The Number Ones

January 17, 2015

The Number Ones: Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!” (Feat. Bruno Mars)

Stayed at #1:

14 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.

In 2014, Bruno Mars played the Super Bowl Halftime Show — a rare case of the NFL booking a performer who’s actually still on the way up. Two years later, the NFL had to get Mars back. Coldplay, a band that’s been in this column once and that will return, were that year’s Halftime Show headliners, but they weren’t alone. Maybe the NFL realized that there’s nothing particularly exciting about Coldplay on their own, but I prefer to believe those executives figured out that they’d pushed the Bruno Mars button too early. The universe wouldn’t be right until Mars showed up to sing another song. (Beyoncé, an artist who’s been in this column many times and who will return, also crashed that Halftime Show, but that’s another story.)

Less than a year after he played his first Halftime Show, Bruno Mars released what would become his signature song, with the weird caveat that the song isn’t technically his. Bruno Mars sang, co-wrote, co-produced, and played drums on “Uptown Funk!,” and the song is all about how cool it is to be Bruno Mars. But “Uptown Funk!” — the biggest hit of 2015 and one of the biggest of this century — is technically credited to a British DJ and producer who wasn’t even properly famous in America before its release. That song dug deep into a vein of Black American music that never quite dominated the pop charts, and it commercially eclipsed all the tracks that influenced it. Very quickly, it became clear that “Uptown Funk!” was the kind of song that would never fully disappear from popular culture — that it would continue to pack wedding dancefloors into eternity.

It’s tempting to say that “Uptown Funk!” was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, but that’s not quite accurate. Bruno Mars, the clear central figure of the song, was already a hugely successful pop star, even if he’d never made anything quite that big. Mars and Mark Ronson, his collaborator, clearly knew that they had something with “Uptown Funk!,” and they continued to rewrite and rearrange the song until they deemed it perfect. The end result was undeniable, and it stood as the apex of a certain early-’10s retro-pastiche trend, which also encompasses stuff like “Happy” and “All About That Bass,” as well as plenty of other Bruno Mars hits. But even though “Uptown Funk!” had context, and even though the people involved evidently knew that they were making a hit, the track still came to outrun every possible expectation by miles, becoming less of a song and more of a cultural event.

Mark Ronson has already been in this column for co-writing and co-producing Bruno Mars’ 2012 hit “Locked Out Of Heaven,” but we haven’t even scratched the surface of the man’s wild-ass life story. Truthfully, we’ll only barely do that in this column. Ronson has lived many lives, and most of them are utterly fascinating. Ronson, the son of a real estate mogul and a socialite, was born in London. (When Ronson arrived into the world, KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” was the #1 song in America. In the UK, it was the Stylistics “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love).”) Both of Ronson’s sisters, Charlotte and Samantha, eventually became celebrities in their own right.

Mark Ronson’s parents broke up when he was a kid, and his mother married Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones. Foreigner’s biggest hit, the reason that they were once in this column, is “I Want To Know What Love Is,” a song that Jones wrote for Ronson’s mother. Mick Jones and Mark Ronson are still close. Earlier this year, Ronson led a successful for-your-consideration campaign to get Foreigner into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

When Mark Ronson’s mother married Mick Jones, the family moved to New York. Ronson was a little kid in love with music, and he took advantage of the situation. There’s a sadly untrue rumor that eight-year-old Ronson co-wrote the Thundercats theme song. But 12-year-old Ronson did badger Jann Wenner into giving him a Rolling Stone internship when he was 12. (Wenner was never opposed to hiring rock stars’ kids, so that probably helped.) In the early ’90s, Ronson started working as a DJ in rap clubs while studying at NYU. He proved to be really good at that, joining Funkmaster Flex’s Flip Squad crew. The novelty of a rich, good-looking white kid working as a high-level rap DJ was a powerful thing. By the late ’90s, Ronson was showing up in Tommy Hilfiger ads.

