Male pop stars are a strange breed. Generally, they start out making sappy, sweet pop music about girls or love in the abstract. After a few years of this, however, there comes a time when all pop stars have to grow up. This can spell disaster: the transition from fresh-faced adolescent singer to post-puberty 20s singer has seen many a star relegated to the “where are they now” section of a tabloid magazine or VH1 program.
In recent years, one artist has not only avoided the usual pitfalls but continues to evolve his look and sound to stay on top of the charts. I’m talking, of course, about Bruno Mars.
After spending a number of years in LA making money as a songwriter, the introduction to Mars the singer came in summer 2009 with his features on Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire” and B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You.” He released his debut solo album Doo-Wops & Hooligans in 2010 to widespread success powered by singles like “The Lazy Song” and “Just The Way You Are“.
Mars’ introduction was that of a fedora-clad singer-songwriter, which put him alongside a small army of other fedora-clad singer-songwriters from that era. Regardless, he enjoyed widespread commercial success from the release.
Mars’ second release Unorthodox Jukebox saw him begin to find his own niche in the modern pop spectrum. While the album retained the singer-songwriter vibe on tracks like “When I Was Your Man“, the majority of the album saw Mars taking cues from influential pop artists from the past to refine his own sound.
“Treasure” is my favorite single from this album. Mars makes excellent use of the Michael Jackson-esque instrumental to write a pop song that is equal parts danceable and heartfelt. “Locked Out of Heaven“, with its driving bass and drums, feels like a track from The Police’s discography updated for the 2010s with bright synths over top. Both songs proved to be smash successes, cementing Mars’ place in the pop lexicon of the early 2010s.
From here, Mars was on a commercial ROLL: he performed the halftime show at Super Bowl XLVIII and released a number of interim singles including “Young Girls“. With its wide-open chorus and Mars belting out the melancholy lyrics about lost loves, “Young Girls” could pass for an MJ b-side.
Mars’ success to this point allowed him creative freedom in spite of what other pop artists of the time were coming out with. However, his most acclaimed project had yet to arrive.
Mark Ronson released his single “Uptown Funk” in November 2014. Propelled by Mars’ vocal performance, the song was a smash success. Everyone heard this song, whether they wanted to or not: it hit number one in the US and abroad and stayed there for what felt like forever.
“Uptown Funk” called back to the big boisterous horns, slapped bass and four-on the floor funkiness of Earth, Wind, And Fire, and Mars’ November 2016 release 24K Magic saw the pop star continuing his musical gymnastics.
Mars is a musical chameleon: he has a habit of wearing different artist’s musical and visual aesthetic, while presenting a final product that sounds wholly his own. Just listen to the heavy Boyz II Men vibe of “Versace on the Floor”:
That is a 90s R&B ANTHEM. It’s sexy and vocally massive, with the laid-back spaced synths and percussion in the verses and bright, percussive guitar tone in the chorus. What’s really fascinating is the lack of features on 24K Magic: the project is Mars making the kind of music he wants to, unabated by other artists. This isn’t to say he’s making every song a party of one: already in 2018, Mars released a remix of “Finesse” with Cardi B providing a party-rap verse to kick off the track.
From there, the song goes full Bell Biv Devoe with punchy drum sounds, three-part harmonies and wobbly synths under Mars singing about “dripping in finesse.”
Mars has great sensibility from song to song, which allows him to produce these homages to his own influences and make them profitable. My major concern is how many movements he’s covered in a relatively short amount of time. It’s been profitable, sure, but the timeline is rapidly approaching Mars’ own entrance as an artist.
Will Mars start writing music that sounds like Doo-Wops & Hooligans again? Will he return to the fedora-clad heartfelt guitar songs? Are we close to getting Mars’ grunge phase? Will Mars go even further back and do some vocal jazz or some actual doo-wop? Only time will tell..