Before we get rolling, don’t take this headline the wrong way. Bruno Mars is not bad. Houston rush-hour traffic — particularly this week — is bad. That Justin Timberlake song from the movie Trolls is bad. Brock Osweiler is bad.
Rather, like fellow modern and mainstream artists like Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Mars is overexposed and, to an extent, overrated. Arguably the biggest pop star in America right now, Swift is talented enough, but she’s more famous for her headline-generating personal life, which often results in headline-generating music. West, a talented but polarizing individual, is certainly a creative guy, but to call him a lyricist on par with peak-era Jay-Z simply isn’t true. Instead, West’s allure lies in his unpredictable nature and controversial statements, including verbal shots taken at Mars in 2013.
Mars, scheduled to play a Super Bowl weekend gig at Club Nomadic on Friday night, is a little different from the examples above. His personal life — aside from a cocaine charge years ago that was eventually dropped — seems pretty tame in comparison to those of his fellow artists, many of whom seem to stay relevant by simply keeping themselves in the tabloids. And to call Mars controversial would be akin to calling Maroon 5 controversial; both are popular in part because they eschew controversy, not because they seek it.
Today’s mainstream musical scene can safely be described as watered-down. Other than Beyoncé’s provocative performance at last year’s Super Bowl, which was followed by the release of her stellar Lemonade album, pop music isn’t exactly brimming with controversy. Sure, Kanye wigged out a few months back and had to shut it down for a while, but he's been so controversial for so long it’s almost passé at this point. Hell, Taylor Swift dating Loki from The Avengers was a thing for a while; this is where we’re at.
And this is where Mars comes in. Dude is talented, charismatic and fashionable, but he’s almost billed as the second coming of James Brown by those who either have no understanding of funk/R&B history or simply have no interest in gaining that understanding. In reality, Mars is the Coldplay of his particular genre, in that he records safe, catchy, somewhat predictable music that plays well on the soccer-mom/pop-radio circuit. And just as Coldplay is not the next U2, Mars is not the next James Brown.
Try telling that to Houstonians and those in town for Sunday’s big game between New England and Atlanta. Mars’s Club Nomadic gig sold out quickly, and secondhand general-admission seats are now retailing for upwards of $200 a pop. In comparison, tickets for tonight's The Chainsmokers/Sam Hunt bill the night before at Club Nomadic start out at around $100 on secondhand ticket broker sites (Swift’s set Saturday night at the venue is invite-only.) Sure, Super Bowl weekend is likely inflating tickets, but either way, $200 for standing-room only is one hot ticket.
Not that Mars is a stranger to Super Bowl weekend. He has, after all, played two of the last three halftime shows and fared well both times. Mars is an electric live performer, which masks the fact that his music is fairly generic and mediocre. Look at his catalog of hits (in his defense, there are many).
“Just the Way You Are” is bland pop radio filler. “When I Was Your Man” is the kind of song a twentysomething dude drinks to after his girlfriend of two months moves on; it’s not really as deep as it so obviously aims to be. “Uptown Funk” is repetitive, poorly written and, to put it kindly, played out (not to mention that Mars and producer Mark Ronson might have taken some liberties with it).
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And then there’s one of Mars’s biggest hits, “The Lazy Song.” Look, I get what Mars was going for with this one. It’s an ode to laziness, the type of tune you rock while at the beach or lying around during a rainstorm on a Sunday afternoon. That's all well and good; artists like Jack Johnson have made careers out of less. But to release such a lazily written song is something else altogether. Need proof? “I'll be lounging on the couch/ Just chillin' in my Snuggie/ Click to MTV, so they can teach me how to dougie/ 'Cause in my castle I'm the freaking man.” It’s debatable whether these are the song’s worst lyrics, which sorta gets to the point.
Pop radio seems to be catching on a bit. Mars hasn’t charted a No. 1 single in more than two years (“Uptown Funk” being the last) and his latest album, 24K Magic, is sleek as hell, which kinda masks the fact that it lacks anything resembling heart. Others certainly disagree with this notion, to be fair.
Mars isn’t going anywhere as a commercial force; his new record charted his highest debut sales week to date, and his October date at Toyota Center will be a hot ticket. The show will no doubt be good and the arena will be lively, even if its set list isn’t altogether original.