The Number Ones

October 2, 2010

The Number Ones: Bruno Mars’ “Just The Way You Are”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Do you know who Bruno Mars is? I’m not asking if you’ve heard of Bruno Mars, or if you’d recognize him if you saw him in a restaurant. The man is a gigantically successful global pop star. You probably have, and you probably would. You might be able to sing one or two or 20 of his songs. You might even know his backstory. But do you feel like you have any grasp of what kind of person Bruno Mars is? Does his music give you any insight into his inner life? I ask this because I feel like I know nothing about Bruno Mars. He’s a complete blank to me.

This is not the way that things usually work with gigantically successful global pop stars, at least in the social-media age. With most of them, we have a complete, exhausting, panopticon-level view of whatever they’re thinking, doing, and feeling at any given moment. It’s part of the job. Stars are able to nurture entire fan armies because people feel so close to them. One of Taylor Swift’s great talents is the ability to make millions of strangers feel like they’re her best friend. But that’s not Bruno Mars.

Bruno Mars holds everything back, both in his public life and his music. His songs are beautifully-sculpted melodic marvels that are very, very light on specifics. He was a successful songwriter for other people before he became a successful songwriter for himself, and I get the feeling that he could’ve kept on as a successful songwriter for other people forever if his own music never took off. He’s been able to attain gigantically successful global pop stardom — not by Machiavellian PR manipulation or social-media genius, but just because he makes good songs. What a concept.

For more than a decade in the public eye, Bruno Mars has quietly, efficiently pumped out one huge hit after another. He doesn’t seem like an anomaly, since those songs fit so easily into whatever’s happening in pop at the time, but that’s what he is. He’s an unassuming craftsman in a time of larger-than-life conversation-dominating figures. If we were to find out that Bruno Mars is not a human being, that he’s really just an extremely advanced hit-writing algorithm with a smiling CGI face, I would be surprised, but I wouldn’t be shocked.

If you know anything about Bruno Mars other than his songs, then it’s probably this: When Bruno was a little kid in Hawaii, he worked as an Elvis impersonator in his parents’ family-band act. When he grew out of kiddie-Elvis age, Bruno also did Michael Jackson impressions for tourists. Practically from the time that he was born, Bruno studied earlier generations of pop stars. He studied their songs, too. He internalized what a pop song can do, how it can work. He took that knowledge and became so famous that some little kid in Hawaii is probably doing a Bruno Mars impersonation for tourists this very moment. That process really starts with “Just The Way You Are.”

“Just The Way You Are” was Bruno Mars’ first proper single, his launch as a solo artist, but it was not his first #1 hit. More than a year before “Just The Way You Are,” Bruno co-wrote Flo Rida’s “Right Round.” A few months before “Just The Way You Are,” Bruno also co-wrote and sang the hook on B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ On You.” For me, as for most people, “Nothin’ On You” was the first real look at this guy. I was not impressed. I didn’t like him, his hook, or his stupid little hat. I did not think that this guy would become a gigantically successful global pop star, but I would have to get used to seeing him and hearing his songs. The man was going on a run, and that run was just getting started.

Bruno Mars produced “Nothin’ On You” with the Smeezingtons, the team that he started with a couple of other struggling songwriters. Very quickly, the Smeezingtons went into the Dr. Luke zone. Before “Nothin’ On You” even reached #1, the Smeezingtons produced “Billionaire,” a huge hit for Gym Class Heroes leader Travie McCoy. Bruno sang the hook on that one, too, and it peaked at #4. (It’s a 3.) Then the Smeezingtons also co-wrote and produced Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” a cute little gimmick of a song where the Goodie Mob/Gnarls Barkley singer throws a whole lot of cussing into an early-’60s soul pastiche. The gimmick did its job, and “Fuck You” rode a wave of viral success to #2. (It’s a 6.)

After the success of “Nothin’ On You” and “Billionaire,” Bruno Mars and the Smeezingtons figured that they should get an actual Bruno record out on the market as quickly as possible. They wanted to capitalize on those big hooks, but they didn’t want people to think that Bruno was a hook-singer and nothing else. Bruno released his debut EP It’s Better If You Don’t Understand in May 2010, and he made a video for “The Other Side,” a song that he recorded with hit-song beneficiaries B.o.B. and Cee-Lo. (They didn’t appear in the clip.) The song never got a big push, and it disappeared quickly. The EP isn’t even on streaming services anymore — just as well, since all four tracks appeared later that year on Bruno’s debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans.

Doo-Wops & Hooligans does not waste your time. Once “Nothin’ On You” and “Billionaire” hit, Elektra told Bruno and the Smeezingtons that they had a six-month deadline to crank out an album, so they went into overdrive. The album isn’t some sprawling, ambitious masterwork. Instead, it’s a short and efficient hook-machine — 10 ultra-polished pop songs in 35 minutes. Once Bruno and his collaborators came up with “Just The Way You Are,” they knew that they had a single on their hands.

“Just The Way You Are” wasn’t going to be a Bruno Mars track at first. It started out as a beat that rap producers Needlz and Saint Cassius made for Lupe Fiasco. They sent it to Bruno to come up with a hook, but Bruno and the Smeezingtons ended up writing an entire song instead. They also reworked Needlz and Saint Cassius’ beat; the original producers got songwriting credits. The Smeezingtons considered giving the song to Cee-Lo, but Bruno ultimately kept it for himself. In a 2012 interview, Needlz said, “About a month passed, and I didn’t know what was going on with the record. They called me, and they were like, ‘We’re using it for his single.’ I was like, ‘I’ll take it! That’s awesome!'”

