“For years I have maintained that the BN should hire a less rock, grunge-oriented music critic because let's face it, you cannot be objective about pop music. Your obscure record reviews and lists of 'Best Albums of the Year' every year demonstrate a real disconnect with those who do enjoy mainstream pop.”
This is part of a letter from a reader named Kathie, and it showed up in my mailbox July 3, 2014, the day after Bruno Mars’ appearance at what was then known as First Niagara Center. Interestingly, I didn’t trash Mars in my review of that show. I did say that the gig felt a tad bit rote and lacking in magic, however. And I made fun of the dude’s Capri shorts.
Like Kathie, most readers of The Buffalo News would not likely peg me as much of a Bruno Mars fan. But when Mars performed his new single, “24K Magic,” on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
No one is more surprised than I am.
It’s been a bit of a personal struggle, this whole Bruno Mars thing. A struggle I’ve engaged with in a very public manner, for better or worse.
The crux of my problem is a tendency to cast a wary eye toward the hyperbolic scribblings and rantings of music journalists, the majority of whom I wouldn’t trust to mow my lawn, to say nothing of deciding what is wheat and what is chaff in the world of music. I mean, how would they know, most of them? I know - Oh, the irony, right? But “liking” music is not the same as studying it, playing it, or living through (and for) it. A musical tourist or credential-less critic probably can’t tell the difference between Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke.
So when comparisons to Prince, Michael Jackson, Gaye and Stevie Wonder started being bandied about in relation to Mars – my reaction was a skeptical one.
I had seen Mars at the bottom of a UB Fallfest bill in 2010 – Mars was opening for B.O.B. and Jason Mraz – and noted at the time that he had a strong voice, though his material wasn’t yet fully formed, and his set included a cover of Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which struck me as being a bit too obvious of a choice.
Then came Mars’ 2014 headlining show.
By this point, Mars had played the Super Bowl Halftime Show, during which some 115 million people had witnessed the then-28 year-old , in the parlance of many a critic, “steal the show” from his fellow guests, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was also riding high on the success of the multi-million selling, Grammy-winning “Unorthodox Jukebox” album, his sophomore full-length effort. Mars had become a lot like a Mega-Bank, or Beyonce – too big to fail, beyond reasonable critical reproach, the “it boy” of the moment. Any critic worth his or her salt would have to approach this subject with a healthy skepticism, for, even though pop music is not an immediate matter of life and death, a la significant hard or breaking news, it does matter. When you are told repeatedly that something is above criticism, your first instinct should be to view it with a critical eye, to see if it can support the hype.
I found that Mars show to be entertaining, but lacking in what I described as “the one thing that can’t be taught … that ephemeral glue, that otherness, that blend of sex and soul and sweetness that carries a gig of this variety. That’s something that needs to be earned, and then honed over time. You can’t just walk into it, and drape it over yourself, like a cape. ... Mars wants to be Michael Jackson and Prince rolled into one, he made plain throughout Monday’s show. He’s got a long way to go before he can even think about filling either one of those artists’ shoes.”
I’m not backpedaling on any of that, but I’ve been keeping an open mind about Mars, waiting and hoping that he’d develop his obvious talent a little bit more, or at least, grow into himself a bit. Once you stop trying so hard, often, your true self shines through in a more unfettered manner. An unfettered self is what I saw and heard during the SNL broadcast, when Mars and his band simply tore it up with an incessantly funky romp through “24K Magic.”
New York Times critic Jon Pareles isn’t buying it, and he claimed Mars is “trying way too hard to convince us that he’s down with hustlers and gangsters,” and that “24K Magic” is “just the kind of empty materialism that P-Funk was originally born to sabotage.”
I agree with Pareles, but I still love “24k Magic,” particularly the live SNL version. Because it’s a trifle that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a trifle. And it’s funky as hell. That’s good enough for me. I’ve never taken Mars as seriously as I take P-Funk anyway, and I doubt I ever will. But good playing, good singing, and a well-written funk jam will work for me every time.
I still don’t like Bruno’s shorts, though.
By the way, Kathie, for the record – I was not a fan of what they were calling “grunge” back in the day, with very few exceptions. But I grew to like some of it, over time. I guess the same thing is happening to me with Bruno Mars…