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The Comet From Mars

Super Bowl 48’s halftime performer Bruno Mars is white-hot. But we’ve seen nothing yet.

By Michael Tillery February 01, 2014, 10:48 PM EST

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UPDATED: Sunday, February 2, 9:32PM

 

Anyone who knows anything about music understands the effect Motown Records has had on the business since the company was founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy. Imagine having an arrangement with the legendary company at 18 and not lasting a year on the label. What would you do? Would insecurity take over? Would you sit back and reassess whom and what you want to be? It happened to Bruno Mars. The only recourse in his instance was to take what he learned and build from experience. It’s one Bruno says he was too young and green to handle.

Times change and though he never signed a contract with Motown, it left him more professionally aware in a path leading him to now be signed on Atlantic Records. The proof is in the result. Since then, he’s become one of the bestselling artists on the planet with 10 million albums and 58 million singles sold. The team of Mars, Philip Lawrence, and Ari Levine are becoming a songwriting and production force. Better known as The Smeezingtons, the crew based in Los Angeles has written hits for B.o.B (Nothing On You), Cee-lo Green (Fuck You), Travie McCoy (Billionaire), Lil Wayne (Mirror) and others. Combine those efforts with his own releases – Doo-Wops & Hooligans, It’s Better If You Don’t Understand (both released in 2010),  and 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox − Mars’ total sales balloon to 115 million records.

Diversely talented, he’ll be one to dominate the charts for a very long time because his gifts are evident on stage and in the studio with no bounds. Yet, just like any success story, therein lies professional and personal struggles that have to be overcome to stamp a name on the game. He’s been a performer of sorts since the age of 4 and early on found out how shady the business can be simply based on race.

Born Peter Gene Hernandez, Mars was nicknamed Bruno at two by his dad clowning him as a chubby toddler because he resembled legendary pro wrestler, Bruno Sammartino. In a cover story interview with GQ, Mars says he didn’t want to be stereotyped and Mars was added to avoid a push to create music based on the racial perception of his birth name. "Your last name's Hernandez, maybe you should do this Latin music, this Spanish music,” he said.  “Enrique's so hot right now."

Mars' multiracial background is an exotic mixture complementing his diverse potential. His Brooklyn born father is Puerto Rican and Jewish; his late mother, who passed last summer at 55 after a brain aneurysm, was Filipino and Spanish born in the Philippines before migrating to Hawaii where she met Bruno’s father.

Raised in the Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu, it was in Hawaii that Bruno Mars got his chops in the business when most are just learning how to walk. While his mother and father performed, every one of their 6 children sang and played instruments. Bruno became skilled in a wide range of music from reggae, rock, rap and R & B with the ability to play a myriad of instruments from drums to guitar. Accustomed to performing in front of people, Mars performed all week with the family band The Love Notes, with little Bruno, being known for his Michael Jackson, Little Richard, and Elvis impersonations – inspired by his uncle who impersonated Elvis for a living.

A kid already growing up fast, had to grow up faster. But at least he found out early on how straight up this life can be and if he trust his gifts nothing can stop him. And when an artist has as much versatility as Bruno Mars, everything else becomes easier with less of a risk musically. The stage seems like his respite just like any other great life performer and his mastering of the stage can be attributed with his upbringing.

He’s drawn from Michael Jackson, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, R. Kelly, The Police (his smash Locked Out Of Heaven mimics The Police sound), The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and others. Most of his tracks are no doubt salvos shot straight to musical tastes. In the aforementioned GQ interview, Mars gave this answer when asked what makes a good song: "Shit. For me? Hypnotize me in the very first three seconds, wake my ear plate up, give me something that I haven't felt before...and then punch me in the fucking face."

He credits Michael Jackson for his sense of drawing in the listener.  And like MJ, awards have followed. In 2011, Mars’ Just the Way You Are won his first Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. This year, he won his second for Unorthodox Jukebox in the Best Pop Vocal Album category. Overall, Bruno’s been nominated for 177 various awards, winning a total of 57.

Mars rocked the Super Bowl halftime show and cemented his current standing as a definitive superstar entertainer capable of widespread appeal. Surely being from tropical Hawaii, performing outside even in an unrelenting New York winter was a business decision few would turn down, but the weather was much better than anticipated. There were rumblings that Mars wasn't the right choice for such an event seen in potentially 100 million homes. Despite his record sales and white-hot 3 year rise in the industry, both here and abroad, scrutiny abounds that Mars just wasn't big enough a recording artist to satisfy mainstream ideals of who should be performing – whether it be the late Michael Jackson, The Who, Rolling Stones, Prince, Bruce Springsteen or even Beyoncé in the past.

America needs to get over this notion that seasoned legends of popular music are exclusive examples for amusing the pallet of consumers either attending the game or watching in their living rooms. Further, because of Hip Hop’s definitive influence on music and culture, next up should be the king of hip hop Jay Z. Mars' performance will go down as one of the best seen at the Super Bowl and organizers would be smart to follow his lead with younger, fresher and more relevant acts moving forward. He proved tonight that an antiquated perception should definitely shift.

RELATED: Dear NFL: You Need to Roll the Dice on a Super Bowl Hip Hop Halftime Show

Will Mars be a sure-fire legend or is he just another gifted fad?

Put money on the former. His talent is too relevant in regards to what appeals to fans of pop culture despite having the ability to make any type of music he wants to make on an elite level. Mars comes across as a bad boy of sorts and in doing research you’ll notice many of his interviews are profanity laced conversations seeking to force folks to understand he’s more than just a clean image to sell to a pop culture base. Or maybe he’s just being himself. He’s also not unlike many of today’s acts in a ubiquitous sexual context whether in the subtle Locked Out Of Heaven or straight up in your face on a track like Gorilla. Life as a rock star surely has its daily experiences in and out of the bed room and despite a history of drug use and subsequent arrest, Mars has endured and become an undeniable force. That is a life of having no regrets.

Whether it’s being featured on tracks like the unapologetic ode to the party life on Wiz Khalifa and Snoop’s Young, Wild and Free  or doing his own thing on the love unrequited Grenade, Bruno Mars is as talented an artist as anyone in any field. Comparisons to Sam Cooke and Michael Jackson will be made unfairly, but his talent needs no disclaimer. So whether or not he achieves such lofty standards is immaterial in a business he is now dominant. And thanks to his great Super Bowl halftime show with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, we are now all witnesses to his development into one of potentially the greatest recording artists of our time.

 

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Michael Tillery has contributed to the New York Times, The Nation, SLAM, Sacramento Magazine and hosts a radio show on Chuck D's RAPstation.com. Find him on twitter at @michaeltillery.

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