In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
If I’m ever in one of those hypothetical situations where someone puts a gun to my head and demands that I sing a Maroon 5 song, I think I’ll make it out of there OK. I’ll be like, “This! Love! Has! Take-en con-trol! Of me!” Then I’ll kind of trail off for a few seconds and look beseechingly at my would-be assassin. If this mythical person demands to hear more Maroon 5, then it’s been an honor to write this column for all of you, and I’ll see you on the other side. But I feel pretty safe, since I don’t think Maroon 5 fans are the belligerent, gun-toting type. I could be wrong, though. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Maroon 5 fan.
Maroon 5 have fans, right? They must. They’ve sold millions upon millions of records. They have many chart hits. Adam Levine spent a long time on a popular TV show where the whole premise was that he’s a pop star helping other singers on their way to pop stardom. Early in their career, Maroon 5 hit upon a sort of agreeable, easy-to-ignore blue-eyed-soul thing, and they tweaked that formula over the years, somehow riding the zeitgeist and usually staying somewhere near the top of the pop charts. They’ve dome something right, and there are people in the world who appreciate their efforts.
I would probably recognize Adam Levine if he was standing right in front of me. When it comes to Maroon 5’s actual songs, though, I have the rough equivalent of face blindness. I don’t hate Maroon 5’s songs. Their songs aren’t distinctive enough to inspire hatred. I don’t have that kind of energy for them. Instead, Maroon 5’s music just slips past me, into the ether. These songs are ghosts; they leave no footprints. I could listen to them a thousand times, and I would still forget about them the instant that they stopped playing.
So how did Maroon 5 happen? How did they become stars? Why did they get booked for this century’s least memorable Super Bowl Halftime Show? Why do I know all about Adam Levine’s extremely funny sexting habits? It’s one of life’s great mysteries. My suspicion is that there’s nothing sinister or supernatural at work. Instead, the members of Maroon 5 are simply professionals with sharp instincts who rode all their built-in advantages as hard as they could. “Makes Me Wonder,” Maroon 5’s first chart-topper, doesn’t do much else, but it puts their smooth and precise mediocrity on full display.
Maroon 5 were a rock band once. Did you know that? If Maroon 5 had any lore, that would be a key part of it. At the tail end of the ’90s alt-rock boom, Maroon 5 had a label deal and an album. They were spectacularly unsuccessful, and maybe that experience led them to become the slipstream hitmakers that they are now. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Adam Levine grew up very comfortable in Los Angeles. (When Levine was born, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was the #1 song in America.) Levine’s father founded the California retail chain M. Fredric, and one of his uncles eventually became a writer and producer on The West Wing. While he was a student at the Brentwood School, a private school for rich kids, Levine met his friends Jesse Carmichael, Mickey Madden, and Ryan Dusick. These kids formed a band, and they called it Kara’s Flowers because they all had crushes on a girl named Kara.
A producer heard Kara’s Flowers playing at a party, and that led to the very young band recording a demo with John DeNicola, one of the songwriters of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.” That recording led Reprise to sign Kara’s Flowers, and the band recorded their 1997 album The Fourth World with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo. It sounded like a group of talented, ambitious kids attempting to make a Weezer record and failing.
The Fourth World came out when some of the members of Kara’s Flowers were still in high school. In a different reality, maybe The Fourth World would’ve done OK numbers and developed a cult following, and Kara’s Flowers could’ve had a Fountains Of Wayne-type career. (I can’t see Kara’s Flowers ever becoming as good as Fountains Of Wayne, but I can see them occupying a similar place.) In our world, though, The Fourth World sold jack shit. Kara’s Flowers broke up, and Adam Levine and Jesse Carmichael went off to Five Towns College on Long Island. There, they got into rap and R&B, and they only lasted one semester before dropping out.
Back in LA, Levine and Carmichael got back together with Kara’s Flowers, and the band tried recording more songs. They were briefly signed to Dreamworks, but when MCA bought that label, they got dropped. Soon afterward, the band got signed again, this time to the brand-new J Records imprint Octone. After encountering so many accounts of artists’ starving years in this column, it’s a little jarring to learn about these rich, good-looking white guys who got three different shots at major-label success before everything clicked. In any case, an Octet exec had the idea for Kara’s Flowers to add a new member, guitarist James Valentine, and to change their name to Maroon 5.