In the late ’90s, Mark Ronson started producing for people like underground rap group the High & Mighty and eclectic soul singer Nikka Costa. In 2003, Ronson got a deal with Elektra and released Here Comes The Fuzz, a debut album full of stunt-casted pan-genre collaborations, like putting Jack White and Freeway on the same song. Ghostface Killah and Nate Dogg showed up on lead single “Ooh Wee,” which made it to #15 in the UK but which did nothing in America. Here Comes The Fuzz was a total flop, but J Records still gave Ronson his own imprint, which he called Allido. There, Ronson signed people like Wale, a buzzy DC rapper who later became a B-list star. (As lead artist, Wale’s highest-charting single is the 2013 Tiara Thomas collab “Bad,” which peaked at #21. As a guest, his biggest hit is Waka Flocka Flame’s 2010 track “No Hands,” which peaked at #13. Both of those hits came after he left Allido.)

Over the years, Mark Ronson produced for bigger names like Macy Gray, Lily Allen, and Christina Aguilera. In 2006 he produced much of Back To Black — the album that turned Amy Winehouse into a star — including “Rehab,” Winehouse’s highest-charting US single, which peaked at #9. (It’s a 9.) Ronson’s work on Back To Black helped set the stage for much of the knowingly retro pop music that followed, and it’s the main reason that he won the Producer Of The Year Grammy in 2008.

A year after Back To Black, Ronson released his own sophomore album Versions, a collection of covers that he recorded with different singers. Two of those covers went all the way to #2 in the UK. One of them was “Stop Me,” a Smiths cover that he recorded with Daniel Merriweather, a singer who he’d signed to Allido. That one did better on the UK charts than any actual Smiths singles. The other was “Valerie,” originally by the Zutons. Ronson recorded it with Amy Winehouse, and it stands today as one of Winehouse’s definitive records, even if it didn’t chart in the US.

Ronson’s third album, 2010’s Record Collection, launched another top-10 UK hit but, like its predecessors, did virtually nothing in the US. Still, Ronson was in the mix, producing for people like Adele and Nas and Duran Duran. Nobody remembers the 2011 Arthur remake, with Russell Brand instead of Dudley Moore, but Ronson and another composer scored that movie. It was Ronson’s first cinematic venture, and more would follow. (I never saw the Arthur remake, and you couldn’t pay me to watch it, but Wikipedia tells me that future Ronson collaborator Greta Gerwig was in the cast.)

In 2012, Ronson made the Bruno Mars connection, co-producing three tracks from Mars’ album Unorthodox Jukebox. Then he started working on Uptown Special, a loose concept album with some lyrics written by the novelist Michael Chabon. “Uptown Funk!” does not seem like the kind of track that belongs on a concept album with Michael Chabon lyrics, but that’s what it is. Sadly, Chabon did not contribute to “Uptown Funk!” Instead, the song started with a jam session in Bruno Mars’ studio, with Ronson on bass, Mars on drums, and frequent collaborator Jeff Bhasker on synth. (Bhasker has been in this column a few times as a producer and co-writer.) Right away, all three of them realized that the song was special, though it took a long time for them to bash it into its final shape.

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars spent months working on “Uptown Funk!” — not an easy thing, since Mars was on tour for much of that time. They recorded in multiple studios around the world. They brought in different musicians. Even before “Uptown Funk!” blew up and people started filing lawsuits, the song’s credits were long and complex. The final version has the horn sections from the Dap-Kings, Antibalas, and the Hooligans. Ronson has said that it took more than 100 takes to properly record “Uptown Funk” and that he was once so stressed out about the song that he passed out while trying to record the guitar part. Mars’ Smeezingtons songwriting partner Philip Lawrence had the idea to open the song with a bassline, but since Lawrence didn’t play bass, he had to vocally murmur his riff; that’s his voice on the song’s intro. “Uptown Funk!” is such a rigorous piece of pastiche that you can understand how it would’ve taken that much work, but it’s a little surprising to find out that a supremely fun and silly song would be such a pain in the ass to create.

