SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

How Maroon 5 Fused With the Pop Machine to Score a Second Life on the Charts

The band’s new No. 1 is only their latest collaboration with the song factory.

The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. The Clash. Talking Heads. The Police. Nirvana.

All of these hit-making, Hall of Fame–level rock bands recorded together for fewer years than Maroon 5, who have now been releasing hit albums and, especially, hit singles for 16 years. The longevity of the band that started all the way back in the mid-’90s as Kara’s Flowers and is still fronted by falsetto-singing, The Voice–judging Adam Levine—if you can name even one more member of Maroon 5, I’ll give you a cookie—is not only remarkable, it’s kind of mindboggling.

Of course, to classify Levine’s band of merry men alongside the above list of legendary rock combos is a crock, or a poke at the concept of rockism. Do Maroon 5 present themselves, at least onstage and in videos, as a guitars-bass-drums rock combo? Sure they do. But a more honest list of Maroon 5’s musical peers, in terms of both longevity and musical approach, would look more like this:

Britney Spears. Usher. Pink. Kelly Clarkson. Rihanna. Pitbull.

These are acts whose hit output has mostly or entirely ruled the charts since 2000, and they not only write little of their material on their own, they are practically genre-agnostic in their embrace of pop. This is not a value judgment. I love a lot of these acts’ material (especially Clarkson’s, and a lot of Rihanna’s), and, for decades, song factories have produced many of our greatest songs. Motown was a song factory, functioning much as Max Martin’s Stockholm-based sångfabrik—the source of many of these acts’ hits—does today.

But what makes Maroon 5 so exceptional—and helps explain why they are scoring their fourth career No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 this week, six years after their last one and 15 years after scoring their first Top 40 hit—is the Faustian bargain they made to get here. Maroon 5 have, and I say this almost admiringly, done more than virtually any act to undermine the idea of the rock band in the 21st century. I hesitate to call them a band at all. They’re more like a science experiment, an exercise in deconstruction.

The song that brings Maroon 5 back to the top slot is “Girls Like You,” a track from their nearly year-old album Red Pill Blues. When it appeared last fall, not only was “Girls Like You” an unremarkable deep cut buried on the back half of the album; its future guest rapper, Cardi B, had only just scored her first No. 1 hit, “Bodak Yellow.” Less than 12 months later, with her featured role on “Girls Like You,” the rapper born Belcalis Almánzar scores her third chart-topper—and her second of 2018, following her summer smash “I Like It”—with her most tacked-on drive-by performance. Like the pathbreaking featured rapper Bobby Brown on the 1990 Glenn Medeiros chart-topper “She Ain’t Worth It,” Cardi needed only 30 seconds and 16 bars to make her way into Billboard history: the first female rapper to score three Hot 100 No. 1s. (She was already the first to score two.)

The song was also boosted by its video, which features a Lazy Susan’s array of famous women from Gal Gadot to Sarah Silverman to Ellen DeGeneres, literally rotating in and out of the vicinity of Levine’s mic stand and lip-syncing a line or two of the song. Oddly, that’s the second time this year a male pop act has boosted a track to No. 1 by showcasing famous ladies in a video, after Drake’s performatively woke you-go-girl chart-topper “Nice for What.” Perhaps appropriately, Drake is the chart giant Maroon 5 had to get past to reach No. 1: “Girls Like You” spent 16 weeks in the Top 5, and for the last 11 of those weeks it was stuck behind either “Nice” or Drake’s viral Song of the Summer winnerIn My Feelings.” Billboard reports that airplay was the key to Maroon 5’s eventual success, but the video did its part: Now just shy of a billion views, the “Girls” clip gave the song a so-called inspirational push in the year of #MeToo, even though until Cardi B shows up, the cameoing women function largely as backup dancers.

