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Adam Levine Has Our Number (And Won't Stop Calling)

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This video contains profanity.

Maroon 5's "Payphone" is the most irritating song on the radio right now. With a hook as insidiously intrusive as your officemate's ringtone, a Wiz Khalifa rap so disconnected from the main lyric that it seems like an accidental cut and paste, and a martial beat that replaces this L.A. band's louche funk with Coldplay pomp, "Payphone" just does not make for satisfying listening. Yet the song broke the record for first-week digital sales and seems like an inevitable summer pop staple (It's no. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart). Adam Levine's stint on The Voice certainly helps, but can't be the only reason there's a line in front of this "Payphone." What's the lure?

Maybe it's the song's ever so slightly new twist on nostalgia. The phone booth, once a landmarks as common as McDonald's golden arches, is vanishing — according to the trade organization the American Public Communications Council, the number on American streets is down 75 per cent since 1989. London's familiar red telephone boxes are being transformed into Wi Fi hotspots; U.S. booths are going on EBay for about a hundred bucks. In the pricey video Maroon 5 has made for its new hit, Levine goes for the antiquated reach-out only after his cell has been demolished in a fiery car crash.

The payphone is becoming pointless, and invoking the word allows for some reflection on what else accelerated living causes us to abandon. "Payphone" is all about the irritating inevitability of change — it's in the "baby please don't go" category of love songs, but this plea is pointless. The lyrics read like a fight an abandoned lover picks with the shadow of someone long gone.

Levine's vocal style turns out to be ideal for this — his falsetto whine so easily transforms into a petulant snarl. "All these fairy tales are full of s---," he mutters, but then he admits he's paralyzed: his analog heart can't comprehend the fact that this woman has hit delete. His persistence is a little creepy, too — maybe she's blocked his number on her Android, but he's relocated to find another way in. It's useful to remember that in recent years, the folks most often associated with phone booths were petty criminals.

Wiz Khalifa gets it; his rap seems out of place partly because he's so mercilessly forward-thinking. "Switched the number to my phone, so you never can call it," he sneers before he drives away in his keyless-ignition hybrid. His confidence contrasts with Levine's indignant inferiority complex, and gives the song a hidden layer of meaning.

Maroon 5 is a band that's adjusted to pop's ever-changing palette in ways some might call corrupt: Levine's mounting fame, combined with his talent as a hook singer for hip hop tracks, has pushed the group away from collaborative adventuresomeness and toward becoming a vehicle for a familiar vocal flavor. With founding keyboardist Jesse Carmichael out of the band and uber-producer Max Martin helming its next album, Maroon 5 has fully moved away from any vestige of alt-rock edginess. I think that's what lends "Payphone" its unexpected pathos — that rusty booth with its sticky metal hinges could be Maroon 5's own self-conception. The tension between following that punishing click track forward and hanging back in the gentle ebb of the piano lines filling out the song's middle, between the fast current of the song's rhythm and its slow melody, is one that any of us can understand, as we early adopt our way toward oblivion. Glued to our mobile devices, we move and talk, move and talk; but sometimes, like Levine in this bitter little hit, we long for the shelter of those plastic walls, where we can weep into the receiver in peace.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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