Adam Levine is, in the parlance of critics dismissing female protagonists, “unlikeable.” His voice emerges from his mouth pre-AutoTuned; he, physically, has the handsome-yet-infuriating features of Nick from Gone Girl, who says of himself, “I have a face you want to punch.”
He knows this, he comments on it, he claims not to care about it, he’s really quite meta about the fact that much of the world sees him as the human that would result if an Ed Hardy t-shirt became sentient. It is possible, then, that the video for “Animals,” the second single of Maroon 5’s latest album, V, is just Levine testing us, to see if we can, collectively, like him even less.
“Animals” wants, very badly, to be twisted and edgy. (In this excellent n+1 story, a studio executive offhandedly describes what Levine’s band requires in a hit. “For Maroon 5, the girl is always torturing Adam. There’s got to be something dark in it.”) The funny thing about pop music is that its ideas of what constitute “edgy” almost always end up back in excruciatingly familiar territory: a scene of carnage, a naked woman. As if there is anything remotely subversive about those images; as if art has not been all about depicting the nude female form since time immemorial, as if violence were some kind of cutting-edge technology just announced by Apple. What is legitimately “edgy,” if we must use the word, is Lorde wearing long sleeves and choosing not to straighten her hair, or Nicki Minaj breaking a banana in two in the “Anaconda” video, or Kira Isabella recording a country track about date rape.
By the real definition of edgy — surprising, subversive, rare — there’s not a lot of edgy in the video for “Animals.” It is definitely dark, though, and disturbing. Levine plays a butcher who sees a beautiful woman (played by his wife, supermodel Behati Prinsloo), stalks her, becomes obsessed with her, breaks into her apartment, photographs her (sans consent) while she sleeps and, in what seems to be presented as a fantasy, has crazy sex with her as blood pours down on them from above. We end with Levine, bloodless, standing outside her window in the rain, something that is only romantic in country songs or ’80s movies and is, without fail, creepy and unwelcome in real life.
Representation and endorsement are not the same thing; a music video that depicts a violent stalker is not, by default, encouraging men of the world to become violent stalkers. But I think it’s fair to say that Levine believes the video will be sexy, as, judging by his carefully constructed public persona, he hopes every single thing he ever does will be perceived as sexy. He has made it his mission in celebrity to embody the basic bro’s Platonic ideal of sexiness: a chiseled-as-if-from-marble body, a Victoria’s Secret Angel for a wife, sleeves of tattoos climbing his arms like ivy. Uncreative choices all but, to a decent-sized sect of humanity, also unimpeachable.
So the endorsement, the promotion of sex and violence as inextricably linked and best enjoyed together, is there in the video. Levine is not saying you should do any of this, or even that he would. Just that this, whatever this is, is hot. Maybe a little creepy, but creepy in a hot way. Maybe a little disturbing, but disturbing in a way that turns you on. Using all of Levine’s career and PR efforts as context, it is fair to assume his goal is not for us to walk away from the video thinking his “character” is a horrifying monster. I think his hope is that we’ll leave thinking, whoa, that’s so dark, and so dangerous, and so hot.
Perhaps there are some women out there who find the prospect of being “hunted down” and “preyed on” and “eaten alive” to be appealing. You do you, ladies of the world. But — wild guess! — most women would rather not be preyed upon or photographed without consent or followed home by some guy at a bar to whom you politely but clearly expressed your lack of interest. The idea that some sketchy-seeming guy who seems a little too into you will follow you home is not erotic or exciting or even a little bit enticing to actual women; it’s just scary as hell, and all too possible. As Katie Hatsy wrote at HitFix, “It tells a story, I’d argue, that has crossed the minds of many women, women even who are fans of Maroon 5: that the man with the neckbeard at the club whose flirtations you reject will come back and murder you.” This sort of thing has happened before. This sort of thing happens all the time.
To release a song and video with this kind of violence-as-preamble-to-a-sexy-encounter right now is to be completely cut off from, or uninterested in, reality. Somebody’s finger is very, very far from the pulse of the public. This is especially jarring because Levine is ostensibly reaching the public all the time: Maroon 5 is the musical guest on Saturday Night Live this week, and Levine has been a coach/star on The Voice since its inception. Much as one might like to dismiss the song and its accompanying video as irrelevant, it is, by virtue of Levine’s pop cultural ubiquity, going to be heard many, many times by many, many people. Yet I guess this is as good a reminder as any that our televisions only work one way: we hear Levine, twice a week for two hours at a stretch during primetime, no less. But he doesn’t hear us. If he did, he’d probably know that now is not the time for a song or video like “Animal.”
We’re in the midst of multiple high-profile campaigns to combat the assault of women: the United Nation’s #HeForShe campaign announced by actress and advocate Emma Watson; the White House’s “It’s On Us” anti-sexual assault movement; the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse initiative to raise awareness of financial abuse in relationships, which boasts Kerry Washington as a celebrity ambassador. The hacking and distribution of female celebrity’s private, naked photos is a violation that’s eerily called to mind in the “Animals” video, when Levine snaps photos of Prinsloo while she’s sleeping and develops the film in his dark room/lair-space. (Distracting anachronisms like this are something of a Maroon 5 trademark; see also: “Payphone.”) Do we really need a video of Levine using the meat locker as a room of punching bags, in between shots of him stalking and bloodily bedding Prinsloo? The video of Ray Rice clocking his then-fiancee across the jaw in an elevator was kind of enough for me, relationship-mashed-up-with-violence-wise.
Like most of Maroon 5’s post-Songs About Jane material, “Animals” looks and sounds like a bunch of other songs and ideas surgically lifted from other artists’ work and reassembled with the edges smoothed and the surface polished to a shiny, almost-slimy sheen. The lyrics have these little echoes of “Blurred Lines” (“But you’re an animal / Baby it’s in your nature” vs. “Baby I’m preying on you tonight / Hunt you down eat you alive / Just like animals”) and, unsurprisingly, the Neon Trees’ single, “Animal,” (“We’re sick like animals / We play pretend / You’re just a cannibal… Take a bite of my heart tonight”). Blood raining down from the sky is a motif as old as Carrie, which is to say, older than Levine. The imagery of Levine and Prinsloo, blood dripping down their bare bodies, scans like Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood, another then-true life couple, drenched in blood and kissing in the “Heart-Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand)” video from 2007 and, in some shots, the True Blood stars’ 2010 Rolling Stone cover. This “I’ll stalk you and I’ll make you want me too” model has also been done before, by Lady Gaga in “Paparazzi” (“I’m your biggest fan / I’ll follow you until you love me”) and, most recently, with Tyler Farr’s atrocious anthem “Redneck Crazy,” (“Gonna drive like hell through your neighborhood / Park this Silverado on your front lawn… I’m gonna lean my headlights into your bedroom windows.”) The classic, of course, is The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” which only gets creepier and creepier the more times you hear it. (Although Sting, for whatever it’s worth, referred to the hit as “a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.”)
You could argue that all pop music is some amalgamation of old tropes, chords and visuals assembled with a different context and perspective in mind. But the key there is to bring something new to the table, something fresh and energizing and changed. But “Animals” doesn’t reinterpret these elements in a new way. Instead, it seems to market itself as bold and daring, like none of us will notice that we’ve seen all this stuff before, and better.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Hey, maybe this is all an elaborate stunt to raise awa — no, nope, probably not.