The Number Ones

January 8, 2011

The Number Ones: Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”

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.

The first season of the hypnotically stupid MTV reality show Jersey Shore introduced a few new terms to the American vernacular: “gym, tan, & laundry,” “gorilla juicehead,” “grenade.” The guys on Jersey Shore explained that a “grenade” was the least attractive woman in a group of friends. If your friends were hooking up with this girl’s friends, then someone would have to throw himself on the grenade. Very quickly, “grenade” just became a generically dickish way for these guys to talk about women. Like everything else about Jersey Shore, the term “grenade” wasn’t exactly a positive influence on culture at large. But that term did give some funny resonance to “Grenade,” the Bruno Mars single that topped the Billboard Hot 100 just as Jersey Shore was becoming a surprise hit.

On “Grenade,” Bruno Mars howls about all the self-destructive things that he would do for your love. He’d catch a grenade for you! Throw his hand on a blade for you! Jump in front of a train for you! You know he’d do anything for you! When Bruno sang about catching a grenade for you, he did not have the Jersey Shore definition of the term in mind. At the time, Bruno told Rolling Stone, “We wrote that song before Jersey Shore started. I remember telling people at the label about ‘Grenade’ and they started laughing, like, ‘Oh, that’s going to be really funny.’ But it’s not a joke song.” Funny thing, though: “Grenade” really is a joke song — or, at least, it started off that way.

Bruno Mars co-wrote “Grenade” with Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, the two other members of his production team the Smeezingtons, and with fellow pop-music pros Brody Brown, Andrew Wyatt, and Claude Kelly. In 2018, Kelly, who’s already been in this column for co-writing Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” told The Tennesseean about how “Grenade” came to be. At the time, Bruno’s regular songwriting partner Philip Lawrence was going through a breakup, and Bruno was making fun of him: “He was with this girl, and he would do everything for her, and she would do nothing in return, and now it’s a waste of time. We started throwing out really extreme examples: ‘You jump out of a plane’ or ‘a shark would eat you,’ and then it became funny… And we started to realize this was actually kind of catchy. So we took someone’s pain and turned into a pretty good record.”

It’s fun to think of this sincere wronged-lover heartbreak song coming out of a game of one-upped exaggeration in the studio, everyone busting on this one poor guy because he was too devoted to his girlfriend. But it fits the Bruno Mars methodology. Bruno made his career by synthesizing different pop-music idioms and by singing about relationships in the most sweeping, generic terms. When you hear Bruno Mars sing, you don’t necessarily think that’s he’s actually feeling the feelings that he’s describing. But he’s good at play-acting whatever the situation warrants. In the case of “Grenade,” he had to make his over-the-top post-breakup pain sound genuine. He succeeded, and he turned it into a record that might even be better than pretty good.

Just before he released his debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Bruno Mars told Idolator a different story about the writing of “Grenade.” Bruno was friends with Benny Blanco, a songwriter and producer who’s already been in this column a bunch of times and who will be back a bunch more times. Blanco was playing songs for Bruno, and one of them had a similar lyric: “He said, this band is not signed, this is a CD that wasn’t released. I said to Benny, ‘I can relate to that so much, I want to take that and make it my own.’ He was in contact with the dude, and I started writing my version, basically.”

Bruno never identified the unsigned band who inspired “Grenade.” That song almost certainly did not come from any of Bruno’s credited “Grenade” co-writers. Andrew Wyatt, one of those co-writers, actually was in a band. As far as I know, he still is. In 2009, the New York native Wyatt formed the group Miike Snow with the Swedish pop producers Bloodshy & Avant. But Miike Snow were signed; their self-titled debut came out on Downtown Records in 2009. Bruno Mars is a canny music-business operator, so I have to believe that he wouldn’t have mentioned this unnamed, unsigned band in an interview unless he came to some kind of financial agreement with them. But this was pre-coke-arrest Bruno, so who knows?

In any case, both of those stories can be true. Bruno Mars could’ve heard this band’s similar song and filed his intention away. Then he could’ve been making fun of his friend in the studio, and he could’ve connected the dots. (Claude Kelly says that Bruno was the one who came up with the “I’d catch a grenade for ya” line.) Bruno Mars hits generally don’t arrive as lightning-bolt inspiration moments. He takes his time with them. In 2011, Bruno’s fellow Smeezington Ari Levine told Sound On Sound that “Grenade” took an especially long time to write: “That was months of sitting in the studio and losing sleep over how we were going to make the song work. We knew that we had something awesome, but we weren’t always confident that it would work.”

