Paging Norman Bates

Sex, Blood and Maroon 5: Pop Culture’s Wounds Run Deep

Yes, Adam Levine’s new music video is gory and over-the-top—and you have your own Game of Thrones addiction to thank for it.

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There was a time when the love-struck couple would kiss in the pouring rain. Now it’s blood. Rivers of it.

In Maroon 5’s new music video, “Animals,” lead singer Adam Levine stars as a stalker whose daytime job is chopping meat in a butcher shop. Wearing a hoodie and glasses—the textbook creeper uniform—Levine lurks outside model Behati Prinsloo’s window at night. (Prinsloo is his real-life wife.) He follows her around on the street, snaps pictures of her while she’s sleeping, and writhes on animal carcasses while fantasizing about her in a meat locker. The climactic fantasy montage is a bloody mess: After Levine finds Prinsloo sipping champagne in a bar, the two end up naked in her bed and, in the video’s grand finale, eating each other alive—oh, to be newlyweds!—beneath a deluge of blood.

There’s a not-so-subtle presumption that viewers will be titillated by all of this carnal sexuality. But feminist critics have slammed the video for promoting sexual violence. “I’m sure Levine and his bandmates think they’ve done something edgy here—ooh, so dark!—but there is nothing ‘alternative’ about showing women being stalked, hunted, raped or killed because it’s something that happens every damn day,” Jessica Valenti writes in The Guardian.

But this is a bit of a stretch: the lyrics of “Animals”—sloppy and crude, as if Levine wrote them pre-coitus—are more about a man’s primal desire than his appetite for murder. (“Baby, I’m preying on you tonight,” he sings. “Maybe you think that you can hide/I can smell your scent for miles.”)

And the video is excessive and ridiculous. The image of Levine, People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2013, and Victoria’s Secret model Prinsloo making out under a waterfall of blood is meant to shock viewers. But it’s also calculated salesmanship, and Levine—an anodyne reality TV host and lead singer of a milquetoast, dated pop rock band—has accomplished his goal of getting publicity.

Yes, Levine plays the role of a stalker and Prinsloo that of his “prey,” but she never comes across as a victim. She is equally desirous of Levine, as animalistic and eager to consume him while sticky with sanguine fluid. And the video takes its place alongside other gore-saturated shows and movies. Blood is running free—sometimes gross, sometimes sensual—in pop culture. The great equalizer is that we can’t get enough of it.

In days of yore, blood on screen was to be feared: think the trickle of blood signaling defilement in old vampire movies. Less was quite terrifying enough. In the 1960s and 1970s, gore gained currency. There’s the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—one of the most harrowing bits of mise en scène in movie history—when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lets out a blood-curdling scream before “Mrs. Bates” slashes and stabs her to death. Having sufficiently wet ourselves, we viewers are left with a chilling, black-and-white image of blood circling the shower drain.

Gore’s most gloriously grotesque moment came in the 1976 film Carrie, which brings the audience right to the edge with the bucket of pig’s blood teetering above Carrie’s head. In her white prom dress, Carrie is like a lamb to the slaughter, the blood besmirching her innocence. The scene is also a manifestation of her ultimate humiliation earlier in the film, when she gets her period in the school showers.

Now, there are no cliffhangers, just an expectation from the audience that the blood will flow. The trick for directors is to make it as surprising and shocking for such a gore-literate audience. The bloodletting in Gone Girl (no spoilers) is unimaginably horrible, almost comically so in two pivotal, and very squelchy, moments of the movie.

In the wildly popular HBO show Game of Thrones, blood, like sex, is currency. Season 3’s “The Red Wedding” gave us one of the bloodiest scenes in the series with the brutal massacre of a Westeros family, a reminder that those fighting for the Iron Throne either “win or die.” And in True Blood, blood and sex are inextricably linked and used to gain power.

And so it is in the Maroon 5 video: blood, being covered in it, reveling in it, is less an act of violence and more an act of unbridled sexuality for both Levine and Prinsloo. Levine broods in the meat locker, mad with desire for Prinsloo, whose appetite for him is equally primal.

A few feminists may think Levine is a violent misogynist, but as with Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” success in pop culture is often about driving a conversation. And for that, Levine wins.