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Maroon 5 and the Super Bowl halftime show that erased itself

Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 in Atlanta. (Larry W Smith/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Maroon 5 has always been a sanitary wipe of a rock band, with a sound that radiates outward from the singing voice of frontman Adam Levine — an earnest, tangy-smooth falsetto that has a mysterious ability to clean up after itself. And that must be why this band remains so durable, right? Because its music is so repeatable? I think so. To hear a Maroon 5 song — any Maroon 5 song — is to feel your brain being wiped clean of the experience as it’s happening.

Levine did the magic trick six different ways during Sunday night’s halftime show at the Super Bowl in Atlanta, singing and strutting in a way that felt completely uneventful and perversely savvy. That’s because Levine knows that there are only two ways to survive a Super Bowl halftime show in this day and age: Be unforgettable, or be entirely forgettable.

We’ve seen both types at halftimes past. Unforgettables understand the magnitude of the event — they know that they’re performing for the biggest audience of their life — and they treat it as the momentous privilege that it is. Forgettables might grasp the stakes, too, but they’re ultimately counting on half the Super Bowl viewership to stumble off into the kitchen to throw another plate of nachos in the microwave. Unforgettables want to make history. Forgettables don’t want to embarrass themselves. Unforgettables cannonball into the deep end. Forgettables swan-dive like experts, barely making a sploosh.

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Prince was unforgettable in 2007 because, in all of his purple life, that’s the only way he ever knew how to be. Same for Beyoncé in 2016. But it doesn’t always shake out for wannabe unforgettables. Lady Gaga went for it in 2017, but overshot, while Katy Perry tried to cultivate a daffy kind of unforgettable in 2015, but ended up getting upstaged by a shark. As for the successful forgettables, they did it so well, you have to look them up on Wikipedia to remember who they are: Bruno Mars and Coldplay in 2016; Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2014; perhaps many other self-deleting Bruno Mars performances that no longer exist in our collective cultural memory.

Of course, there were more pressing reasons for Maroon 5 to try to disappear on Sunday night. Many criticized the band for even accepting this gig in the first place — especially after Rihanna and Cardi B announced that they had each turned it down in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose pregame protests against police brutality essentially got him exiled from the NFL.

And while nobody really expected Levine to fight the power, some wondered whether the two guest rappers booked to flank Maroon 5 at halftime — Big Boi of OutKast fame and Travis Scott — might speak up. Nope and nope. They were just along for the ride.

So here’s how smooth that ride was: Maroon 5 played “Harder to Breathe” and “This Love,” warming up to a state of luke-warmth; and then Scott materialized to rap “Sicko Mode” in dull tones near a bonfire; and then Maroon 5 coasted into “Girls Like You” while Levine shimmied alongside a gospel choir whose appearance is mandated by Super Bowl halftime law; and a few moments later, Big Boi recited “The Way You Move” in a flowing fur coat; and then back to Levine and his boyos, who casually worked their way up to the peppiest ditty in their songbook, “Moves Like Jagger,” during which Levine peeled off his shirt, which didn’t seem like an attempt to be sexy so much as aerodynamic, because now it really was time for everyone onstage to get gone.

Having sidestepped controversy and posterity, Maroon 5 vanished into the Georgia night.

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