexistent) narrative, Maroon 5 revealed the cultural gap they intended to occupy. Their origin story resembles a teen movie: four teenagers form a band to impress a girl and name the band after her. Hence the name Kara’s Flowers. Then, they drive cross-country to enroll in college—and impress her—and eventually name an album after their new muse, Jane.
The cover of Songs About Jane features an illustration of a figure that resembles both Pandora opening her box and Medusa. This allusion to mythology captures the male gaze through which Maroon 5 have portrayed its subjects since its inception: with wonder, longing, curiosity, pity, and anger when they deem their muse worthy of scorn.
When the members of Maroon 5 emerged from their teenage punk-rock limbo and Adam Levine became a sex symbol, they completed the character development necessary to leave their angst behind. This move allowed them to bury their misogyny under generic pop tunes that no longer scanned as autobiographical. However, as American culture began to question patriarchal constructs, Maroon 5 preempted the culture war’s seemingly inevitable assault on their all-white and presumably straight male band.
Levine, a playboy who allegedly dated Jessica Simpson, Kristen Dunce, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton (leading him to be dubbed a “man-whore” by the New York Post), pivoted by releasing “Girls Like You” in 2017. A single from Red Pill Blues that features Cardi B, it was accompanied by a music video starring Ellen Degeneres, Camila Cabello, and other female stars. Indeed, the song served as a gesture of solidarity with the #MeToo movement.
However, the vagueness of its message reveals Maroon 5’s intentions: to pander to a socially-conscious audience before they get canceled. In 2008, Levine addressed the New York Post’s assessment of him, saying, “By ‘man-whore’, they mean 28-year-old guy who fell into a good situation and had fun…. It was the hedonistic part of my brain”. This justification for admittedly inconsequential behavior mirrors the justifications of perpetrators of sexual assault who use their desires and youth as excuses for their actions. Although Levine has no serious transgressions, during the pre-“Girls Like You” era (read: pre-fatherhood), he embodied the permission men give themselves to flaunt their sexuality recklessly.
Beyond Songs About Jane, Maroon 5’s songs do not comment on culture. They don’t need to. After the group became popular, their music became an accessory to the real cultural statement: Levine’s sex appeal and unique brand of masculinity. He portrays himself as an object of desire without emasculating himself. For instance, in the music video for “Makes Me Wonder”, a standout single from It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, Levine saunters through airport security as three female security officers pat him down in the most seductive manner possible.
All the while, his eyes gaze at the camera as if to ask, “Don’t you wish you were this airport security guard right now?” Hopefully, the majority answer is “no”, but then again, Maroon 5 are famous for a reason. The song’s lyrics, “And it really makes me wonder if I ever gave a f*ck about you”, narrate a breakup. Plus, the video implies that as Levine boards the plane, he is flying away from his former lover. The ambiguous ending creates a fantasy for the viewer. Where is a single Adam Levine jetting off to? Is he available? Levine aims to make his sex appeal as accessible as the album’s radio-friendly tunes.
However, Adam Levine doesn’t always manage to package his sex appeal seductively. At times, it comes across as raunchy and untethered. Maroon 5’s success despite this misstep emphasizes American culture’s ambivalence to the male gaze and male performative sexual expression. Alternatively, in a patriarchal culture, women are often shamed for this same type of performative expression of sexuality.
On “Kiwi”, Levine sings, “Sweet kiwi / Your juices dripping down my chin”. Gross! Harry Styles also has a song called “Kiwi”, but his song paints a three-dimensional portrait of its muse (“She works her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes / Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect”). It barely delves into the potential innuendo of its title, heightening its mystique. Granted, Styles does have a song about oral sex called “Watermelon Sugar”, but it was deemed PG enough to succeed on radio and reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Maroon 5’s lack of subtly is evident across their work. In the music video for “Wake Up Call”, Levine walks in on another man in bed with his wife and shoots him. “Six foot tall / Came without a warning, so I had to shoot him dead”, he proclaims, justifying his own garrulous action. The absurdity of this song is held together in a similar way as the blatant innuendo of “Kiwi”. As in “Kiwi”, where an attempt to disguise innuendo with a metaphor only calls attention to it, “Wake Up Call” attempts to portray a narrative story with detail and plot but only calls attention to the hollowness of the song.
