The Number Ones

December 22, 2012

The Number Ones: Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out Of Heaven”

Stayed at #1:

6 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.

What, exactly, would an orthodox jukebox be? Does such a thing exist? Would you only find one at a retro ’50s diner? Would it be stocked entirely with Four Seasons 45s? Isn’t the entire point of jukeboxes that they’re all unorthodox? That they pull music from across the spectrum, so you never really know what you’re about to hear?

All jukeboxes are unorthodox now, since they’re all digital and can thus access pretty much any music. People are pranking bars by putting on endless experimental tracks or intentionally annoying novelty songs. (This is psychotic behavior. Please do not do this.) But even when I was a kid and actual jukeboxes still existed, part of the lure was the random-ass song-jumbles you’d encounter — Don Henley into Biz Markie into Poison. Bruno Mars is a little younger than me, so his formative jukebox experiences would’ve been different, but the takeaway must’ve been the same, right?

I’m asking this because Bruno Mars decided to name his second album Unorthodox Jukebox. It’s a good title, at least when you don’t think about it too much — a catchy two-word phrase with a weird little internal sense of rhythm and a meaning that’s easy enough to define. Mars, slightly uncomfortable with his rep as a cuddly pop cipher, wanted to break out and experiment with a bunch of different kinds of music. But he wasn’t really experimenting, since all the tracks on Unorthodox Jukebox are really just studied pastiche — lovingly faithful recreations of different genres of music from the recent past. That approach worked out well enough for him, but there’s absolutely nothing unorthodox about it. If anything, it’s almost distractingly normal.

Bruno Mars’ greatest gift is that he can write a song that sounds immediately familiar. That’s not nothing. In pop music, it can almost be a superpower. Bruno Mars doesn’t inspire the fervent devotion of many of his pop-star peers because everything he does comes with implicit quotation marks. He’s reworking sounds that you know and feeding them back to you in digestible form, and he’s really good at that. It’s not the most exciting kind of pop stardom, but it’s durable. If you like the things that Bruno Mars riffs on, then there’s a very good chance you’ll like the Bruno Mars track that comes out of that riffing. For instance, if you like the Police, then you’ll probably find something to like in “Locked Out Of Heaven,” the lead single from Unorthodox Jukebox.

Lots of people like the Police. That band sold umpteen bajillion records. They had the biggest song of 1983, which then became the basis for the biggest song of 1997. Bruno Mars definitely likes the Police, and he’s never been cagey about the fact that he tried to approximate their sound with “Locked Out Of Heaven.”

I’ve always wondered: Did Sting get paid for “Locked Out Of Heaven”? He’s not credited as a songwriter or anything. But Sting has always been open about how much money he makes from other people using his songs. He famously scored himself a co-writer credit on Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” by using his own “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” melody on his “I want my MTV” backing vocals. Last year, Sting joked that he still makes $5,000 a day for the “I’ll Be Missing You” interpolation. But “Locked Out Of Heaven” doesn’t sound like any specific Police song. Virtually every Unorthodox Jukebox review mentioned the Police, but most of those reviews referenced different Police songs or albums. The song just sounds like the Police, in totality.

In 2012, a couple of weeks after the “Locked Out Of Heaven” single came out, MTV asked Bruno Mars about the Police comparisons, and Mars came out and said that this was exactly what he was going for: “Hell yeah! You try to write a Police song! I grew up listening to the Police. I grew up performing in bars, singing Police songs… I remember performing a song like ‘Roxanne,’ and you play those first couple of chords, and you hit that first note, and you watch the whole bar ignite. And as an artist, as a songwriter, it’s like ‘Man, I want to write a song that makes people’s eyes explode the first chord!'” Points for honesty!

In that interview, Bruno Mars claimed that he didn’t intentionally set out to write a Police song, but that’s what happened: “I started singing that, and I was up there in Sting-ville, in that register, so that’s what you get.” Unorthodox Jukebox is full of obvious nods just like that. There’s a digital ’80s reggae song, an arena-rock screamer, an old-school piano-ballad that’ll eventually end up in this column. But it still says something that Mars went for the most obvious pastiche as the first single. Maybe he wanted to set himself apart, since nobody else was making Police songs in 2012.

Bruno Mars’ 2010 debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans was an unqualified success that went platinum seven times over and sent two singles to #1. Bruno Mars and his songwriting partners already had plenty of success working on other artists’ tracks, and that album sent him into the pop stratosphere. But Mars thought the album was rushed, and he didn’t want to repeat himself or remain in the clean, mom-friendly zone where that record ultimately put him. After stressing hard over how to approach the all-important sophomore LP, Mars and his collaborators decided to relax, to make the kind of album that they’d want to hear.

