Payphone by krin.jpg

Date Aired
July 14th, 2012
Running Time
Previous review
Next review

Todd plays "Payphone" on his piano.

A pop song review

Todd: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to our coverage of the simultaneous rise and fall of America's favorite talent show judge and part-time recording artist, Adam Levine.

Clip of Maroon 5 - "Moves Like Jagger"
Adam: ...moves like Jagger
I've got the moves like Jagger

Todd: Sure you do, Adam. Now, you may remember our episode on "Moves Like Jagger", where we talked about Levine's band, Maroon 5, and their many, many failings as a band. But for this episode, in the interest of fairness, I feel I should talk about their positive points too.

Video for "Makes Me Wonder"
Adam: I wake up with blood-shot eyes
Struggled to memorize

Todd (VO): Well, for one...uh..., Levine [pics showing...] sure has abs. Those are some amazing abs. Okay, but seriously, let's talk about their strong points because they do have at least a few good songs.

Adam: Give me something to believe in

Todd (VO): Now personally, I believe their claims to funkiness are...overstated, let's say, but I will concede that they do have a number of songs you could reasonably describe as funk. At their strongest, they have a certain energy and tightness that made them stand out.

Video for "Sunday Morning"

Todd (VO): And for another, they were a versatile group that could handle a lot of different styles of genres, and they had a gift for melody, which I had wished they'd exercise more often, honestly.

Todd: I bring this up because they at least did have enough strengths to make "Moves Like Jagger" a blatant sellout track...

Clip of same

Todd (VO): ...a cash-in written by studio hacks-for-hire to boost the flagging sales of their third album. Every interview Adam Levine has given about this song indicates a man who feels zero personal connection to it and fully aware that he's sold his band's soul for cash.

Audio interview on NPR's All Things Considered
Adam: ...and I was having, to be totally honest, some trouble producing hits, just me and the band, and I wanted to...venture outward and see what it would be like to write songs with other people.
(The answer: profitable)

Todd: But the fact that "Jagger" did so well seems to have decided their future. [Cover of Overexposed album] Every song on their new album has the fingerprints of a professional hit-maker on it, and along the way, [web article about...] they also lost keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, the only other member of the band who seemed to matter the tiniest bit. [Examiner article: "Maroon 5 tries to deliver dance hits with new album 'Overexposed'"] From this point on, Maroon 5 is a band whose success will only be measured by chart position and not artistic merit. And this new phase in their career reaches its culmination with their latest single, [single cover of...] "Payphone", which comes complete with a [arrow points to Wiz] guest rapper, of all things. At this point, they may as well just make commercial jingles for [image of...] Pepsi.

But let's be fair here. Just because they've sold out—which...they definitely sold out, there's...there's no mistake about that. But that doesn't mean that their music can't be good. [Cover of Sugar Ray album Floored] Some bands only hit their peak after they sell out. I sell out all the time. [Promo image for Verizon, Todd speaks fast] Verizon Wireless 4G network, unlimited talk, unlimited texts. So I'm not gonna begrudge Maroon 5 for selling out too. [Clip of "Harder to Breathe"] Besides, the songs where they tried to sound tough and edgy were always terrible, so maybe they'll sound better when they actually drop the pretense. So let's make a fair and honest evaluation of their newest song, "Payphone".

Video for "Payphone". Adam calls a woman.
Woman: Hello?
Adam: I'm at a payphone [The glass on the screen shatters] trying to call...

Todd (VO): Sorry, it's just... God, that man's voice, he's like a frog choking on a harmonica.

Todd: I'm...I'm just never gonna like Adam Levine's vocals, and no amount of selling out's gonna fix that. Actually, it kind of makes it worse.

Todd (VO): His falsetto always sounded computer-generated on its own, you add in Auto-Tune and...yeesh, human vocal cords just shouldn't make that noise.

Todd: But anyway, this song.

Brief clip of "Misery"

Todd (VO): Now, Maroon 5 usually release angry, pained songs about volatile relationships, but for the first time, they've released a single that takes us directly to the end of the affair. A full-on breakup ballad, a postmortem for a failed romance.

Todd: Let's see how they evoke that sadness and regret.

Adam: Yeah, I, I know it's hard to remember,
[The video goes from Adam at a phone to a bank robbery]
The people we used to be...

Todd (VO): Um, excuse me. I was trying to listen to this song.

Todd: Okay, one of these videos, huh? Um, well, if it's gonna drown out the actual song, I guess I'd better address it before it gets distracting.