In its final version, “Uptown Funk!” could almost work as a novelty song. Bruno Mars barely even sings on “Uptown Funk!” Instead, he exhorts like a ’70s funk frontman who’s just heard “Rapper’s Delight” for the first time and who’s trying to capture some of that juice for himself. “Uptown Funk!” isn’t about anything beyond funking you up. Mars says that he’s making hits for girls, that he dresses nice, and that he’s hot enough to make a dragon wanna retire, man. That last bit is probably an exaggeration, since dragons don’t exist, but everything else is demonstrably true.

The entire point of “Uptown Funk!” is to resurrect a certain lost form of music. The track draws on so much early-’80s funk that you can have a good time just listing off possible influences. To me, the most obvious precursor is the Time, who were basically a pastiche act themselves — Prince’s vicarious vehicle for delighting in James Brown and Little Richard-style cockiness. But there are so many other artists you could add in there: Kool & The Gang, Rick James, Cameo, Zapp, Earth, Wind & Fire. The song also draws connections with the rap of its own era. On the hook’s climactic moment, Bruno Mars chants, “Don’t believe me, just watch!” He took that line from “All Gold Everything,” a viral hit that the Atlanta rapper Trinidad James released in 2012. (“All Gold Everything,” James’ only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #36.) Trinidad James and producer Devon Gallaspy got songwriting credits on “Uptown Funk!,” and James rapped on a remix.

The “don’t believe me, just watch!” thing is the most overt quote on “Uptown Funk!,” but it’s not the only one. The song feels like it’s built entirely of component parts. The low-singing bassline sounds like ’80s George Clinton. The guitar echoes Nile Rodgers. The horns on the hook were directly inspired by Kool & The Gang. After “Uptown Funk!” came out, Ronson and Mars gave co-writer credits to Tulsa funk greats the Gap Band, since the cadence of their “uptown funk you up” chant is pretty much exactly the one that the Gap Band used on their own 1979 classic “Oops Up Side Your Head.” (“Oops Up Side Your Head” just missed the Hot 100. The Gap Band’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 1982’s “Early In The Morning,” peaked at #24.)

If you knew all those early-’80s records, then “Uptown Funk!” was an expertly realized nostalgia trip. If you didn’t, then it was a fresh blast of cartoonish swagger. Before “Uptown Funk!,” most of Mark Ronson’s records hadn’t clicked with me. They seemed too studied and color-by-numbers. “Uptown Funk!” is studied and color-by-numbers, too, but it turns those things into a strength. The song’s popcraft is Max Martin-level. There are little hooks everywhere, and the recording knows how to emphasize all of them. Everything pops — the drums, the horn-blats, the slap-bass, the zippy rising synth sounds. Even with something as simple as the backup-vocal chanting, there’s just the right amount of echo and reverb on everything. And the whole thing rockets along on its own momentum — Bruno Mars barking out all these fly one-liners and dance instructions with total self-assurance. Even knowing everything I now know about its production, it sounds like it would’ve been a lot of fun to make this record.

“Uptown Funk!” also benefits from having an absolutely glorious video. Bruno Mars co-directed the clip, working with regular collaborator Cameron Duddy on an old-school studio backlot. The color scheme is all vibrant pastel, like an ’80s Jonathan Demme comedy, and the choreography is just ridiculous. Bruno Mars and his backup guys all smile huge while hitting extremely silly steps. There’s an arched eyebrow to every movement, but that knowing quality just makes it that much cooler. They know that what they’re doing is goofy, and they still commit completely. (Co-writer Philip Lawrence is one of the backup guys; he’s the one with the glasses and the goatee.)