They got some outside help. Bruno Mars and his longtime collaborators Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine — the trio collectively and unfortunately known as the Smeezingtons — worked on every track from Unorthodox Jukebox, but they also brought in ringers. Jeff Bhasker, who’s been in this column for producing Fun.’s “We Are Young,” worked on Doo-Wops & Hooligans, and he returned for the second record. Emile Haynie is a producer from Buffalo who got his start as part of Eminem’s production crew. He’d worked with Bhasker on records from people like Fun. and Kanye West, so he was in, too. (Haynie’s work will appear in this column again.) And then there was a handsome, stylish gentleman named Mark Ronson.

Mark Ronson became an important creative partner for Bruno Mars, and he’ll be back in this column — not just as a songwriter or producer, but also as an artist alongside Mars. We’ll get deeper into his whole backstory when that happens, so here’s the capsule version. Ronson, a rich and fancy New York kid, came up as a hotshot club DJ, well-known in rap circles. He released a knowingly eclectic, widely ignored 2003 album, and he produced records for people like Nikka Costa, Lily Allen, and Rhymefest. In 2006, Ronson went to work on Back To Black, the sophomore album from a promising young British singer named Amy Winehouse.

Back To Black was the right album at the right moment. Amy Winehouse was obviously a hugely talented writer and singer who could convey ferocious pain through the medium of classicist pop music. As a producer, Ronson combined decades-old soul and pop sounds with a vaguely rap-friendly cut-and-paste aesthetic, and he hit a new commercial sweet spot. The album became a phenomenon, and it sold a ton of copies on both sides of the Atlantic. Amy Winehouse won the Best New Artist Grammy, and her sudden international fame almost certainly contributed to her decline and 2011 death. “Rehab,” the biggest American hit of Winehouse’s career, is a Ronson production. (“Rehab” peaked at #9. It’s a 9.)

Bruno Mars wanted some of that Back To Black juice for himself. Specifically, he liked the way that Ronson could record live instrumentation in a way that would still sound good on club speakers. (This is where the DJ background probably came in handy.) Bruno Mars wrote “Locked Out Of Heaven” with his Smeezingtons buddies Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, and the song has six credited producers: All three Smeezingtons, Jeff Bhasker, Emile Haynie, and Mark Ronson. The track came out of a Smeezingtons jam session, but the final version was much more elaborate. Ronson recorded parts of the song at Brooklyn’s Daptone studio. Ronson used the Dap-Kings, the crack retro-soul band assembled to back up the late Sharon Jones, on Back To Black, and he also brought them in for “Locked Out Of Heaven,” though only bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Homer Steinweiss ended up on the final version of the track.

The Police parallels in “Locked Out Of Heaven” are all over the place. The influence comes through most clearly in the pinched, honking tone of Bruno Mars’ lead vocal; the “aw yeah yeah” ad-lib on the intro almost sounds like a sample. But I also hear the Police in the off-kilter quasi-reggae skank of the guitars, the deep spaciness of the bassline, and the just-offbeat phrasing of Mars’ delivery. But the track has clearly been labored over, and Mars and his collaborators pile more into the mix as the song continues: Synchronized full-band grunts, MPC handclaps, EDM sirens. Emile Haynie also did a lot of work on Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, and the guy really loved his hiccuping vocal samples back then. There are a lot of hiccuping vocal samples on “Locked Out Of Heaven.”

I hear some contradictory impulses at work on “Locked Out Of Heaven.” For one thing, Mars and his collaborators attempt to capture a certain live-band immediacy, but they do it with a blockbuster producer’s sensibility, so the mix ends up being more precisely cluttered than anything that a live band could or would ever do. Mars and his collaborators also try to sound like uptight English guys who are trying to sound like Jamaican reggae artists. Bruno Mars could go ahead and make a reggae song if he wanted; Unorthodox Jukebox also has “Show Me,” a really good fake reggae track. But I think the idea of twice-removed reggae is trickier.

We actually know how “Locked Out Of Heaven” might’ve sounded if Bruno Mars had tried to bring the reggae influence more into focus. While making Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars brought in Mark Ronson’s buddy Diplo, who co-produced the horny deep cut “Money Make Her Smile.” Diplo’s Major Lazer project, which was still going for a kind of EDM-dancehall hybrid at the time, remixed “Locked Out Of Heaven,” and Mars included the remix on a Target-exclusive version of the album. It’s OK. (In 2013, Mars chanted the hook on Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt,” which became their first Hot 100 hit, peaking at #56. Major Lazer’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Justin Bieber collab “Cold Water,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)

Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out Of Heaven” lyrics aren’t especially interesting, but they don’t really get in the way, either. It’s a sex song. Bruno Mars has met someone who blows his mind, and he can’t believe that he doesn’t get to have sex with her all the time. It makes sense to put that kind of lyric on a Police pastiche. Sting has definitely considered the spiritual implications of fucking. That’s a big part of his persona. Would Sting come right out and sing that someone’s sex takes him to paradise? I don’t know. Probably not, but I’m not going to sit here and get precious about Sting lyrics.