This was the second time that a Bruno Mars #1 hit started out as a Lupe Fiasco track; “Nothin’ On You” was originally supposed to be a Lupe song, too. Lupe did, however, rap on a “Just The Way You Are” remix that appeared on the deluxe edition of Doo-Wops & Hooligans, so he at least got something out of it. (Lupe Fiasco’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “The Show Goes On,” peaked at #9. It’s a 4.)

“Just The Way You Are” is a familiar song, based on a familiar idea. Even the title is familiar; the 1977 Billy Joel song with the exact same title and sentiment peaked at #3. (It’s a 3.) Bruno sings that his girlfriend can be insecure sometimes, but he assures her that she’s amazing just the way she is. Bruno explained the idea behind the song to Blues & Soul: “I’m a big fan of songs like Joe Cocker’s ‘You Are So Beautiful’ and Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ — songs that go straight to the point. You know, there’s no mind-boggling lyrics or twists in the story; they just come directly from the heart. And to me, ‘Just The Way You Are’ is one of those songs.”

This tracks. There’s no visceral explosion of feeling in Bruno Mars’ “Just The Way You Are.” Bruno writes in broad clichés. This girl hates her laugh, but Bruno thinks that it’s so sexy. She asks if she looks OK, but if perfect’s what she’s searching for, then she should just stay the same. He thinks she’s pretty without any makeup on. (Wait. No. That’s a different song.) When Bruno discusses “Just The Way You Are,” he doesn’t talk about real-life situations. He talks about songs. “Just The Way You Are” is pastiche. It’s Bruno’s take on classic pop-song subject-matter, and maybe that’s why it comes out sounding so smooth and anodyne.

When it comes to pop music, smooth and anodyne can be great things. “Just The Way You Are” doesn’t have to be some feverish expression of internal turmoil. It’s just a nice song. More importantly, it’s a nice song with a gigantic motherfucking chorus. The whole track is mellow and unassuming — a loping breakbeat, a tingly piano, some sighing backup vocals that are obviously just Bruno Mars’ own multi-tracked voice. But when Bruno hits the chorus, it shoots off into the sky. He puts real force into that hook — “When I see your face! There’s not a thing that I would change!” — and the song opens up into something bigger.

I wish “Just The Way You Are” had more of a bridge, but there’s so much classic pop songwriting stuff at work in there. It’s so sharp and so concise, and it doesn’t waste a syllable. Every tiny decision is smart. On the verses, Bruno sings in third person, almost like he’s telling a stranger about how this girl doesn’t realize how beautiful she is. On the chorus, though, it goes right into second person. It’s like Bruno has suddenly turned and made eye contact with you, the listener. It hits hard. It’s the work of a true professional.

“Just The Way You Are” came out as a single in July 2010. That whole summer, Eminem and Katy Perry were batting the #1 spot on the Hot 100 back and forth like a volleyball. The two of them existed at opposite extremes — neon hard-candy mega-pop on one side, self-lacerating syllable-spray intensity on the other. Elsewhere on the charts, oontz-oontz EDM dominated. “Just The Way You Are” was ideal counter-programming — just a nice song, expertly written. “Just The Way You Are” did especially well on the adult-contemporary charts. It was a rare 2010 hit that didn’t seek to dominate your attention, and its timing was perfect.

Doo-Wops & Hooligans didn’t come out until October, a couple of days after “Just The Way You Are” hit #1. A month earlier, Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” reached its #2 chart peak, and I don’t know how many people realized that the same people wrote both songs. Just a couple of weeks before “Just The Way You Are” made it to #1, Bruno Mars was arrested with cocaine in a bathroom at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. He later told GQ, “I was young, man! I was in fucking Vegas. I wasn’t thinking… I was given a #1 record, and I’m out doing dumb shit.”

Bruno got off with community service, but he was embarrassed about the arrest, and he learned from it. He’d worked hard for years to find some level of music-business success, and that success could be wiped away very easily. Maybe that’s why Bruno has never really let the world in, why he’s been so private. (I don’t really get the vibe that Bruno is someone who hates cocaine, but if he’s out there partying these days, he’s keeping it private.) Rather than putting his whole self out there for public consumption, Bruno has focused on making more hits. He has succeeded. We will see a whole lot more of Bruno Mars in this column.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Whose idea was it to hire Skrillex to remix “Just The Way You Are”? That doesn’t make any sense. Skrillex’s zoom-crash wub-wub dubstep represents the total opposite of that breezy, gliding pop song. Nevertheless, Skrillex did remix “Just The Way You Are,” and it sounds weird as hell. Here’s his reworking:

(Skrillex’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2016 Rick Ross collab “Purple Lamborghini,” which peaked at #33. As one half of the duo Jack Ü, Skrillex also made it to #8 with the 2015 Justin Bieber collab “Where Are Ü Now.” That’s a 10. As a producer, Skrillex will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne protege Lil Chuckee rapping over the “Just The Way You Are” instrumental on a 2011 mixtape track:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Just The Way You Are” cover that weirdly huge San Diego whiny-metalcore band Pierce The Veil recorded for a 2011 Punk Goes Pop compilation:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2012 film Pitch Perfect where the Barden Bellas sing “Just The Way You Are” and, apparently spontaneously, mash it up with Nelly’s “Just A Dream“:

(“Just A Dream” peaked at #3 in 2010. It’s a 7. Anna Kendrick’s only single, “Cups,” peaked at #6 in 2013. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Just The Way You Are” cover that former Number Ones artist Johnny Mathis released in 2017:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. It’s coming out in paperback this fall, but girl, it’s amazing just the way it is. Buy it here.

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