Even with Cardi’s special sauce, which was only added to the song last May, and all that radio play, “Girls Like You” is a pretty nondescript pop hit. It is pleasant, even winsome: a midtempo love song with ’80s rock seasoning, built around a syncopated guitar line that’s been run through the EDM swooshing machine. In the video, guitarist James Valentine (there, that’s one more Maroon 5 member—no cookie for you) showily plucks out the hook at the start, but if he played more than two bars in the studio before it was looped I’d be shocked. On the chorus, Levine adds his own rhythm, carving out a perkily shimmying beat out of wishy-washy lyrics: “ ’Cause girls … like … you/ Run around with guys … like … me/ Till sundown, when I … come … through/ I need a girl … like … you/ Yeah, yeah, y-yeah.” The song momentarily comes to life late in the game, right after Cardi’s rap, with a final verse that seems like it’s ramping up into a story: “Maybe it’s 6:45/ Maybe I’m barely alive/ Maybe you’ve taken my shit for the last time/ Maybe I know that I’m drunk/ Maybe I know you’re the one/ Maybe I’m thinking it’s better if you drive.” It’s not really a story at all, just a schmear of branding by Levine, living out the lovable asshole character he’s been riding down red carpets for 15 years.

This persona, like virtually everything Maroon 5 has done in the last decade, is itself outsourced. Well-traveled song doctors are largely responsible for how “Girls Like You” turned out, primary among them Henry “Cirkut” Walter, the Max Martin–affiliated Canadian producer behind such No. 1s as Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” and Starrah, the hook-generating songwriter wunderkind who was on top of the Hot 100 just eight months ago with Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” But then, this has been true of most of Maroon 5’s four Hot 100 chart-toppers, sprinkled across their career. Before “Girls,” their last one was 2012’s “One More Night,” a bit of lite-reggae white pop à la Ace of Base that was penned and produced by Max Martin (a man who made his bones with those fellow Swedes in the ’90s) and Martin’s associate Shellback. A year before that, in 2011, Maroon topped the Hot 100 with “Moves Like Jagger,” a collaboration with fellow Voice judge Christina Aguilera. That whistle-infused earworm, now playing in the ninth circle of hell, was co-crafted by Shellback again with fellow über pop producer–slash-oddball Benny Blanco. On all of these chart-toppers, Levine takes a songwriting credit and surely had some role in how the lyrics, attitude, and overall #branding turned out, but if you know anything about the Swedish/American school of 21st-century factory pop, the fingerprints of these Svengalis is all over Maroon 5’s 2010s output.

I say 2010s, however, because Maroon 5 have been hit-makers since the 2000s, and the careful ear can detect a difference: They were more like a self-contained rock band in their first decade. Not always better, and certainly not “purer”—their ’00s hits had their share of producer-driven sweetening for radio consumption—but ’00s Maroon 5 is the sound of a rock band crafting something that then gets run through the machine, not a product born in the machine. I noted that they’ve scored four No. 1 hits but haven’t yet mentioned the first of those four: “Makes Me Wonder,” a tasty slice of ’70s-inflected disco rock with Earth, Wind & Fire smooth-funk overtones that topped the chart in the spring of 2007. It was written by three people, all members of Maroon 5: Levine, keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Jesse Carmichael, and bassist Mickey Madden. All of their ’00s hits were this kind of intraband collaboration, and when it came to songwriting, Levine shared the wealth: “This Love” (No. 5, 2004) was his and Carmichael’s handiwork, “She Will Be Loved” (No. 5, 2004) the work of Levine and guitarist Valentine.

Figuring out when the shift happened isn’t complicated. One need only study the chart history. Between 2007’s “Makes Me Wonder” and 2011’s “Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon 5 had started to drift into the chart wilderness, as Gaga-era EDM pop began to take over the Hot 100. Their singles in the late aughts would routinely miss the Top 10 or even the Top 40. Working with legendary arena-rock mastermind Robert John “Mutt” Lange on the 2010 album Hands All Over couldn’t get lead single “Misery” higher on the chart than No. 14, and the rest of the album’s singles—all band-member co-writes—were outright stiffs.