The idea behind the new member was that it would allow Adam Levine, still a shy reluctant-frontman type, to stop playing rhythm guitar and to get out front and move around. James Valentine had studied at Berklee College Of Music, played in the failed band Square, and done some fill-in work with ska-punkers Reel Big Fish before becoming the fifth Maroon. Valentine came with an added benefit: He was tight with his old Berklee friend John Mayer, who was blowing up at the time and who took Maroon 5 on tour as an opening act. (John Mayer’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “Say,” peaked at #12.)
The newly renamed Maroon 5 released their kind-of-debut album Songs About Jane in 2002. The title was not figurative. Adam Levine had an ex named Jane, and the whole album was songs about her. Songs About Jane reinvented Maroon 5 as a lite-funk radio-bait act, a kind of Hall & Oates for the new century. It took a long time for Songs About Jane to take off; the album didn’t even go gold until it had been out for more than a year. But Maroon 5 kept jumping on bigger tours and working the album, and it eventually paid off. In the fall of 2003, their first single “Harder To Breathe” peaked at #18.
Eventually, more of those songs about Jane found their audience. “This Love,” the Maroon 5 track that I could maybe kind of sing with a gun to my head, made it to #5 in 2004. (It’s a 4.) A few months later — more than two years after the album came out — “She Will Be Loved” also got as high as #5. (It’s a 6.) Almost exactly three years after its release, Songs About Jane was quadruple platinum. Somewhat paradoxically, Maroon 5 won Best New Artist at the Grammys in 2005, when they weren’t new in any sense of the world. To nab that award, Maroon 5 had to get through Los Lonely Boys, Joss Stone, Gretchen Wilson, and — hey, look at that — Kanye West.
You might think that Maroon 5’s Grammy victory would turn Kanye West into an enemy for life. Nope! The young and apparently not-so-sensitive Kanye had already remixed “This Love,” and he invited Adam Levine to sing on his 2005 single “Heard ‘Em Say,” which peaked at #28. If the hypothetical gunman wasn’t satisfied with my rendition of “This Love,” I would probably sing the hook from “Heard ‘Em Say” and just hope that it was Maroon 5 enough to count. I remember that thing, at least. (Maroon 5 remembered that hook, too, and they reused it on their own song “Nothing Lasts Forever.”)
Maroon 5 spent so long pushing Songs About Jane to stealth-blockbuster status that they didn’t get around to releasing another album for five years. When the band finally recorded their stupidly titled sophomore LP It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, they wanted to make something sleeker and foxier. Adam Levine talked about Michael Jackson and Prince as influences. I don’t really hear any of that in the record, but I suppose that I do hear what happens when these careerists try their best to water down the sci-fi cocaine-disco of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, though that description is probably more interesting than the record itself.
Adam Levine started writing what would become “Makes Me Wonder,” the lead single from It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, years before the album came out. Levine wrote the song from the perspective of a hungover horndog who’s just hooked up with a woman and who’s not sure why he got with her in the first place. He wakes up with bloodshot eyes, struggling to memorize the way it felt between her eyes, the pleasure that made her cry. The next morning, though, Levine’s narrator decides that the hookup was “not worth the aftermath.” He still doesn’t have the reason, and she doesn’t have the time, and it really makes him wonder why he ever gave a fuck about her.
Taken at face value, the lyrics of “Makes Me Wonder” are startlingly vicious — almost vicious enough to make the song slightly interesting. Those lyrics raise questions: Why is he so upset at this girl the next morning? Why’s he being such a dick? How is his dickishness affecting her? On the bridge, Levine basically admits to manipulation: “You caught me in a lie/ I have no alibi/ The words you say don’t have a meaning.” What? Cold.
If Adam Levine had been willing to lean into his sleaziness, than he might’ve become a somewhat compelling character. Instead, Levine claims that “Makes Me Wonder” isn’t really a song about a guy acting squirrely after an ill-advised hookup. At first, Levine admitted to MTV, he was writing about “one of my relationships that was going horribly wrong.” But then he came up with the chorus: “Give me something to believe in/ Because I don’t believe in you anymore.” That’s when “Makes Me Wonder” became a deep and trenchant political allegory: “It kind of had something to do with our growing dissatisfaction with things and the confusion that was in the air — maybe not targeted at the Bush administration, but maybe dancing around that territory a little bit.” Uh huh. Sure, buddy. Rage Against The Machine over here.
