Saturday, March 26, 2016
Maroon 5 - V
Look, I loved Songs About Jane. Still do. I fondly remember the summer of 2004, when “She Will Be Loved” was the definitive song of the season, and I dug the hell out of that record’s slick R&B, jazz, and soul influences. Songs like “Shiver,” “Tangled,” and “The Sun” were out-Timberlaking Timberlake before Justified or FutureSex/LoveSounds even existed, and if there was another song on the radio at the time that sounded as classic as “Sunday Morning,” then I never heard it. I’d still rank that album as one of my 100 favorites from the 2000s, and I’d do it even though it’s become increasingly cool to hate Maroon 5 over the 12 years that have passed since Songs About Jane first released.
But now that we are officially a decade removed from that summer where “She Will Be Loved” was the nation’s theme song, the remaining good will I have toward Maroon 5 is evaporating. And that’s because this band isn’t really a band anymore. With each passing album, Maroon 5 has devolved further and further into an Adam Levine solo project. The unsavory transformation has been marked largely by the writing credits on each album: most of Songs About Jane was written by a writing team of Levine and Jesse Carmichael, the band’s keyboardist, but on Maroon 5’s first three albums, it wasn’t uncommon for every other member to contribute a few ideas as well. And there were almost never outside writers, either: Maroon 5 was a band, and they wrote and performed songs as a unit. I personally became less interested in those songs as I grew older, but I still appreciated 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long and 2010’s Hands All Over for their craft and plentiful hooks.
Everything changed when Levine got a taste of what it took for a pop band to be successful in the post-2010 world. This happened in two ways: first, Levine teamed with superstar songwriters and producers like Shellback and Benny Blanco to pen “Moves Like Jagger,” which became the biggest Maroon 5 hit since “She Will Be Loved” and brought the band back to the level of ubiquity they had enjoyed back in ’04; second, Levine took a job judging a reality TV show called The Voice, where his ego ran rampant and his own image became a top concern. On the next Maroon 5 album, 2012’s aptly titled Overexposed, it was all about Levine all the time, with the band shedding what remained for their early soul, R&B, and jazz influences, and bringing in dozens of co-writers and producers to make a slick, generic pop album. Even then, the record wasn’t horrible: the hooks were considerable, and Levine’s voice and charisma made a few of the tracks work. But the idea of Maroon 5 as a “band” was gone, replaced by musical arrangements that sounded completely computer-generated. It should have been a solo album.
Which brings us to V, the band’s fifth album, the second in their current pop-obsessed configuration, and the worst album of 2014, bar none. Everything that sucked about Overexposed still sucks here: the songs are generic, the production is sickly sweet, the co-writers are back, and all band members other than Levine are, for all intents and purposes, pushed to the sidelines. The best song on the record is lead single and opening track “Maps,” which finds Levine on a lonesome night drive, wondering where a lost lover went. The song doesn’t really work because Levine is, to borrow a line from Friends, “not believable as a human being.” (Can anyone here imagine Adam Levine taking a solo drive in the middle of the night, pining over an ex-lover? Didn’t think so. Let’s be honest: this guy would take the limo.) But “Maps” has a decent hook, a foot-tapping beat, and an inoffensive lyric, which is more than can be said for nearly every other song on this fucking atrocious album.
After “Maps,” though, everything goes steeply downhill, to the point where all but two of the remaining tracks (the Nate Reuss co-written “Leaving California” and the Gwen Stefani-assisted piano ballad, “My Heart is Open,” both bland but passable) could reasonably be classified as the worst thing here. How about “Animals,” a gross promotion of rape culture that uses another slickly produced Levine vocal hook to mask the highly problematic nature of a line like “Baby I’m praying on you tonight/Hunt you down eat you alive”? Or “Unkiss Me,” an idiotically cliché break-up ballad whose own issues are betrayed by the title: it’s testament to how ferociously awful this album is that the song’s chorus hook (“Then you better unkiss me, untouch me, untake this heart”) is not the stupidest line you will hear on V. That title belongs either to “Feelings” (“You and me let’s go all night/Going so high we fuck the sky/Come with me now, fuck that guy”) or “In Your Pocket,” where Levine manages to keep a straight face while singing “Show me yours/I’ll show you mine”…about cellphones.
But stupid lyrics aren’t the biggest problem facing V, and they’re not the reason why this album is the absolute nadir of 2014’s music scene. There have been a few albums this year that I’ve hated: Perfect Pussy’s Say Yes to Love got a Best New Music distinction from Pitchfork, but was legitimately unlistenable to my ears, while the new Say Anything album made me laugh all the way to the delete button. But V is in a whole other league. I don’t hate it just because it’s a complete mismatch with my music tastes, or even because the lyrics and grating melodies are absolutely laughable; I hate it because it’s openly offensive, sexist shit.
Nearly every song on this record is misogynistic in some regard, from the obvious predatory ramblings of “Animals” to the Robin Thicke-level douchebaggery of “Feelings.” “If you want me take me home and let me use you,” Levine croons on the latter, as if telling a girl you’d like to disrespect and rape her somehow works as a romantic pick-up line. “Sugar” is nearly as bad, with lyrics that compare a girl to—you guessed it—sugar, before rhyming “My broken pieces you pick them up” with “Don’t leave me hanging, come give me some.” On “Coming Back for You,” he sounds like an attempted murderer promising to finish the job: “Doesn’t really matter what you do/I’ll be back for you, coming back for you.” And on “New Love,” he informs a first date, “I can tell that you need my love and all I want is to give it to you” before ordering her to deal with his lying, cheating, and philandering: “If I ever let you down, forgive me!/Would it kill you to forgive me?”
The fact that this album is more or less a collection of sexual harassment catchphrases that you might hear on the streets of a college town after dark is alarming enough as is. Coming from the guy who once sang “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies/It’s compromise that moves us along,” it’s an even bigger cause for concern. In the past 12 years, Adam Levine has regressed from a promising young songwriter who was surprisingly mature and insightful for his age, to a guy who—in his songs, at least—stalks young women and treats them like objects. The fact that the songs where all of this happens were co-written by more than a dozen music industry A-listers underlines the troubling misogyny and sexism that has run rampant in modern pop music. Who’s to blame? It’s hard to say. Is Levine writing these lines, or are they the work of the other paycheck-seeking songwriters who populate this album, the Ryan Tedders, Benjamin Levins, and Shellbacks of the world? Either way, the lyrical content of V is inexcusable and unacceptable, and it shows just how much the status quo need to change, both for this once-promising “band” and for the music industry as a whole. I wish I could give it a negative score.