That’s when Adam Levine launched his solo-image reboot: He agreed to coach singing hopefuls on NBC’s The Voice, taking a swivel chair he’s held for the entirety of the show’s seven years and 15 seasons as a dozen other celebrity coach-judges have cycled in and out. (Only country star Blake Shelton has, like Levine, been an all-seasons fixture.) Besides its blind-audition gimmick, The Voice differentiated itself from its reality-competition predecessor American Idol in one obvious (and depressing) way: Since the beginning, it’s done more commercially for the judges than for the contestants. Levine and fellow coach Aguilera premiered “Moves Like Jagger” on a June 2011 episode of The Voice, and two months later, they were each back atop the Hot 100 for the first time in years. Though Maroon 5, the band, backed Levine on both the song’s Voice debut and in the video, it was hard to detect much involvement by the band members, and none but Levine took a writing credit alongside Blanco, Shellback, and another song doctor, Ammar Malik.

Since then, it’s been all machine-tooled hits for Maroon 5, with non-Levine band members essentially tapping out of songwriting duties entirely. Collaborators have included not only the Max Martin/Shellback stable, but everyone from singer-songwriter Sia to Justin Bieber collaborator Justin Tranter to pop songsmith and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, as well as a sprinkling of guest rappers, including Wiz Khalifa and Kendrick Lamar. Even the Maroon 5 hits that read most like the retro pop-rock of their early years, like 2015’s No. 2 hit “Sugar,” are factory products (in that instance, the work of Cirkut, songwriter-producer Ammo, producer-artist Mike Posner, relative newcomer Jacob Kasher, and devil’s-pact kingmaker Dr. Luke). It must be said that this approach has made M5 bigger, more consistent hit-makers in their second decade, by far. In the eight years prior to pivotal hit “Moves Like Jagger,” the band breached the Billboard Top 10 only three times. Post-“Jagger,” Maroon 5 have reached the winner’s circle 10 times, largely on their strength of their popularity among radio programmers. This decade, they have spent 42 weeks, across six singles, at No. 1 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, ranking third among radio dominators, behind only Rihanna and Bruno Mars.

But it’s hard to feel outraged by the idea of this band getting ultracommercialized. After all, Maroon 5 have been slickness personified all along. The day I heard their breakthrough hit “Harder to Breathe” (No. 18, 2003—still my favorite M5 song) pumping out of my radio 15 years ago, I swear my first thought, two years after second-wave boy bands like NSYNC had died off, was, “Ah—boy-band pop on rock instruments. That’s clever.” Levine and co. saw the game was rigged and figured out how to rig it in their favor.

There’s one last detail in Billboard’s rundown of the rise of “Girls Like You” to No. 1 that raises eyebrows, having to do with genre. To the industry, “Girls” is classified as a pop song, which, Billboard reports, means it ends a record 34-week streak of No. 1s that were tagged as rap songs—since Cabello’s “Havana” in January, every chart-topper this year has been tagged with the genus rap. I find that pretty suspect; this streak of so-called rap songs includes such fluke No. 1s as the late XXXTentacion’s “Sad!,” a cross of melodic hip-hop with vintage indie; Post Malone’s radio-friendly unit shifter “Psycho,” which I still say is really emo acoustic electro-rock; and “This Is America,” a loopy Childish Gambino polemic that’s as much Afrobeat as hip-hop. Most ironically, this purported rapper streak was ended by a Maroon 5 song with … a featured rap; Cardi B’s 16 bars are purer boom-bap than anything in Post Malone’s “Psycho.” It puts me in mind of music critics’ long-running debate about whether the Rock Era—which the industry and the history books claim started with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955—actually ended three decades ago circa “Walk This Way,” and we’ve been living in a Rap Era ever since. Much as, in the Rock Era, even the schlockiest pop bore some compositional or presentational relationship to rock, the hits of the post-’80s period orbit the sun that is hip-hop. If this theorem is eventually accepted as fact, Maroon 5 are a major planet orbiting that sun: an act with the presentation of rock but the production-centric values of hip-hop. I’m sure Adam Levine would be just fine envisioning himself as a Rap Era heavenly body.

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