Right now, the “Uptown Funk!” video has well over five billion views, and it’s one of the most-watched clips in YouTube history. That’s because it’s great. It’s fun to watch. The clip plays out like a live-action cartoon. I love the styling — the salmon jacket, the gold chains, the subtle color coordination. The cuts all arrive on time. When Mars and his friends hit the dance on the chorus, the camera drifts sideways, as if their own coolness has thrown gravitational alignment off. Mark Ronson lurks in the background, looking handsome and attempting no dance moves that might compromise that handsomeness. Bruno Mars, meanwhile, absolutely leaps off the screen. It’s one of the most purely charismatic music-video performances in recent memory. That guy looks like he was born to entertain. When that video came out, I had to ask myself if Bruno Mars had secretly always been great and I just hadn’t realized. He wasn’t the annoying guy with the hat from the “Beautiful Girls” video anymore. He was a much cooler guy, with a much cooler hat.

When “Uptown Funk!” dropped, I was immediately addicted. I made my kids watch the video, and then they were addicted, too. The “Uptown Funk!” single came out in November 2014. That New Year’s Eve, we had a party, and my two-year-old kept running up to other kids and screaming in their faces: “Up! Town! Funk!” He used to literally murmur the phrase “Uptown Funk!” in his sleep. A couple of weeks after that, “Uptown Funk!” ascended to #1, and it didn’t leave that spot until late April. When a song reaches that level of cultural saturation, it quickly grows tiresome, and I definitely reached the point where I couldn’t go to the post office without hearing it at least twice. I got sick of it. Everyone got sick of it. Even in that time, though, “Uptown Funk!” never lost its charm, and I never lost my affection for it.

Mark Ronson released his Uptown Special album in January 2015, and it didn’t have any other songs that sounded remotely like “Uptown Funk!” Instead, the surprisingly compact record was dominated by immaculately recorded psych-rock, with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker showing up a few times. Good album! Bruno Mars co-wrote one other Uptown Special song, the follow-up single “Feel Right,” but he didn’t sing on that one. Instead, it was a showcase for Mystikal, the New Orleans rapper who’s been in this column for rapping on Joe’s “Stutter” and who’d just finished a prison sentence for sexual battery and extortion.

Now: Mystikal is a great rapper, and “Feel Right” drew historical lines, showing the link between his own guttural delivery and funk forebears like James Brown and Rufus Thomas. Still, it was hard to get too into the track. Mystikal got a weird case, why is he around? Since then, Mystikal has faced more charges for things like rape and domestic battery. “Feel Right” never made the Hot 100, and it’s mostly forgotten today. I liked the song when it came out, but I can’t say I’m sad about its lack of legacy.

Uptown Special never became a huge record, but “Uptown Funk!” didn’t fade. The song remained in the news because it was a work of clear pastiche that came out after the “Blurred Lines” trial, so tons of people tried to sue for songwriting credit. The heirs of Cali electro-funk legends Zapp said that “Uptown Funk!” sounded too much like their 1980 classic “More Bounce To The Ounce.” (“More Bounce” peaked at #86. Zapp’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Slow And Easy,” peaked at #43.) Collage, another LA electro-funk group, accused Ronson and Mars of biting their 1983 track “Young Girls.” The Sequence, the early hip-hop girl group who recorded for Sugar Hill, claimed that “Uptown Funk!” ripped off their own 1979 banger “Funk You Up.” (The Sequence never made the Hot 100, but group member Angie B eventually became neo-soul star Angie Stone, and her highest-charting single, 2001’s “Brotha,” peaked at #52.)

You see the problem here. “Uptown Funk!” really does sound a great deal like all those previous songs, and there’s a good chance that those tracks directly informed what Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars were doing. Ronson and Mars were two artists — one white guy, one Jewish/Puerto Rican/Filipino guy — messing around with historically Black music and finding gigantic success that eluded any of their possible inspirations. But “Uptown Funk!” doesn’t pull directly from those songs, the same way it did from “All Gold Everything” and (maybe) “Oops Up Side Your Head.” If I was a member of Collage, I would probably want to get paid, too. But musicians are supposed to inspire each other, and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down when people start trying to snatch legal credit for that inspiration. The Zapp and Collage lawsuits have since been dropped, though it’s not clear how they were settled. I don’t know what’s going on with the Sequence one.

