The Bruno Mars Dilemma: To Whom Much is Given

 Photo: Bruno Mars’ Instagram Account  

Photo: Bruno Mars’ Instagram Account  

When Bruno Mars paid tribute to Prince at the 59th annual Grammy Awards, I went into a slight Twitter frenzy.  I was shocked by his execution, as he seemed poised, and confident, but not over confident.  He sang well, danced when necessary, and made the guitar scream when called to. And, given the relatively short list of artists that can sing, dance, and play the guitar (well), selecting Bruno for the tribute made sense. Though it’s almost impossible (pretty sure it’s impossible) to fully capture Prince’s artistry and skill in a live performance, Bruno did a relatively good job considering the task at hand. 

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Late last week, Bruno Mars released a remix for his song Finesse featuring Cardi B. The video for Finesse features Bruno Mars and Cardi B as honorary characters in the 90’s sitcom, In Living Color.  By all merits, Finesse is a lively an interpretation of New Jack Swing, pioneered by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, producer and keyboardist, Teddy Riley. In the mid-1980’s, New Jack Swing merged the infectious groves of dance music, the charisma of Hip-Hop, and the sex appeal of R&B.  It was fresh and vibrant. Sonically, New Jack Swing incorporated the Roland TR-808 drum machine with powerful synthesizers. Known for its emphatic drum hits and intricate instrumental compositions, New Jack Swing was perfect for live performances and dancers, especially.  New Jack Swing aided dancers, as leg kicks, arm flails, and dance routines were synchronized with the music and flashing lights. Much like the music of the late 80’s and early 90’s, Mars’ Finesse captures the sound of that era.  Mars’ penchant for older music, not just New Jack Swing, is almost embedded in his bloodline.

Growing up in Hawaii, Mars was born into a musical family, and a family of entertainers. His mother was a singer and hula dancer. Mars’ father was a singer and multi-instrumentalist.  Plus, six siblings, and other family members, Mars’ family was comprised of entertainers whom ranged from Elvis impersonators to cover band musicians.  When Mars was four, he joined the family business – a Las Vegas styled revue, performing Motown, and Top 40 songs, at corporate events, weddings and birthday parties.

When hired as a musician for corporate events...you are expected to play the music exactly as it’s heard on the recording...

When hired as a musician for corporate events, like Mars’ family, you are expected to play the hits, to play the music exactly as it’s heard on the recording. As a cover band, you aren’t expected to show your knowledge of music theory, chord substitutions, improvisation, altered scales, or anything along those lines. If anything, those things are discouraged.  Again, people want to hear the music exactly like it was recorded. People want to dance, and not be bogged down by music in odd time signatures, and fancy-pants chord alterations.

Without question, Bruno Mars is one of today’s most talented artists.  He can dance, sing, play multiple instruments, and perform.  He’s charismatic and good-looking, too.  His band, The Hooligans, is one of the finest collections of musicians. They’re ability to sing, dance, and yet retain proficiency on their instrument is impressive, to say the least. Undoubtedly, he’s a superstar. But, there’s something missing.  For all the talent he has, it seems as if he’s selling himself short.

...the question one has to raise is: what has Bruno Mars added to the tradition of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, Zapp, Bobby Brown and others?

Mars’ latest album, 24K Magic is more of a cover/tribute album than anything else.  It’s quality music, on some level. But, the question one has to raise is: what has Bruno Mars added to the tradition of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, Zapp, Bobby Brown and others? As it stands, there’s very little he has added, if anything. But, this is where Mars’ upbringing becomes a useful context – he’s a trained (and skilled) entertainer, not an innovator in the way the artists he has idolized are.  Ultimately, Mars’ lack of innovation may be the thing that keeps him out of legendary status.  The artists we remember are the artists that innovate, not those that simply recreate what already was.

So, given Bruno Mars’ skill should we – as fans and listeners – require more of him?