The Number Ones

April 20, 2013

The Number Ones: Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

In 2013, memes took over the pop charts. For the first few months of the year, nothing was touching Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” or Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” — two vaguely smirky records that came out of nowhere, rode YouTube success, and obliterated big-swing singles from much more seasoned pop stars. That transitional moment had something to do with Billboard’s methodology — the decision to start factoring YouTube plays into chart position — and signaled the start of a new era. To this day, it’s a whole lot harder for a single to reach #1 if it doesn’t have some meme juice on it.

Within the music business, certain people must’ve breathed a sigh of relief when Bruno Mars’ aching piano ballad “When I Was Your Man” finally elbowed its way to #1, even if the song only held the top spot for a week. Bruno Mars is by no means opposed to memes, and when he toured arenas behind his 2012 album Unorthodox Jukebox, he would play a bit of something that sounded like “Harlem Shake” on drums. But the success of “When I Was Your Man” showed that a sharply written old-school pop song, delivered by an industry-vetted old-school pop star, could still compete with the meme hits. Once in a while, it might even win.

Over and over, this column has shown that timing is everything when it comes to chart success. Pop revolutions don’t happen all at once; Bobby Vinton was still able to push a track to #1 after the Beatles arrived. Lots of people were finding new music via YouTube in 2013, but plenty of people still listened to the radio, and some even downloaded singles on iTunes. Bruno Mars made music for those people.

In 2013, Bruno Mars was on a roll; his Police pastiche “Locked Out Of Heaven” was the song that “Thrift Shop” knocked out of the #1 spot. Mars also knew how to present familiar sounds to the world. With “When I Was Your Man,” he closely followed the sonic blueprint of another song that had been a huge chart hit not long before. He did everything right, and he wound up with another #1 hit. He’s done that a lot.

In 2011, Adele’s heart-wrecked ballad “Someone Like You” became the first chart-topper in Hot 100 history to feature nothing but voice and piano. Adele built herself a cultural moment through classic songcraft, sparse production, vocal firepower, and grand-gesture sentiment. Bruno Mars must’ve taken note. He must’ve realized that he could do all the same things that Adele could do, even if he didn’t have the kind of emotional intensity that could torch entire forests. A year and a half after “Someone Like You,” Mars’ “When I Was Your Man” became the second only-voice-and-piano track to top the Hot 100.

Bruno Mars didn’t rip Adele off when he wrote “When I Was Your Man.” That song and “Someone Like You” have vastly different melodies and slightly different tones. As singers, Mars and Adele don’t have much in common, and nobody was going to mistake “Someone Like You” for “When I Was Your Man.” Adele evidently admired Bruno Mars enough to work with him. In 2015, Mars and his crew the Smeezingtons co-wrote and produced Adele’s deep cut “All I Ask” — which, come to think of it, is another voice-and-piano ballad. (“All I Ask” never came out as a single, but it still peaked at #77.) It’s just that Bruno Mars recognized a cultural moment where another song like “Someone Like You” could enjoy similar success. That’s good strategizing. That’s what pop stars do.

Maybe Bruno Mars wasn’t thinking about Adele when he wrote “When I Was Your Man.” He certainly never mentioned her when he talked about writing the song. Instead, Mars says that the song was inspired by real-life experiences. A 2013 Rolling Stone cover story claims that Mars wrote the song when he was worried that he and his girlfriend, the model Jessica Caban, were close to breaking up. They stayed together, but Mars said that he had trouble performing the song live, since it took him right back to that feeling of regret and uncertainty. He also had trouble talking about the song: “I’m not answering any questions about this song. It’s too close to home.”

