Photo: Kai Z. Feng / Atlantic Records
Last month at the 2017 Grammy Awards, as is typical for musicians of a particularly high level of renown who passed away in the previous year, there was a tribute to legendary singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Prince. Enter Bruno Mars.
While no one man is capable of filling Prince’s stiletto heels, the native Hawaiian, who has pieced together an impressive string of singles throughout the 2010s, was as good of a choice as anybody. Like Prince, he is a talented vocalist, guitarist, and high-energy stage performer.
Bruno Mars performed “Let’s Go Crazy,” perhaps the most populist Prince hit. Rather than opting for the minimalism of “Kiss” or the idiosyncrasies of “When Doves Cry,” he went for the straight-ahead rocker. And the performance was good.
Sure, Mars isn’t quite Prince vocally, and he’s especially not Prince on the guitar. (Mercifully, he did not even try to duplicate the outro guitar solo). But, he stayed within his limits and delivered a workmanlike performance on an enormous stage.
While reviews of Mars’s performance were generally positive, there was some criticism that the performance was derivative. This is inherently the case in a tribute performance, sure, but that he performed “Let’s Go Crazy” wearing Prince’s trademark “Purple Rain”-era uniform made the parallel abundantly obvious.
I think about the Stray Cats, another ‘80s act, probably a lot more often than the average 28-year-old. Fronted by Brian Setzer, the band produced three American top 10 hits, but they were arguably less famous for their songs than for their ethos. Despite members of the Long Island trio being born after the peaks of Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis, everything about the Stray Cats was a throwback to 1950s rockabilly.
I don’t remember when I first learned that the band’s hit, “Rock This Town” was released in 1981, but I’m sure I did not believe it.
The Stray Cats were regarded as a novelty band. They dressed like greasers, posed with Ford Thunderbirds, and even had a double bassist. And this was because they were duplicating an antiquated musical trend.
Similarly, Mars is making a career out of sounding like artists that pre-dated his career’s peak by roughly 20 years.
The biggest hit of Bruno Mars’s career is his Mark Ronson collaboration, “Uptown Funk.” The song was very transparently mimicking the Minneapolis sound popularized by Prince and his former backing band, The Time. It was part of a long run of enormous pop hits with stylistic influences from Prince and/or Michael Jackson.
Stylistic homages weren’t new territory for Mars. “Treasure” was an Earth, Wind, and Fire pop-funk impersonation. “Locked Out of Heaven,” by Bruno’s own admission, was a bit of reggae-rock inspired by The Police.
The shorter version of this is that Bruno Mars is making a career out of doing, to a greater degree, what made the peak of the Stray Cats inevitably short. And while people may not always like his specific brand of retro music, few question the very idea of modern artists taking notes from the past.
The White Stripes have spoken openly of their fondness for The Stooges, and Coldplay has said similar things about U2.
Considering that rock music has been around for over half a century, it does make sense that the genre has somewhat stagnated, and that the bar for originality has been moved a bit since the Stray Cats. But generally speaking, music listeners seem to be perfectly okay with music, which is utterly competent, but somewhat lacking in originality, as long as it is packaged the right way.
The line between novelty act and mainstream star is arguably as thin as image. It’s impossible to know if Brian Setzer had the songwriting acumen to sustain pop success had he wanted it, but had the Stray Cats dressed more like Duran Duran, they may have at least stood a fighting chance. And in general, since Bruno Mars doesn’t characterize his image and branding as a throwback, he has survived and should continue to thrive.
There will, for as long as rock continues to exist, be a demand for retro rock, because there is a finite amount of territory to explore within it. We just prefer to trick ourselves into believing that our throwbacks to 20th century musical stylings are new and original thoughts, because they have been put inside 21st century packaging.