If there’s one thing I love about pop music, it’s when someone finds success outside the conventional wisdom of the day. Take Bruno Mars, for instance; if you listen to most critics, this guy absolutely should not be a pop star, much less a burgeoning pop culture icon. Like his debut album Doo-Wops and Hooligans, Mars’ sophomore release Unorthodox Jukebox is anything but UN-orthodox. There is absolutely nothing groundbreaking on this record, nothing that hasn’t been done before. In fact, Bruno Mars pretty much prides himself on echoing the past, eschewing the current R&B streams for more of an R&B-tinged version of pop, influenced by equal parts 60’s Motown and 80’s Michael Jackson, with the occasional obligatory foray into reggae.
Nothing like releasing a record (or two) filled with sounds we’ve all heard many times before.
And yet, you cannot argue with results. Hooligans was a smashing success, and I predict that Unorthodox Jukebox will go the same direction. Apparently this guy has something on the ball that is eluding many of the critics.
And in fact, I believe he does. While we musical types are always on the lookout for something new, Bruno Mars demonstrates that at the end of the day, great pop music is defined by something other than innovation—namely, standout hooks. Mars is a master of hooks, and unlike the overly techno-tinged bubble-gum pop that surrounds him, he couches his hooks in just enough retro to make the music strike a perfect balance between current and timeless. The end result is that just about every song on Mars’ Jukebox is remarkably stick-in-your-head singable, and any one of them could be a radio hit at any given moment.
Oh, and let’s not ignore the obvious fact that Bruno Mars has something besides great hooks; he’s also got great looks. You combine stellar pop songwriting and timeless arrangements with that Elvis-ish baby face and boyish vocals that strain juuusst a little bit on the high end, and you have a force to be reckoned with.
As for Jukebox itself, perhaps the only flaw I see on the record is that it tends to echo the King of Pop just a little too much—only without the “woo hoos,” the glitzy white glove and the moonwalk. Songs like “Natalie” and “Moonshine” too easily take us back to “Dirty Diana” and “Billie Jean,” while the rhythm track on “Treasure” sounds like it could have been lifted from “Rock With You.” Nothing wrong with emulating MJ, but when you look like Elvis and sound like Michael Jackson, it can start working against you if you’re not careful. Mars is hugely talented, but he’s neither the King of Rock nor the King of Pop—not yet, anyhow—and positioning himself too closely to either of these icons could easily backfire. Measuring yourself against an icon may draw some welcome comparisons, but it can also cast a shadow on your own persona. If Bruno Mars ever hopes to be in that pantheon, he needs to find his own pedestal.
Getting back to the music, though, there’s one thing about Bruno Mars that is most certainly not retro, and that’s his lyricism. Despite the whole sex-drugs-rock-and-roll thing about modern music, blatant lyrics like “I got a body full of liquor and a cocaine kicker…You got your legs up in the sky with the devil in your eyes…screaming, ‘Give it to me baby, give it to me motherf**ker’” (“Gorilla”) are decidedly 21st century. If there’s a theme running through Unorthodox Jukebox, it’s definitely sex. Mostly a guy who knows he’s attractive singing songs that make the girls want him even more.
So while Mars’ latest record might be panned by some of the critics who only celebrate the breaking of new musical ground, his ability to tap into timeless appeal is certainly going to resonate with fans. There might not be much “unorthodox” about Unorthodox Jukebox, but I have no doubt that these songs are going to make their way onto lots of jukeboxes and playlists in the days to come.