How Maroon 5 became the most annoying band in rock

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Adam Levine with Christina Aguilera in 2011 - Getty
Adam Levine with Christina Aguilera in 2011 - Getty

Mick Jagger saw the funny side –  to a point. “It’s catchy… I wish I’d written it,” he said. “But it puts pressure on me when I go out dancing.”

Jagger was not referring to any of the Stones’ golden oldies. And he certainly wasn’t ruminating on his ill-fated solo career. He was talking about the 2011 mega-hit Moves Like Jagger, by Christina Aguilera and the rock band Maroon 5.

This love letter to rock’s wrinkliest groover went to number one in the US and stayed in the British charts for 64 weeks. And if a reminder nobody cuts a rug like Mick, it also underscored to degree to which Maroon 5 have reshaped pop in their own image. 

Slinky, funky and with a lead singer you wanted to punch, Maroon 5 were the original of a species that would soon become ubiquitous in rock. Drawing on hip-hop yet somehow sounding like the whitest band on the planet, without them there would never have been a One Republic, Script, Imagine Dragons or Bastille. In their own way, they have altered the course of music. And that journey began 20 years ago this month, with the release on June 25 2002 of Maroon 5’s debut album Songs About Jane. 

Frontman Adam Levine, the son of a Los Angeles supermarket magnate, had grown up obsessed with the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Simon and Garfunkel. His earliest musical exploits had, however, been in the derivative world of post-Weezer indie pop. That was the incarnation in which he was unleashed upon humanity his first band Kara’s Flowers. They won a degree of attention around LA and even appeared on Millennial dramedy The OC.

Forever everywhere: Maroon 5 - Jason Kempin
Forever everywhere: Maroon 5 - Jason Kempin

Alas, one Weezer was quite enough and so Levine went back to the drawing board. Changing his group’s name to Maroon 5, he moved away from the usual four-piece guitar band influences. Instead he embraced his love of Stevie Wonder and rap.

Songs About Jane is also a kind of concept record, with songs themed around aliens or depression – or depressed aliens if you're Pink Floyd or Radiohead – inspired by his break-up from girlfriend Jane Herman, a magazine editor and fashion designer. Harder to Breathe was their break-out hit single written under under pressure from their record label, about being trapped in an asphyxiating relationship. (It was a feeling with which anyone listening to Maroon 5 was soon familiar.)

“That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs,” Levine later said about it. “It was the last crack. I was just p_____. I wanted to make a record and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I'm glad they did.”

Some of the lyrics, however, have not aged well: “I have the tendency of getting very physical/ So watch your step”.

Whilst wildly successful, Songs About Jane also established the persona of Levine as a sort of high-fiving arch bro, who sang like a Michael Jackson impersonator and dressed as if en route to ladies' night at his nearest provincial disco. Just looking at him, you can almost smell the aftershave.

“Would it be really easy to assume that I was a douchebag?” he would later reflect to GQ. “Definitely. One hundred per cent. But that doesn’t mean that I am. Or maybe I am, I don’t know.”

As he acknowledged in that same interview, to an extent he only had himself to blame. Levine, who is now married to former Victoria's Secret angel Behati Prinsloo (and used to date fellow angel Anne V), once stated he slept with as many woman as possible because he was a feminist (his way of empathising with the sisterhood). And he claimed to practice yoga because it was a good way to meet “beautiful ladies”. Illustrating that point he had mimed thrusting his crotch for an appalled interviewer. 

This was all circa Moves Like Jagger. In the decade since, Levine has become 21st century pop’s very own Zelig. As pointed out, you can catch echoes of Maroon 5’s suburban funk in the music of The Script and One Republic. Levine himself has meanwhile been on a quest for maximum ubiquity. 

Duetting with Christina Aguilera on Moves Like Jagger was merely the start – Maroon 5 have gone on to collaborate with Megan Thee Stallion, SZA, Gwen Stefani, Future and Rihanna while Levine even guested on Kanye West's 2005 song Heard 'Em Say. 

He also played an even more smackable version of himself on screen in the 2013 John Carney rock musical Begin Again. All that and he had a side-hustle as America’s Simon Cowell as a judge for 16 seasons on the Voice USA.

'Smackable': Levine starred in Begin Again opposite Keira Knightley
'Smackable': Levine starred in Begin Again opposite Keira Knightley

Maroon 5 stumbled into controversies too. They agreed to headline the 2019 Super Bowl half-time show amid controversy over the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick – essentially blacklisted for “taking the knee” when the US national anthem was played at gridiron games. 

Jay-Z, Cardi B and Rihanna all turned down down the NFL. Maroon 5, though, had little compunction about saying yes –even after Kaepernick’s lawyer likened them to strike-breakers. 

“I silenced all the noise and listened to myself and made my decision based upon how I felt,” said Levine. “I’m not in the right profession if I can't handle a little bit of controversy. It's what it is. We expected it. We'd like to move on from it and speak through the music.”

Still, it’s arguably off stage that Levine has gained the most attention. He’s one man quote generator – though those quotes inevitably rub his fellow musicians the wrong way. In 2018, he declared rock music more or less dead

“Something unique to this band is that we have always looked to hip-hop, R&B, all rhythmic forms of music, from back when we were writing our first album to now,” he stated. “Rock music is nowhere, really. I don’t know where it is. If it’s around, no one’s invited me to the party. All of the innovation and the incredible things happening in music are in hip-hop.”

Ready for ladies night: Adam Levine - WireImage
Ready for ladies night: Adam Levine - WireImage

He wasn’t the first to make that argument. So perhaps it was the way in which Levine seemed to be trying to claim the higher moral and artistic ground that got under the skin of other musicians. “Just because you claim to have Moves Like Jagger doesn’t mean you come anywhere CLOSE to ROCKING like Jagger,” tweeted Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. “Tell that schmuck to go back to The f**king ‘Voice”.

Levine didn’t pay such criticism much attention and last year was circling back to the same thesis about rock and its redundancy. “It’s funny, when the first Maroon 5 album came out there were still other bands. I feel like there aren’t any bands anymore, you know? That’s the thing that makes me kind of sad, is that there were just bands,” he told Apple Music’s Zane Low. 

Levine added: “There’s no bands anymore, and I feel like they’re a dying breed. And so I kind of, in a weird way, as far as … I mean, there still are plenty of bands, and maybe they’re not in the limelight quite as much, or in the pop limelight, but I wish there could be more of those around.”

This time the response was more muted. However, he was soon back once again in the firing line. Late last year, when a fan ran on stage to hug Levine in Los Angeles his reaction was to cold shoulder her and allow a security guard haul her away. He then swore, grimaced while pretending to wipe her touch off him, and knocked over his mic.


There was a backlash and he went on TikTok to explain himself. “To think that anyone would believe that I thought our fans were less than us makes my stomach turn,” he said. “I need you guys to know I was really startled. Sometimes you have shake it off and move on.” 

Many rock fans might wish they could shake off Maroon 5 and move on. That seems unlikely. Their 2021 Jordi album was a hit around the world. They recently performed at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. And they are about to head back out on a tour of North America. Twenty years on from Songs About Jane the vision of a rock star pioneered by Adam Levine – squeaky, smug and successful – shows no signs of going anywhere.