Saturday, March 1, 2014

Is Bruno Mars the most emblematic pop star of the 2010s?

Defining the era by not sounding of the era, but other eras?

I first wrote "most influential of the 2010s" . But you can't really say Bruno is "influential", because he's so influenced by other things - what could he be actually transmitting to others! But his approach to pasticherie, and its peculiar blithe weightlessness (discussed further below) has been widely adopted. His success has been noted.

Evidence exhibit #1

Invasion of Mars-tian vibes into the world of teenybop! Yet in its clumsiness flashes me back also to the f(l)ailed poptimism of U2's "Discotheque".

(Incidentally, I seem to remember the Pogues were originally called Pogue Mahone, which translates to "kiss my arsehole", right?  Or "arse" - I can't remember.  Does that mean Austin's surname mean translates to....)

Similarly Bruno-y (with a bit of Plan B too, maybe) is "Love Me Again" by John Newman. Like Austin Mahone I saw this on  TeenNick's Top 10 countdown, watched with my precocious  7 year old (  in the process of swapping A.Mahone for One Direction, just like she swapped OneD for Justin B).

Sports bags with patches, talcum powder, whey-faced Brits in Fred Perry's twirling on the wooden dancefloor, a mise en scene more like a 1970s youth club than a modern night club  - this is meant to be a Northern Soul nite, right? Even though the music is as much piano-rave as retro-soul.

All means nothing to Tasmin, of course, which makes me wonder how many kids pick up on the retro-vintage signifiers? Even if they do, what do they signify to them, beyond a vague old-timeyness?

Evidence exhibit #2

Pharrell's "Happy" and G I R L, described thus by the FACT reviewer:

"If Pharrell’s recent success has taught him anything, it’s that you rarely score big by being original. 2013’s most monstrous hits, from ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Get Lucky’ to Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, were all shameless in their retro-fetishism and pushed units by keeping one eye on Baby Boomer nostalgia and the other on the bank. Is it any surprise that G I R L follows the same template? From the orchestral string intro of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ to the funk-rock jam session that ends ‘It Girl’, G I R L is 45 minutes of warmed-over retro-pop pastiche, cribbing from Michael Jackson and Chic, from disco and yacht rock. Mostly, Pharrell is content to approximate dance floor fillers from the ’70s and ’80s; at his worst, he rehashes the more soulful and innovative material he made a decade ago."

FACT-man Chris Kelly could have, probably should have, shoved Bruno's Unorthodox Jukebox and its run of hit single in that "Blurred"/"Lucky"/20-20 list .

I don't mind "Happy", actually -- it's not retro I can stand by (as with Tame Impala's mighty "Elephant") but it's retro I can stand  - tolerate, perhaps even sing along to in the car. Reminds me of the better Style Council tunes. Or Mari Wilson / Compact!  Sixties retro with an Eighties overlay. Doubled nostalgia.

Here's what I said about Bruno in that Finland lecture:

"Bruno Mars is apparently 2013’s most played artist on US pop radio. “Locked Out of Heaven” - despite coming out in 2012 - was 2013’s most played song. Although “Locked Out” is a clever update of Police-style New Wave into a post-Timbaland, post-"Umbrella" world, the video is the true retro-fiesta, from the foregrounding of vintage technology like the old skool hip hop era machine the  Akai MPC  to an oldfashioned camera, and the  overall filtered and glitchy, image-wavery look to the promo that has a Instagram / Hipstamatic pre-fadedness. Or as Mars put it, “very VHS-y”

In fact nearly all his promo videos have some kind of analogue-fetish, shabby chic or period flavour to them. For instance, “Treasure”  has Mars and  his band done up as a 70s disco troupe. Even when he went to collect an award at a pop video awards ceremony, he did in a period-stylized way, as if his gratitude had air quotes around it!

But what Mars represents, I think, is a kind of naturalization or normalization of retro. By that I mean that there  is no gestural weight to Mars’s stylistic choices musically or those of the video director. Unlike earlier revivalists like the mod revival or ska revival in the Seventies, this is not a rejection of  contemporary  music, nor is he affiliating himself in any committed way to the  bygone style, It’s not the expression of feeling born too late to participate in a lost golden age. Rather the title of Mars’s album Unorthodox Jukebox suggests a sort of post-iPod, post-Spotify eclecticism, taste unconfined by genre or period.  

That "unorthodoxy"  is actually the emerging orthodoxy of the present - post-ideological pop, a mode of pop consumption and pop pleasure that is uninformed by identity politics, that does not involve identity-formation, of cathexis between the self and a style that engages the depths of an individual's being and directs its path through the world.

1 comment:

  1. The thing about Mars is that he grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, whose radio stations play — and have always played — a completely idiosyncratic mix of soft American pop. As the most isolated landmass on the globe, with one of the most complex and polyglot populations, Hawaii has always been the most quixotic consumer of American pop culture — any culture, really, except for native Hawaiian culture — of any place in the U.S. The pop music that makes it in Honolulu is softer, sweeter, more syrupy, lusher, and less edgy than American pop elsewhere. Bruno Mars, a performer since he was a little kid, was seeped in it. And his pop is pure pop, so light and true its weight is profound. Just like Obama was, as a boy, steeped in Honolulu's post-racial equanimity.