Todd (VO): Okay, let's see, he's a banker and there's a robbery. [Adam grabs a gun from a robber's pocket] He makes a break for it with his girl—cool. [Cut to Adam and the girl running away] Okay, wait a minute, why are the cops shooting at him? He's clearly not one of the bank robbers. Oh, for Christ's sake, son, just lie down, let them arrest you, you can sue them later. Oh, and what the hell, now you're stealing a car? Why? You an idiot? What the...? [High-speed chase in the desert] Where are you even trying to escape to? [A police car hits another, sending it flaming and flying into the air] Okay, good, you've killed a bunch of innocent cops, and God knows why they were chasing you in the first place. I'm beginning to think you were one of the bank robbers; either way, you deserve to go to jail. Wasn't being a famous, good-looking rock star enough of a fantasy, you had to go film the self-insert hero-outlaw fic you wrote when you were ten?

Todd: Yeah, no. If I wanted a song about phones with nonsensical videos about crime sprees, I'll [clip of "Telephone"] stick with Lady Gaga, thank you very much. Shouldn't even dignify that, let's get back to this. Okay, Levine, you're sad, your breakup, your love is gone. Sell it.

Maroon 5: I'm at a payphone trying to call home
All of my change I spent on you
Where have the times gone, baby it's all wrong
Where are the plans we made for two?
If "Happy Ever After" did exist
I would still be holding you like this
Now I'm at a payphone...

Todd: Okay, interesting. Well, after listening to that wrenching heartbreak, I think we're all feeling the same thing inside—what the hell is a payphone? [Picture of $50 prepaid cell phones] Is that, like, a prepaid cell phone? What is it...what is it? [First person shot of inside of phone booth, where Todd fiddles with the phone] Whoa, what the hell is this thing? It's like a regular phone, but it's stuck on this one spot. So it doesn't seem to work. It wants me to put money in it? It's like a vending machine, but with a phone, I guess. I can't figure out how to take pictures with it or access the Internet or anything. Weird.

[Back to the room] Making a song about payphones in 2012. For serious, what's the next single called, [picture of...] "Cotton Gin"? But that's not the real problem. Even if I pretend I'm in a time period where people use payphones, the whole point of...

Todd (VO): ...using them in this song is that Levine needed a symbol to represent everything he's lost. All that time and effort wasted. Something to symbolize everything he's sacrificing in this last-ditch attempt to repair what probably can't be saved.

Todd: And the best thing he could come up with to symbolize all that is [picture of hand holding a dollar in quarters] fifty cents for the first minute and 25 for each additional minute.

Maroon 5: All of my change I spent on you

Todd (VO): Don't think she's gonna find that particular sacrifice all that moving. If that's all you're investing in this, well...

Todd: ...I don't know what to tell you. Check under the couch cushions and you'll feel better.

Todd (VO): Like, he'd have to be a trucker or something, constantly calling from the road, for the amount of money he spends on payphones to be anything significant, in which case, he should probably just get a damn cell phone plan.

Todd: [logo appears, fast talk again] Like the Verizon Unlimited Talk Unlimited Text plan, share everything.

Todd (VO): The thing is, I would support a song like this in theory; and the melody is very nice, I'll admit that. And at least he's not singing about anything as ridiculous as having moves like Mick Jagger. But somehow "Payphone" is even more hollow than they've ever been. For one, they sound less like a real band than ever. "Moves Like Jagger" already made Maroon 5 sound like a processed cheese version of themselves, but this has even less personality.

Todd: I can't be the only person to notice that the music for this is basically a Bruno Mars song.

Adam: I'm at a payphone trying to call home
[Brief clip of Bruno Mars - "Just The Way You Are": Bruno spells his name in cassette tape]
All of my change I spent on you

Todd (VO): It's the same beat and everything. All we're missing is Bruno's stupid hat. For another, the lyrics aren't very good.

Todd: And here's the thing—there is something there in this payphone thing. I don't know,...

Todd (VO): ...something about the emotional distance implied by having to communicate through this [pictures of old payphones] obsolete, probably in disrepair relic of public technology. And so, of course Maroon 5 decided to follow the [clip of...] "Moves Like Jagger" template by coming up with an odd, potentially interesting conceit...

Todd: ...and then taking it absolutely nowhere.

Adam: You turned out the lights

Todd (VO): Right, yeah, this is what the lyrics are about instead—darkness, burning bridges, other lines straight out of [picture of...] The Complete Hack's Guide to Songwriting. It's becoming perfectly clear to me why they were content to drown out the lyrics with gunfire and explosions if the best they could do is getting angry about fairy tales and love songs.

Maroon 5: If "Happy Ever After" did exist
I would still be holding you like this
All those fairy tales are full of shit

Todd (VO): Breaking...

Todd: Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine has discovered that fairy tales are different from reality. (Fairy tales: not real!) This new finding supports similar studies reported in the academic publication [logo of...] LiveJournal.

Maroon 5: One more fucking love song, I'll be sick

Todd (VO): Maroon 5 were always at their best at their most [clip of "Makes Me Wonder"] cocky, alpha-male, rock star, douchiest. Whiny, high-school emo-ness about how love songs are lies, [turning into a whiny high-schooler] it's all lies! It doesn't fit well on them.

