radio vulture

The Dubious Charms of Bruno Mars

Isn’t he lovely?

Now that his first solo LP is out — it’s called Doo-Wops & Hooligans — ace industry songwriter, producer, go-to hook singer, and adorable hat-wearer Bruno Mars has three songs on Billboard’s “Hot 100.” Radio Vulture is in the uncomfortable position of finding them all faintly annoying, and since I’ve always believed the first duty of a good hater is to show your work, I should probably explain why.

Because the thing is, there really shouldn’t be any problem with Mars: He’s supremely talented, has a nicely elastic voice, and seems able to wrangle a hit out of any number of pop styles. Most visibly, that involves tossing sweetheart choruses into sweet-hearted hip-hop (B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You,” Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”), but the songwriting and production trio he’s part of has done just as well turning out club tracks for the likes of Flo Rida and the Sugababes, not to mention Cee-Lo’s viral hit “Fuck You.”

That production team — the group responsible for Doo-Wop — is called the Smeezingtons. Every time I hear that name, I can’t help but think of it as representing my chief objection to Mars. It’s a noble thing for a pop artist to be dedicated to pleasing the public — to offering something pop fans can really use. But Mars’s solo work tends to go above and beyond, and sometimes it winds up in unctuous, smarmy places. Sometimes, the style gets a little … smeezy.

It’s probably relevant to note that Mars, who just turned 25, is a big cutie-pie, and tends to dress like a cartoon fifties greaser. He grew up singing in a family band and impersonating Elvis, and graduated from there to impressing girls at school, something he mentions a decent amount. In one interview he explained the puppy-eyed quality to his songs by saying, “I blame that on me singing to girls back in high school.” In another, explaining the trouble he had breaking into the music business, he circled back to it: “I was always like, girls like me in school.” Not to overanalyze the guy, but does that mean he’s a giver or a taker? On one hand, he takes entertaining young pop fans — making the emotional connections others might find corny — seriously. On the other, it also feels like he’s just trying to charm you. Like he’s running game. Like he’s just being cute enough to impress some girls at lunch. Like he’s the child singer who knows a few adorable moves will make the world open up and say awww.

And I tend to think teenage girls — and humans in general — deserve a little better. The No. 1 song in the country right now is “Just the Way You Are,” a memorable track that’d be cruel to hate on too much: It’s sweet and tuneful, just a guy with a cute smile telling you you’re beautiful, and that you shouldn’t worry about your hair, because it looks great. It’s the kind of smash we’ll remember fondly in a few years. But it also seems a little more interested in how cute and winsome it’s being than how you feel about yourself, and on some level, it’s pretty low-ambition. It’s like a good-looking kid who’s about to graduate trying to sweet-talk unpopular freshman girls: If he succeeds, you’re not impressed, just grossed out.

I get the same feeling throughout Doo-Wops and Hooligans — alternately charmed and put off, and sometimes both at once. When Mars is singing songs like “Our First Time” or the wonderful “Marry You,” he seems noble — committed to singing the sweet songs people need. But it also seems like he’s treating his listeners as easy targets — people who mostly just need a wink and a smile to start swooning. And this in a pop chart where Taylor Swift is turning out surprisingly deep multi-generational love songs like “Mine”!

I’m not sure if “Grenade,” currently at No. 88, is looking to counter that feeling. This one’s pissed off at a woman Mars suggests is from hell (“Tell the devil I said hey when you get back to where you’re from”). Of course, he’s clever enough to be sure you can still hear the chorus as a declaration of love — and it’s still, amazingly, almost as unctuous as “Just the Way You Are,” even with an arrangement that desperately suggests that no, seriously, there is some super-dramatic stuff going on in someone’s soul here. The saving grace of “Grenade” is that it’s a great showcase for Mars’s voice, which can be as unctuous as he wants and still impress.

No, the real teeth-gritting chart crime is “The Lazy Song,” an album track that just debuted at No. 82. It follows up on “Billionaire,” which was a top ten hit, with another slice of chill-bro flip-flop reggae, one that seems aimed less at guys getting baked in frat houses than kids who look up to those guys. The fact that Mars is from Hawaii doesn’t seem like nearly enough of an excuse for it. It contains a line about wearing a Snuggie that makes Rivers Cuomo seem almost dignified by comparison, and these days I’m not sure anyone whose parents aren’t paying for their meals feels quite as good as Mars about doing nothing all day.

I find Mars as hard to resist as anyone. He is charming, and successful at it — and you could say he’s awfully generous about staying in the lane where people respond to him. Judging by his success this year, there’ll be plenty of time later to branch out. It’ll be good if that involves coming at the audience with a little less of the kind of charm that feels like it might end with someone throwing a drink in his face.

The Dubious Charms of Bruno Mars