At first, Levine says, “Grenade” was a faster song, with a whole lot more guitar in the arrangement. I can imagine that pretty easily. With a few mild production tweaks, “Grenade” could easily be a power-pop banger, a Cars song. A lot of Bruno Mars songs could be Cars songs. He could be Bruno Cars! But if Bruno were to sing about catching a grenade for ya over revved-up new-wave guitars, the song would sound like a joke — or, at best, like one of those Weezer tracks where you can’t quite pinpoint the intended level of irony.

Bruno performed a slowed-down version of “Grenade” at a couple of showcases, and he learned that this was what his A&Rs wanted. Levine says, “Bruno played the song slower live, and the label was like, ‘Oh, that’s incredible.’ So we had to reproduce it in the way you hear it now on the radio, two days before the album was supposed to be handed in. There was quite a bit of deadline stress involved in that. We completely rearranged and re‑recorded the song, including the vocals.”

In its final version, “Grenade” is just an early-’10s pop song. You can’t put any subgenre tag on the track; it’s just pop. The song’s instrumentation is almost entirely digital, but the song itself could’ve come from virtually any pop decade. Bruno sings in a pained, pleading tone over synthetic pianos and echoed-out drum machines and evocative electronic whooshes. The whole thing sounds grand and dramatic, almost as if Bruno is expertly painting by the grand-dramatic-pop-song numbers. But it’s tough to isolate any one real inspiration behind a song like that. I’ve heard people compare “Grenade” to Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” but I don’t hear much in common between those two songs. “Dirty Diana” is a genuinely fucked-up freakout. Bruno Mars never, ever sounds genuinely fucked up or freaked out. He only ever sounds like a gifted pop singer who’s gesturing in those directions.

I’m sure that looks like faint praise, but I don’t intend it that way. As with “Just The Way You Are,” Bruno’s first solo chart-topper, “Grenade” is one of those songs that’s more informed by emotional pop songs than by actual emotions. It’s not easy to take thorny, difficult feelings and turn them into smooth radio fare; that’s presumably why it took Bruno and his co-writers so long to figure “Grenade” out. In its final form, though, “Grenade” moves like a high-efficiency engine. Bruno begs and pleads and howls, but he also hits all of his marks with mathematical precision.

On paper, “Grenade” still looks like a joke song. The lyrics are so exaggerated, so wildly aggrieved, that you can’t really take them seriously. Bruno would go through all this pain! He’d take a bullet straight through his brain! He would die for you, baby, and he’s crushed to realize that you won’t do the same. But you shouldn’t do the same! Nobody should be jumping in front of trains for relationship purposes! It’s not healthy! Bruno’s narrator simply doesn’t have realistic expectations, and he only becomes sympathetic because he turns his dashed hopes into gourmet ear-candy.

At times, Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” accusations are full-on hysterical: “Mad woman! Bad woman! That’s just what you are! Yeah, you’ll smile in my face but rip the brakes from my car!” There are emotional circumstances where people can turn other people into pure abstractions. The other person in your life isn’t distant or selfish; they’re the mustache-twirling villain who’s tying you to railroad tracks. Pop music was built on that kind of operatic simplicity, and if Bruno Mars understands any one thing, it’s pop music.

The “Grenade” arrangement, with its delicately shaded guitar tones and its sighing backup vocals, builds right along with Bruno’s anguish, and it makes the chorus pop extra-hard. That chorus is the fireworks moment, the moment when you can’t help but get swept away in the song’s drama. Bruno never quite sounds believable when he belts it out, but there’s enough grit and nuance in his delivery that you can get caught up in it anyway.

The video helped sell the song, too. Bruno filmed the “Grenade” clip with Nabil Elderkin, the director responsible for many of that era’s most evocative music videos. Nabil had done some Kanye West videos, but he wasn’t quite a brand name in 2011; that would come a year later, when he did Bon Iver’s “Holocene” and Frank Ocean’s “Novacane.” Nabil found a simple, effective, memorable way to dramatize “Grenade.” The whole clip is just Bruno Mars dragging a beat-up old piano through Los Angeles. He’s all dressed up in his retro suit, and he’s somehow always going uphill. He keeps encountering obstacles — traffic, tunnels, crazy people, implausibly angry groups of gangbangers. Eventually, he reaches a girl’s window — I guess he was going to play a song for her — and he finds that she’s not alone. Bruno responds to this betrayal by dragging his piano onto some tracks and letting an oncoming train flatten both himself and his piano. He really does throw himself in front of a train for her.