Todd: It's such a waste. They could've built up the payphone metaphor into something with serious emotional power, and instead, all it leads to is that Levine might not have enough quarters for the laundromat.

Adam: We called it love
But even the sun sets in paradise

Todd (VO): Uh...of course the sun sets in paradise.

Todd: That's why it has such [postcard reading, "Greetings from Paradise," and featuring...] gorgeous sunsets. It's famous for them. Bad metaphor! ["Bad Metaphor" stamped over still from video]

Adam: You turned your back on tomorrow
'Cause you forgot yesterday.
I gave you my love to borrow,
But you just gave it away.

Todd: [groans angrily] Okay, that's just a personal pet peeve. Here's a hint for all you up-and-coming songwriters.

Todd (VO): Never, ever, ever rhyme "tomorrow" and "borrow". It never works. Outside of stupid love songs, have you ever heard someone say, "I'm gonna give you my love to borrow"? No, of course not. It's not a DVD you don't wanna pay for, like I expect it back when you're done.

Todd: It always sounds forced. (See also: "reason" and "season") Only the talentless rhyme "tomorrow" and "borrow". Don't do it.

Adam: I know I've said it before
But all of our bridges burned down.

Todd (VO): This is not working.

Todd: Fortunately, because Levine is too lazy to write songs on his own anymore, we can hand this off to someone else.

Todd (VO): This is Wiz Khalifa. Regular viewers may remember him [clip of...] from when I reviewed his less-than-impressive breakthrough single, "Black and Yellow".

Todd: But since then, I've gotten a better understanding of why he became a big name, after [clips of...] hearing him successfully take on the role of the sensitive lover-man in "Roll Up" and holding his own against Snoop Dogg in "Young, Wild and Free", so I'm interested to see what he can do with a song like this because the tone of this song is a difficult one to nail. It's not supposed to be torturously heartbroken, it's just frustrated, regretful, contemplative and unsatisfied and without closure. How best to express those tangled emotions.

Wiz: Man, fuck that shit

Todd: [pause] I've heard worse?

Wiz: Man, fuck that shit
I'll be out spending all this money
While you're sitting round wondering
Why it wasn't you who came up from nothing
Made it from the bottom
Now when you see me I'm stunning

Todd (VO): Are you kidding me? Am I listening to yet another rapper who can't talk about anything but about how great his life is? It's just one breakup song. It's not a difficult concept, just sing, "I'm sad, I miss you, we had some good times."

Todd: One verse, just one little verse where you don't rap about how great you are and your great life and your goddamn car!

Wiz: And all of my cars start with a push of a button

Todd (VO): Yeah, you know what? I hope you weren't too attached to that car because Levine is doing some terrible things to it right now. I tried to tell you—push-start cars are easy to steal. Did you listen? Noooo.

Wiz: Telling me the chances I blew up
Or whatever you call it
Switch the number to my phone
So you never could call it

Todd (VO): Hah, take that. He changed the number in his...payphone? At least he got the phone part in the song right.

Wiz: Swish, what a shame could have got picked

Todd (VO): Even if this wasn't attached to a completely unrelated song, I hate this verse. I mean, the song is a little pissy, but at the situation, it isn't being a complete vindictive dick to the girl herself like Wiz has decided to do. And that's only if you give him enough credit to believe that this was directed at an ex-girlfriend at all.

Wiz: Had a really good game but you missed your last shot
So you talk about who you see at the top

Todd (VO): This stupid, generic anti-hater verse could've been written to [single cover of "Hard in da Paint" by] Waka Flocka Flame or any other rapper he has a beef with, and it wouldn't change the meaning at all. This sucks.

Wiz: So you can go and take that little piece of shit with you.

Todd (VO): If that was supposed to make Maroon 5's part look any better, it definitely succeeded. Okay, what did we learn today?

Todd: I think it's that if you're going to sell out...

[Clip of "Moves Like Jagger"]

Todd (VO): ...make hot, sexy dance jams and not love ballads because that was way worse than "Moves Like Jagger". Not that it's the worst song I've ever heard, but it just doesn't work at all. And you know what?

Todd: Adam Levine, if you're out there, I got something to say to you.

Todd (VO): I know you don't want to burn out. I know you're worried that you're out of ideas and you can't do this on your own anymore. But that doesn't mean you have to give up your integrity like this. I mean, you can get hits now, I guess, but what about your legacy?

Todd: Wouldn't you rather leave behind good music? Wouldn't you rather be known as someone who made good, high-quality music with soul and personality, even at the cost of his own commercial success?

Wiz: Man, fuck that shit

Todd: Fair enough.

Closing tag song: Travis Tritt - "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)"

"Payphone" is owned by A&M/Octone Records
This video is owned by me

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.