At various points, Bruno Mars has said that he had no interest in writing emotionally intense ballads when he was making Unorthodox Jukebox. In that Rolling Stone story, Mars says, “I’m not a fan of self-indulgence. For me, music is ‘I want to feel good’ or ‘I want to dance,’ as opposed to me singing about me growing up in Hawaii and ‘my struggle to relate.’ Ain’t nobody trying to hear that. I’m not even trying to hear that, and that’s my story!” In a different Rolling Stone story, Mars said, “When we started the record, I was like, ‘I’m never singing another ballad again.'” Mars has recorded ballads since “When I Was Your Man,” but they’ve been crushed-velvet loverman affairs, not emotional purges. Still, “When I Was Your Man” came together quickly, and Mars described it as “the most honest, real thing I’ve ever sung.”

I’m sure Bruno Mars means what he says. But Mars is also a cipher who got his start by impersonating the idealized pop stars of the past. That’s what he was doing when he was a toddler, barely old enough to stand. It only makes sense that the man can only process his own feelings through the medium of classically constructed pop music. In 2013, Philip Lawrence, Mars’ right-hand man in the Smeezingtons, told American Songwriter, “Bruno and I are both huge fans of older music, like Billy Joel and Elton John. We always loved those moments where you can sit at the piano and emote… We always wanted to find a stripped-down song like that, which is how that song came to be. The subject matter was real life; Bruno had experienced that, so we tried to say it in the best and catchiest way we could.”

It must be so hard to find the line between pop pastiche and emotional outpouring, but it sure seems easier for Bruno Mars than for most of us. Unorthodox Jukebox is an album full of genre experiments, and “When I Was Your Man” is one of those. When it was time to record his wracked, regretful ballad, Mars didn’t suddenly turn into Cat Power. Instead, he simply consulted his pop-star playbook. This was the smart move. If “When I Was Your Man” was anything other than a pastiche of identifiable, familiar elements, it wouldn’t have hit the way that it did.

Bruno Mars is the only human being that we hear on “When I Was Your Man.” That’s him singing the song, and that’s him playing the piano. But this isn’t a “When Doves Cry” situation. Other people helped Mars write the song. He wrote and produced it with his Smeezingtons pals Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine. Andrew Wyatt, the Miike Snow singer who’s already been in this column for co-writing Mars’ “Grenade,” also gets a songwriting credit. When he had to translate his most intense feelings into a pop song, Mars turned to the friends and collaborators who he trusted. I think that’s nice.

It’s easy to admire the economical nature of “When I Was Your Man.” Like so many pop songs before it, the track addresses complicated feelings in simple terms, wasting no words in sketching out a mental state. On the song, Bruno looks back on a broken relationship and realizes everything that he did wrong: “My pride, my ego, my needs, and my selfish ways/ Caused a good, strong woman like you to walk out my life/ Now I’ll never, never get to clean up the mess I made/ And that haunts me every time I close my eyes.” He should’ve bought her flowers and held her hand. He should’ve gave her all his hours when he had a chance.

I’m vaguely fascinated by the idea that Bruno Mars didn’t actually break up with the woman who inspired “When I Was Your Man.” (Mars is great at keeping his personal life out of the media, but as far as I can tell, he and Jessica Caban are still together.) Instead, he’s playing a character. On the song, Mars really has blown everything, and his ex is with someone else. When he sings the song, Mars isn’t trying to win her back. He’s simply letting her know that he knows what he did. Now, she’s dancing with another man, and he hopes that the guy buys her flowers and holds her hand. It’s like Mars beams himself into a possible alternate future, singing from the perspective of that timeline’s Bruno Mars and then returning to his own.

“When I Was Your Man” is a well-written, well-performed pop ballad. The pianos tinkle beautifully, and Mars lets his voice get a little rougher without losing its fundamental smoothness. The bridge is especially nice, with Mars really reaching for some painfully expressive notes. You can hear the work that went into the track. It’s a nice song. I tend to find gloopy ballads to be painfully boring, and “When I Was Your Man” is too well-written to suffer that fate. But it also never approaches the same heights of catharsis that Adele found on “Someone Like You.” It’s just a good song and nothing more. It doesn’t move me. I didn’t know the entire backstory of “When I Was Your Man” when the song was actually popular, but maybe I could subconsciously sense that Bruno Mars hadn’t gone through it the way that Adele had.