At the time, Bruno Mars told MTV that there were no special effects involved in the “Grenade” video. Instead, he physically dragged a heavy piano all through Los Angeles: “Luckily, I’ve been doing about, you know, 800 to 967 push-ups every day, so it’s not a big deal, I can handle it. Been workin’ on my bi’s, my tri’s, my clies and my thighs, that’s just what it is.” I appreciate the strange specificity of Bruno’s workout regime. He kept trying to do that 968th push-up, and his arms just gave out on him. Another good Bruno line: “I shoulda been dragging a harmonica across town.”

Bruno Mars did everything in his power to make sure that “Grenade” connected. He performed the song on Letterman, on Ellen, on the Today show, at the Soul Train awards. At the 2011 Grammys, Bruno was up for seven awards, and “Grenade” was nominated for Record Of The Year. The song lost that award to Lady A’s country ballad “Need You Now,” but it won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. (“Need You Now” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) On the Grammy telecast, Bruno sang a goofy retro-soul version of “Grenade” with affected black-and-white cinematography. Grammy voters love stuff like that, and they have continued to heap trophies on Bruno ever since.

A week after “Grenade” reached #1, Bruno Mars’ Doo-Wops & Hooligans album went gold. It’s now septuple platinum. Doo-Wops & Hooligans has basically never left the Billboard album charts. Right now, as I write this, the album is sitting at #103 on the Billboard 200. It’s the album’s 637th week on the chart — pretty amazing when you consider that the record only had three big singles. The “Grenade” single went diamond in 2020. A year later, the song’s video got its billionth YouTube view. The song, it’s safe to say, has outlasted Jersey Shore. Bruno followed “Just The Way You Are” and “Grenade” with “The Lazy Song,” a wretched Jason Mraz-ass novelty record that’s easily my least favorite of his hits. (“The Lazy Song” peaked at #4. It’s a 2.)

Bruno Mars took a couple of years to release another album, but he was a chart mainstay even when he was in between album cycles. In 2011, Bruno dropped the ballad “It Will Rain” on the soundtrack of the Twilight movie Breaking Dawn Part 1. That’s a perfectly forgettable track, and it doesn’t evoke any images of lovelorn werewolves or vampires, but it still reached #3. (It’s a 6.)

For a while, Bruno Mars also maintained his lucrative side-hustle as a producer and hook-singer on different pop-rap hits. In June 2011, Eminem, a guy who’s been in this column a bunch of times, got back together with his old Detroit rap buddy Royce Da 5’9″ to release an album under their group name Bad Meets Evil. That record was a nakedly anti-commercial move, an excuse to spend an hour indulging in rap for rap’s sake. But the Smeezingtons co-produced the single “Lighters,” Bruno sang the hook, and the song made it to #4. (It’s a 5.)

Later in 2011, Bruno Mars also sang the hook on former Number Ones artist Lil Wayne’s single “Mirror,” which peaked at #16, and sang another hook for “Young, Wild & Free,” the Smeezingtons-produced single that stoner-rap buddies Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa recorded for their straight-to-Redbox comedy Mac & Devin Go To High School. That song made it to #7. (It’s a 6. Snoop Dogg has already been in this column a few times, and Wiz will appear in this space soon.)

Last month, I went to Seattle to interview Bay Area rap legend Too Short while he was on Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s High School Reunion tour. (My Too Short profile came out in the New York Times Magazine a few couple of ago; I’m really proud of it.) I was too busy doing interview stuff to see much of the Snoop and Wiz sets, but the “Young, Wild & Free” singalong was so loud that I could hear it backstage, with all the speakers pointed away from me. I always thought of “Young, Wild & Free” as a forgettable song, but it’s apparently still resonating. That has a lot to do with Snoop and Wiz’s particular charisma, but it also owes a great deal to Bruno Mars’ sense of popcraft. The man knows what he’s doing. We’ll see a whole lot more Bruno Mars in this column.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Passion Pit’s blinky-twinkly 2011 festival-pop remix of “Grenade”:

(Passion Pit’s only Hot 100 hit, 2012’s “Take A Walk,” peaked at #84.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the aforementioned Lil Wayne rapping a few bars on a 2011 “Grenade” remix:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Country musicians seem to respect the efficient, economical nature of a song like “Grenade.” Here’s Little Big Town performing a live-in-studio acoustic cover of “Grenade” in 2011:

(Little Big Town’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 2015’s “Girl Crush,” peaked at #18.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Florida Georgia Line, another ultra-popular pop-country group, performing a bafflingly awful nü-metal-ass version of “Grenade” at a 2013 live show:

(Florida Georgia Line’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, the 2017 Bebe Rexha collab “Meant To Be,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ariana Grande, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, singing a real showbiz-kid cover of “Grenade” at Disney World in 2013:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Black, black! Black and blue! Beat me till I’m numb! Tell the devil “buy the book” when you get back to where you’re from!

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