However, “Wake Up Call” succeeds in spite of this deficiency. The pre-chorus escalates to mirror the narrator’s anger with a series of notes that ascend and descend within each line: “If you needed love / Well then ask for love / Could have given love / Instead of taking love”. This pre-chorus that relies on a variation of notes jumps into an almost one-note chorus. The differentiation in note patterns creates variation that makes the song ceaselessly listenable.
However, the song’s narrative weakness comes from Levine situating a significant event, murder, in a track with no emotional gravity. But because it’s catchy, and the video—set against a bleak urban landscape—has biker gangs, explosions, and a sexy star, Levine can get away with singing about whatever he wants. He can make a spectacle for spectacle’s sake.
The fact that the lyrics of “Wake Up Call” don’t land emotionally with the listener is of no consequence. Who’s listening to the words, anyway? Maroon 5 succeed in being heard without being listened to. Many artists aim for this status in the current commercialized and capitalistic music market. As long as the song is heard, the artist gets a paycheck, even if the song is heard in a grocery store. Additionally, being heard without being listened to serves a unique purpose in “cancel culture” climate. If no one is really listening to what an artist says, will the artist ever be held accountable?
Eventually, though, Maroon 5 would learn that saying nothing has consequences, too. In a Rolling Stone profile, bassist Mickey Madden spoke about Levine, surmising: “Fame kind of justified his personality”. Maroon 5 is Adam Levine’s vanity project. For 16 seasons, he was a mentor on NBC’s The Voice, a gig that’s usually reserved for pop stars who need to win back public approval after an album underperforms. Maroon 5 haven’t had an album that drastically underperformed compared to others—that is, until their most recent album, 2021’s Jordi.
With that in mind, Levine’s position on The Voice served as an insurance policy in case they made a major misstep with the public. Given their brand of overt, playboy-esque masculinity, Maroon 5 cannot be too loud in the social climate of the 2020s without triggering a cultural uproar. They needed to find overexposure in other ways.
Maroon 5’s 2019 SuperBowl performance accomplished their real goal: omnipresence. In a sense, they had already achieved this goal, with a string of albums over the past two decades that each had a reliable set of radio hits. Their 2012 album, for instance, was their first to feature songwriters outside the band, including a Max Martin collaboration and an appropriate title: “Overexposed“.
However, a Superbowl performance enshrines any level of success in the cultural consciousness much more solidly than FM radio immortality does, especially in the age of streaming. It didn’t matter that Maroon 5 was the third pick for the Superbowl performance that year after Rihanna, Cardi B, and Jay-Z turned it down in solidarity with Colin Kapernick. Politics ruin the mystique of Maroon 5. Although they threw the public off their apolitical scent on “Girls Like You”, serving as the NFL’s neutral solution to controversy in 2019 benefitted Maroon 5’s brand.
Adam Levine addressed the controversy surrounding the performance, saying, “I’m not in the right profession if I can’t handle a little bit of controversy…. We’d like to move on from it and… speak through the music”. However, Maroon 5 doesn’t address this controversy, or any potent issue, through their music.
And that’s the point. They’re not just escapists; they maintain the status quo, not just avoiding controversy but implicitly invalidating it through their ambivalence. This neutrality, although controversial, benefitted Maroon 5’s brand because their perceived deference to controversy, despite their proximity to it, makes them compelling. This posture at the Superbowl enshrines Maroon 5 forever as those white guys who turn blind eyes to injustice—and take their shirts off to distract everyone else from it. But it’s a shrine nonetheless.
Levine’s shirtless moment was the most compelling part of Maroon 5’s Superbowl performance because all along, Maroon 5’s songs had been accessories to their cultural presence, or lack thereof. The band members must know this, as they left several of their most memorable hits (“Misery” and “Makes Me Wonder”) out of the performance. They didn’t need to include these songs to trigger a reaction. This performance literally embodies how Maroon 5’s albums are vehicles for real performance- commercial and cultural ubiquity.
Consider the album title. What does It Won’t Be Soon Before Long even mean? Nothing on the album references it. Once, vaguely, Adam Levine said, “The name of an album is often just a feeling, just a vibe”. Here, he papered over the fact that for Maroon 5, an album title often serves as a label for an assortment of commercial singles. The songs of It Won’t Be Soon Before Long may not extrapolate the album title, but the success of the LP does, in proving that it wouldn’t be long before Maroon 5 would take over the world.
And they won’t be gone anytime soon.