Today, pop stars arrive so fully formed, they might as well have been hatched in test tubes — with digitally flawless pipes and a fresh batch of market-ready hooks spilling out when they’re unleashed upon the world.
Even among such figures, Bruno Mars feels like something special. A multi-instrumentalist and dynamic entertainer who borrows from James Brown, Michael Jackson, The Police, Jason Mraz and a veritable encyclopedia of other hitmakers, Mars is the quintessence of pop. His flashy confections are rendered with retro finesse, inspiring comparisons to classic song-and-dance men even as he excels at the kind of sleek manufacturing that dominates the modern Top 40.
Thus far, his success has equaled his promise. With just two albums to his credit, Mars is already one of the best-selling singles artists of the digital era, with three of his singles moving more than eight million copies.
What: Bruno Mars
Where: Colonial Life Arena, 801 Lincoln St.
When: Friday, June 13, 8 p.m..
With: Aloe Blacc
More Info: coloniallifearena.com
In many ways, the singer — originally christened Peter Gene Hernandez — really was bred for this success. Born into a family of musicians that had him performing at a young age, Mars spent most of the 2000s hustling through various DJ and cover band gigs in Los Angeles before forming the production team Smeezingtons with producer Philip Lawrence and songwriter Ari Levine. By the time he dropped his 2010 debut Doo-Wops and Hooligans, Mars had spent most of his 25 years preparing for life as a pop juggernaut.
But his entertainment superpowers don’t extend to the persona put forth in his material. Particularly on 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars falls in line with a rash of recent singers who indulge in racy wordplay, but fail miserably when it comes to gender politics. The most infamous perpetrator is Robin Thicke, whose retro-pop smash “Blurred Lines” can be read as promoting date rape.
Mars, it seems, is at least aware of these issues. As he notes on the Hooligans cut “Runaway Baby,” he’s a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a line that seems to allude to the often troubling misogyny that complicates his otherwise romantic vibe. During that song, he prowls for “a pretty thing to grab” and boasts that “there’s only one carrot, and they all gotta share it.” On the rollicking rough-sex ode “Gorilla,” he comes dangerously close to condoning sexual assault, and on “Natalie,” he promises physical violence — or perhaps even death — to an ex-girlfriend: “I’m digging a ditch / For this gold-digging bitch,” he seethes.
Mars is far from the only pop singer to mix violence and sex with murky results, but he seeks to slip by with his good-guy image intact. When The Rolling Stones or AC/DC deliver a raunchy line or bawdy tale, they’re sneering and bragging and making sure you take notice. But Mars would rather you focus on his youthful croon and bright melodies. After all, the aforementioned “Runaway Baby” sits on the same album as the awkwardly blunt “Our First Time” and “The Lazy Song,” a tune in which Mars positions himself as a shiftless and self-satisfied teenager. And while Jukebox weeds out such blatant immaturity, the mostly amiable music doesn’t sit well with songs that paint his love interests as cash-hungry babes (“Money Make Her Smile”) who should feel “no need to fight it when you know it feels right” (“Show Me”).
He does show a glimmer of culpability during the earnest piano ballad “When I Was Your Man,” in which he admits to being a horrible boyfriend. For some, such moments are enough to cast Mars’ questionable advances in a more understanding light, and that’s the rub: As Mars and Thicke and singers like them use their charming hooks to sweep the troubling parts of our popular culture under the rug, do they desensitize their listeners in the process?
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