In Defense of Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl
By Kevin Rutherford
This year’s Super Bowl halftime show was mired in controversy before it even began. After her lip-syncing fiasco at President Obama’s re-inauguration, Beyonce had to go big to show her detractors that, yes, she could sing live (um, duh). The year before, Madonna put forth a good showing at the halftime showcase, though M.I.A.‘s middle finger ended up the talk of the town. And then, of course, the less said about the Black Eyed Peas, the better.
For 2014, the NFL’s biggest spectacle may have found its knight in shining armor: a relevant, crowd-pleasing, modern pop artist whose back-to-basics musical and performance aesthetic is the shot in the arm the show needs.
Over the weekend, it was confirmed that Bruno Mars would be holding the reins for the Super Bowl’s halftime show this season. A minute-long clip posted to the pop singer’s YouTube account confirmed the decision, featuring footage of Mars from 1990 — when Mars was a four-year-old Elvis impersonator that toured the country and even got a brief role in the film Honeymoon in Vegas — to present.
By all accounts, Mars’ appointment as the next halftime performer makes sense. Lots and lots of sense, and not just from a demographics point of view, though it certainly does bode well in that particular arena.
Sure, the guy only has two albums to his credit, both coming in the last three years — 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans and 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox. He’s certainly not the performer that’s going to be getting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the GRAMMYs or the VMAs anytime soon. Bruno’s a household name in pop these days, though not one of its all-consuming divas.
But boy, can the dude put on a straightforward, no-holds-barred performance.
That’s what the difference will be when Mars and his energetic backing band head to New Jersey next February. An array of singles — four No. 1 hits total — plus a collection of superb, danceable tracks that didn’t even hit radio (see: “Runaway Baby”) will equal musical nirvana at Super Bowl XLVIII.
Consider these points.
Mars burst onto the scene in 2010 with high-profile guest spots on two major summer songs, B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ On You” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire,” as well as a writer/producer credit on 2010 Song of the Summer, Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You.” He followed it up with his own “Just the Way You Are,” a five-times-platinum, No. 1 jam that established Mars as more than just an artist to watch. Its follow-up, “Grenade,” sealed his fate as a pop radio mainstay, the kind of artist whose biggest hits will be played for years to come.
Doo-Wops & Hooligans was a formidable effort that was largely pop and R&B, but with the occasional rock, soul and even reggae slants. Though relying primarily on Top 40 power ballads, the album featured the breezy acoustic pop of “The Lazy Song” and the ’60s R&B jam “Runaway Baby,” the latter of which solidified Mars’ standing as a bona fide showman at the 2012 GRAMMYs. He was nominated for four awards, won zero, and still made a solid showing. (A year earlier, Mars was featured in a group performance alongside B.o.B. and Janelle Monae, took home the GRAMMY for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Just the Way You Are,” and nabbed nominations for Record, Song and Producer of the Year.)
“Runaway Baby” was one of the 2012 GRAMMYs’ first performances and kicked off the show with an infectious energy. Decked out in suave all gold-and-black everything, Mars showed off some downright sexy dance moves coupled with an impassioned backing band. “So get off your rich asses and let’s have some fun!” he proclaimed, before getting his James Brown on with a rollicking, horn-infused dance breakdown that got the crowd on its feet.
Also that month, Mars went overseas for the BRIT Awards, laying down a smooth, lounge-y take on “Just the Way You Are” that reinvented the tune completely, with a particularly satisfying bassline that showed the singer’s penchant for taking his own songs and twisting them to serve his every need.
And then came Unorthodox Jukebox.
Mars’ first release had all the makings of a genre-bending record, but Jukebox solidified Mars as a bona fide pop chameleon, beginning with the Police-owing “Locked Out of Heaven,” in which the 27-year-old does his best Sting impression before belting out a full-on rock chorus.
That was just the start of bigger things to come. “Treasure” is amazing just the way it is, a throwback tune with a retro disco feel that was a perfect summer song for lounging by the pool. Especially if said pool played an Adult Contemporary radio station specializing in songs both you and your parents and even their parents could enjoy.
Then there was “Gorilla,” which brought Mars’ most recent live acclaim, featuring a stimulating laser show, ebbing-and-flowing horns and an ’80s arena rock sensibility in what was arguably the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards’ best performance and will likely become the cornerstone of his Super Bowl set in that it literally seems made for the show.
As the clips above show, Mars is the epitome of a modern-day performer that can bridge the gap between the old and the new. He has a current appeal that brings in younger, hip viewers while not alienating the NFL’s older demographic, which In comparison, the past few years haven’t done. Beyonce was fantastic but was an affair that didn’t feature as much musical variety that Mars will likely achieve. Madonna tried to bring in more current acts but still seemed mostly dated. Again, let’s not talk about the Black Eyed Peas.
With Mars, you’re getting a performer that can give you impassioned pop ballads (“When I Was Your Man”) one minute, and a soulful R&B jam (“Runaway Baby”) the next. The man has enough singles that have broken into the mainstream to fill an entire setlist, and he’s shown that his sleepier hits can be rearranged for better use on a larger stage.
His performances tend to trim the unnecessary fat that can come in terms of major gimmicks, too. For instance, in his “Gorilla” VMAs performance, Mars moves just a few feet the entire song but is still absolutely mesmerizing, recalling the good ol’ days when a performer just needed a microphone and a mic stand.
Plus, jumping throughout different genres gives Mars an eclectic roster of potential guest stars. A Sting spot on Mars’s reggae-tinged material has already been done, but how about a complete Police reunion? Getting someone like Earth Wind & Fire on “Treasure” isn’t a far-flung concept. “Gorilla” is just begging for a Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins guest spot, and we know how the Super Bowl loves their classic rockers.
Point is: give Bruno a chance here. He may not have the 10-page resume of some of his predecessors, but for now, Mars is one of the best choices the show could possibly choose if it wants to bring in younger viewers – and win over older viewers with throwback tunes.