In 2012, Bruno Mars told a radio station that “Locked Out Of Heaven” is about Halle Berry. I think that was a hypothetical thing. As far as I can tell, there’s no indication that Bruno Mars ever dated Halle Berry, so maybe he was just imagining the experience of sex with Halle Berry. But that evidently didn’t skeeve her out. In 2016, Berry appeared, in outgoing-voicemail-message form, on Mars’ song “Calling All My Lovelies.”

I wonder how I’d feel about “Locked Out Of Heaven” if I was a big fan of the Police. Maybe I’d be offended. Maybe I’d be like, “This guy is desecrating Stewart Copeland’s immaculate drum work with his dance-pop sex song.” But that’s not how I feel about the Police. And anyway, “Locked Out Of Heaven” isn’t pitched at big Police fans. The song’s intended customer base, as far as I can tell, is the vast number of people who kind of like and remember a bunch of Police songs but who don’t necessarily hold them in any kind of religious regard. As someone who doesn’t much like the Police, I hear “Locked Out Of Heaven” as a perfectly sturdy track with some affectations that annoy me. It’s a pretty good version of a sound that leaves me completely neutral. If I come off a little dispassionate on the track, that’s why.

I tend to think that Bruno Mars tracks work better when you’re already into the sound that he’s imitating. That speaks to Mars’ strengths and limitations. The fact that he can do a decent Police pastiche is a testament to his talent. The fact that he would do a decent Police pastiche is a sign that he doesn’t have too much artistic fire driving him. He’s not expressing some burning feeling in his soul, something that will annihilate him if he doesn’t get it out into the world. He’s saying that it would be fun to make a song that sounds kind of like the Police, and then he makes a song that sounds kind of like the Police. I just can’t get too fired up about that.

But Bruno Mars did a very effective job selling “Locked Out Of Heaven,” and someone evidently must’ve gotten excited about the song. Mars and Cameron Duddy made an energetic, narrative-free video, setting all the action in a sweaty rock club that’s full of models and making it look like it’s shot on VHS tape. Mars performed the song for the first time on Saturday Night Live, and he went on to do it on a ton of other TV shows, including the televised Victoria’s Secret fashion show and the US and UK versions of The X Factor.

At the 2013 Grammys, held just a week after “Locked Out Of Heaven” fell out of the #1 spot, Bruno Mars performed the song again, and Sting came out partway through, combining that track with the Police’s “Walking On The Moon.” I always thought “Locked Out Of Heaven” sounded more like “Message In A Bottle,” but I guess the secret is that it really sounds like every Police song. In any case, this was the signal that Sting was cool with the homage, and it’s part of the reason that I picture him taking some kind of secret payment for the track. But that’s probably just my imagination. After all, “Locked Out Of Heaven” came out just before musical influence, as opposed to plagiarism, became a legally actionable matter. (The Grammys being what they are, the Bruno Mars/Sting performance transitioned haplessly into a version of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” with Rihanna and Ziggy Marley.)

“Locked Out Of Heaven” set Unorthodox Jukebox up nicely. The single reached #1 a few weeks after the album came out, and both single and album moved a whole lot of copies. In 2022, “Locked Out Of Heaven” went diamond. There were more hits on the album, too. “Locked Out Of Heaven” sat at #1 as the calendar flipped over from 2012 to 2013, and the pop charts got a whole lot more chaotic and meme-friendly in 2013. But Bruno Mars, old-school craftsman that he is, didn’t lose his grip on the Hot 100. We’ll see him in this column again soon.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s the troubling sight of former Number Ones artist Gladys Knight, in disguise as the Bee, singing “Locked Out Of Heaven” on a 2019 episode of the American Masked Singer:

(This column will soon reach the tragic stage where we’re going to have to deal with Masked Singer judge Robin Thicke.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times, covering “Locked Out Of Heaven” on a 2021 episode of her talk show:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Taylor Swift’s gloriously goofy drop-the-bass rager “I Knew You Were Trouble” peaked at #2 behind “Locked Out Of Hevean.” It’s an 8.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Never wanna put my heart on the line, which is probably why I make a different lame lyric-reference joke whenever I plug it, but you can buy the book here.

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