Still: Big hit. For the “When I Was Your Man” video, Bruno Mars and director Cameron Duddy went for the explicitly old-school feel of a ’70s TV performance. Even the film grain evoked the picture of those old YouTube clips. That exacting retro presentation has since become a big part of the Bruno Mars experience. Since then, all of his singles have worked, very consciously, as aesthetic time machines. “When I Was Your Man” only spent a week at #1, but the song arguably stuck around longer and became bigger than “Thrift Shop” or “Harlem Shake.” The single eventually went past diamond, going platinum 11 times over. The “Thrift Shop” video has more YouTube views, but both songs are well over a billion.

Unorthodox Jukebox ultimately went platinum six times over, which is just slightly less than what Bruno Mars racked up with his debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. Jukebox had one more big hit, and that song pretty much established the lane that Mars has occupied ever since. With his follow-up “Treasure,” Mars got into his high-stepping liquid pop-funk bag, going full Earth, Wind & Fire. (“Treasure” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.) That’s Mars’ comfort zone, and he hasn’t ventured too far from it since then.

A couple of other Unorthodox Jukebox tracks also made the charts. I really like “Gorilla,” an utterly ridiculous piece of cartoonishly horny arena-rock that peaked at #22. The “Gorilla” lyrics are so stupid; it’s literally just Bruno singing about wanting to fuck like a gorilla. But he delivers the song without any smirk, fully committing to the Prince-doing-Journey sound that he clearly targeted. I can’t believe he got away with it, but credit where it’s due. In the end, five different singles from Unorthodox Jukebox made the top 40 — amazing numbers for a 10-song album. As the person who writes this column, I have to say that I appreciate Bruno Mars for never leaving any filler on his LPs. Those things are always about half an hour, in and out, and it makes the research much more painless.

With two huge albums to his credit, Bruno Mars made career moves. He headlined an arena tour and launched his first Las Vegas residency. He played a romantic rival named Rico in the kids’ animated movie Rio 2. (That remains Mars’ only real cinematic role; he’s never jumped into the acting thing.) And in 2014, the 28-year-old Bruno Mars played the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

It’s basically unheard-of for someone to take that Super Bowl gig before reaching a career peak, but that’s what Bruno Mars did. His Halftime Show didn’t reach the levels of eye-popping spectacle that we’ve come to expect in recent years, and the appearance from the Red Hot Chili Peppers felt weird and forced and random. (The Chili Peppers’ highest-charting single, 1991’s “Under The Bridge,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Other than that, though, Mars did just fine. I didn’t have a bad time watching his Halftime Show when it was happening, and I also didn’t have a bad time rewatching it just now. “When I Was Your Man” wasn’t part of the show, which makes perfect sense. There are times when a weepy piano-ballad is perfectly appropriate, and the Super Bowl is not one of those times.

When he played that Halftime Show, Bruno Mars was less than a year away from releasing the biggest hit of his life — a song so huge that the NFL had to bring Mars back to crash Coldplay’s Halftime Show a couple of years later. But we’ll get to that. Bruno Mars, needless to say, will appear in this column again. Also, a decade after “When I Was Your Man,” another pop star had a huge hit with an unofficial answer record. That song will also appear in this column one day in the future.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jersey City underground rapper Ransom going in over a chipmunk-soul “When I Was Your Man” sample in the video for his 2014 track “Royalty”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2015, Thomas Rhett had a minor country hit with a “When I Was Your Man” cover that simply reused the original track’s arrangement. Here’s the video for Rhett’s version:

(Thomas Rhett’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2015’s “Die A Happy Man,” peaked at #21.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: A very late-period version of the Temptations, a group that’s been in this column a bunch of times, recorded “When I Was Your Man” for their 2018 covers album All The Time. Here’s their version:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. You don’t have to buy me flowers or hold my hand, but if you feel like it, you could buy the book here.

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