Accusations or no accusations, “Uptown Funk!” was a momentous hit around the globe. It’s gone 11 times platinum in the US, and it’s racked up even crazier certifications in other countries. (Apparently, if you sell 1.5 million copies in Australia, you go platinum 22 times.) The song also won the Grammy for Record Of The Year. As far as I can tell, Bruno Mars basically took that success as an excuse to redirect his entire career toward retro funk and soul, and that was a good move for him; we’ll see him in this column again. Mark Ronson, the non-singing producer who served as lead artist, never had any chance of repeating that success, but he’s continued to do awfully well for himself.

In the years after “Uptown Funk!,” Mark Ronson remained busy. He took part in Bruno Mars’ return to the Super Bowl. He was one of the score composers for Mortdecai, the doomed Johnny Depp comedy that’s got a reputation as one of the worst movies ever made. He produced for people like Action Bronson, A$AP Rocky, Queens Of The Stone Age, Parquet Courts, and Lady Gaga. In 2018, Ronson teamed up with fellow super-producer Diplo to form a duo called Silk City. They’ve only released one single, but it’s a banger: “Electricity,” a collaboration with rising dance-pop star Dua Lipa. (“Electricity” peaked at #62. Diplo’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2015 Skrillex/Justin Bieber collab “Where Are Ü Now,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10. Dua Lipa’s two highest-charting singles, 2019’s “Don’t Start Now” and 2020’s “Levitating,” both peaked at #2. “Don’t Start Now” is a 9, and “Levitating” is an 8. I’d assumed that we’d eventually see Dua Lipa in this column, but I’m rapidly losing faith.)

In 2019, Mark Ronson followed Uptown Special with his relatively low-key album Late Night Feelings, and absolutely nothing on that record was remotely trying to be the next “Uptown Funk!” Ronson reached #43 with “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” his collaboration with Miley Cyrus, an artist who’s been in this column once and who will eventually return. That was Ronson’s last time on the Hot 100, at least as lead artist. As a producer and songwriter, Ronson will be in this column again.

Mark Ronson won his first Oscar in 2019, and we’ll get to that win in a future column. This year, he was all over the awards-show circuit again because he and regular collaborator Andrew Wyatt scored Barbie, the biggest movie of 2023. That’s a vast step up from the Arthur remake and Mortdecai. Ronson also produced the Barbie soundtrack, another massively successful venture. I have no idea what he’ll do next, but he’s in high demand.

Mark Ronson was 39 years old when “Uptown Funk!” made it to #1. He’s 48 now, and he still looks ridiculously good. It’s basically impossible that Ronson will have a cultural moment like “Uptown Funk!” again, since that kind of thing almost never happens for anyone and since the moment wasn’t even really his in the first place. But Ronson has found a whole lot of success in his extremely strange life, and I imagine that he’ll find more in the years ahead. Just watch.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: Early in 2015, the theater teacher at Dallas A. Maceo Smith Tech High School made an “Uptown Funk!” dance video with what must’ve been that school’s entire student body. The clip went viral, and Bruno Mars said that he cried when he watched it. The video is fun, but I wish it centered the kids instead of the teacher. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Uptown Funk!” dub that Fatboy Slim, engineer Jerome Robins, and actual movie star Idris Elba randomly released in 2015:

(Fatboy Slim’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 1999’s “Praise You,” peaked at #36.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Fall Out Boy covered “Uptown Funk!” in a 2015 visit to the BBC Live Lounge. This seems like it should’ve been a terrible idea, but I think they pulled it off pretty well. