Learning to Listen Bonus Cut: Bruno Mars loves the 80s! What’s next?...

Dear Riffs, Beats, & Codas reader: I wrote a review of Bruno Mars’s XXIVk Magic when it first came out in late 2016 but never published it. His recent victory at 2018's Grammys inspired me to dust if off and revisit my original sentiments, which remain the same. He was among the few nominees’ whose work I was familiar with so his wins validate my sense that he is an interesting musician. The wins also reiterate why he needs to try something new if he wants to become a great artist rather than a merely entertaining one.

After successfully channeling elements from Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown and The Police on his albums Bruno Mars scored his biggest hit in 2014 on the throwback Minneapolis funk of the Mark Ronson produced “Uptown Funk.” Sultry, danceable and melodic it’s one of those inevitable hits that’s simply undeniable. It topped the pop charts for 14 weeks and won Mars and Ronson two Grammys, including the main platter Record of the Year. Several weeks ago Mars built on this winning streak by winning six more including Record (“24 K Magic”), Song (“That’s What I Like”), Album (XXVk Magic), R&B Song (“That’s What I Like”),  R&B Vocal (“That’s What I Like”), and R&B Album (XXVk Magic).

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album  XXIVk Magi c.

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album XXIVk Magic.

Mars is smart enough to know how pop music works, hence he returns to the 1980s R&B well in full force (coincidentally, the name of a successful production group in the ‘80s and 90s!) on XXIVk Magic. If you are connoisseur of R&B circa 1986-89 this will take you back in time. But can Mars bring you forward into the present? Maybe, but let’s survey some of the musical evidence: 

On the top 10 hit title track he dips into the Roger Troutman & Zapp playbook with a funky bottom borrowed from 1990s hip-hop. “Perm” is pure James Brown funk. I hear traces of Bobby Brown style New Jack swing in “Straight Up & Down.” The torchy soul ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye” is the kind of large scale vocal and emotional workout Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and Freddie Jackson built their careers on.

From one listen, its clearly state-of-the art 1980s pop-funk dressed up in post-millennial production. As an album for cruising or for throwing on at a party album it ebbs and flows perfectly. Mars’s melodic gifts also place him at the forefront of today’s pop songwriters. You will definitely hum these tunes after hearing them once or twice. 

A few challenges could disrupt the non-stop Mars party. In playing to past strengths Mars risks pandering to his established audience. His love for funk styles of the past is admirable, but he has shown a broader stylistic range on his two previous albums. In the digital era, albums are often grab bags of styles.  The downloadable buffet approach takes pressure off artists to make coherent suites. Still, he has traded the stylistic playground for an entertaining but overly familiar set of grooves. Further, songs like 2010’s “Just the Way You Are” demonstrated a sweet side but the sour element sometimes threatens this balance in his lyrics. By intentionally writing songs aimed at players and party people (ostensibly male) he tends to write about little beyond partying and seduction.

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

He sings to a female suitor that it’s good they like the same things in “That’s What I Like.” Meaning…she would be screwed if they didn’t? The melody of “Versace on the Floor” is enchanting and the crooning is expert. But, the song is almost parodic in its one-dimensional focus on literally getting a woman’s clothes off. Love songs are de rigeur in pop but there is a lot of effort here for very thin ideas.

XXIVk Magic solidifies Mars as a master of funk pastiche, and as a nine-song album, he is wise enough to not overstay his welcome. Still, I sense there are deeper and more interesting stories he could tell especially with his encyclopedic musical knowledge. I hope that as he plans his next album he tunes out the retro hits and trusts his own groove more.



LTL Excerpt 5: Future voices in the present: Bruno Mars



                                                                                     Copyright   ©  Steve Granitz/WireImage.com.

                                                                                     Copyright ©Steve Granitz/WireImage.com.

… It’s easy to get excited about a few great singles or a great album or two from a promising singer, but it takes most vocalists many years of performing, recording, and reflecting to cultivate a distinctive artistic voices. The pop music industry of the two thousands and twenty tens resembles other post-50s pop eras in that lackluster performers continually garner more attention than innovative, electrifying singers. The digitally mediated shortened pop culture news cycle is the only significant difference.

Many of the more prominent, and even acclaimed, superstars in popular and semi-popular music (i.e. jazz) are transparent reproductions of earlier pop archetypes. While homage and pastiche can be useful passages for artists to locate their own voices most abandon distinctiveness for the easy allure of formulas. I can cite myriad examples ranging from former “teen pop” singers who are now considered “mature” solo acts to commercial crooners who borrow from the aura of jazz but fail to embody its improvisatory spirit. I am, however, more interested in tuning my ears to the best singers in the present who provide hope for the future of vocal singing worth savoring. Several appealing contemporary singers, with more recent careers, have garnered sufficient enough praise that I am confident their profiles will continue to expand.  Instead of devoting chapters to their work I acknowledge their promising work, and wager that their careers will continue to provide listeners with meaningful music...

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright  ©   www.brunomars.com.

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright© www.brunomars.com.

…I heard Bruno Mars’s (b. 1985) songwriting before actually hearing him when Cory Monteith’s character Finn sang “Just the Way You Are” on an episode of Glee to Chris Colfer’s character Kurt. I liked the melody and the sentiment and was very impressed by the diversity of Mars’s debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. Mars has a lean, nasal sound that evokes Michael Jackson and Prince lovingly without compromising his essence.   If his lyrics are sometimes insipid (“Lazy Song”) or too literal minded (“Grenade”) I am impressed by the melodic richness and aural diversity his album demonstrates. As a writer, producer, and vocalist he is a self-contained performer who can shape his own sound; this greatly distinguishes him from other pop acts that rely on the vision and talents of outside producers. My impression of him deepened when I saw his live appearances as the featured singer (2010) and as host and musical performer (2012) on Saturday Night Live and his James Brown inspired performance of “Runaway Baby” on the 2012 Grammy Awards broadcast. At each performance he presented himself as a stylish, buoyant band-leading dynamo that can sing, dance and perform with an acumen we associate with Jackson, Prince, Brown and forebears like Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr. The success of his sophomore album, 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox, a delicious slice of '80s pop inflected with contemporary hip-hop touches, and 2014’s buoyant number one pop hit “Uptown Funk,” an homage to Prince-style ‘80s funk, furthered my impressions of him as a pop figure for our time.

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright   ©  www.brunomars.com.

                                                                               Cover image: Copyright ©www.brunomars.com.