Maroon 5 recorded a demo of “Makes Me Wonder,” and they played around with it for a while, but they didn’t much like the song. Their label, however, heard potential, so the band kept tinkering. Eventually, they took the track to producer Mark Endert, who had co-produced “This Love” and who’s already been in this column for co-producing Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want.”
Mark Endert put all the pieces of “Makes Me Wonder” into Logic, and he rearranged them into something slick enough to satisfy the band and the label. Endert made heavy use of Logic’s library of sampled sounds, and when the band heard his version, they went into the studio and replayed as much of the track as they could. Endert tells Sound On Sound, “We went into Sunset Sound, and they added tracks, and we replaced any parts in Logic that were considered band instruments. That really made it sound like Maroon. We wanted the feel of a band playing, even though there’s a lot of programming.” (Mark Endert is credited with co-producing “Makes Me Wonder” with Maroon 5. The credited songwriters are Adam Levine, keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, and bassist Mickey Madden.)
Mark Endert thought that the final version of “Makes Me Wonder” sounded like an actual band playing, but I don’t get that from the track. Instead, this might be the beginning of the whole uncanny-valley thing that Maroon 5 have going on. They’re a band, I guess, though the actual state of the group remains in constant flux. (Right now, there are seven people in Maroon 5. That’s pretty funny, but it would be funnier if anyone could pick a single one of the non-Adam Levine members out of a police lineup.) “Makes Me Wonder” sounds like an AI simulation of a band. It smells more like a record-label conference room than a garage.
There’s stuff to like in “Makes Me Wonder.” The song at least attempts to move. The scratchy guitars on the intro make me think of Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film,” an infinitely superior song. “Makes Me Wonder” has hard-hitting keyboard stabs and busy congas and sticky little piano notes. It has Adam Levine sliding his nasal tenor into a falsetto, reaching for some of the Justin Timberlake white-boy swagger that was so successful at the time.
I can usually get into this kind of mathematically precise production, but the little hooks in “Makes Me Wonder” just don’t hook me. I’ve had to listen to “Makes Me Wonder” so many times to write this column, and I haven’t really gotten sick of it. It doesn’t demand enough attention to make me sick of it. Instead, it just evaporates without a trace as soon as it’s done.
John Hillcoat directed the “Makes Me Wonder” video. I’m trying to wrap my brain around that one. Hillcoat had already made a lot of music videos, usually for awesomely mopey British stars like Siouxsie And The Banshees and Depeche Mode. Two years before “Makes Me Wonder,” Hillcoat directed The Proposition, an Australian revisionist Western written by Nick Cave. Two years after “Makes Me Wonder,” Hillcoat directed the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road. How are you going to make a damn Maroon 5 video between your bottomlessly bleak genre movies? What kind of a life is that?
John Hillcoat or no John Hillcoat, the “Makes Me Wonder” video is not about ashen-faced survivors moving slowly across empty, hostile landscapes. Instead, it’s about Adam Levine trying to get on a plane at a glamorous neon-lit airport. The TSA agents? Get this! They’re all sexy ladies! Let me tell you, Adam Levine is not getting on that plane without being frisked. As the video ends, Levine falls asleep to the sound of a muzak version of “Makes Me Wonder.” Why did he bother? The actual song wasn’t going to keep anyone awake.
“Makes Me Wonder” broke a Billboard record when it vaulted from #64 to #1 on the strength of its first week of iTunes sales. The song turned out to be the only real hit on It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. The band’s follow-up single “Wake Up Call” peaked at #19. That song, I’m just realizing now, is about Adam Levine murdering some guy after catching his girlfriend cheating. Goddamn. Maybe I need to make more attention to Maroon 5 lyrics; this guy is way more psycho than I thought.
After It Won’t Be Soon Before Long had been out for a year, Maroon 5 released a version of their album track “If I Never See Your Face Again” with Rihanna on it, but that one only made it to #51. It Won’t Be Soon Before Long still slowly made its way to double-platinum status. That’s that charmed Maroon 5 existence. Given enough time, even their flops start to look like hits. We’ll see them in this column a few more times.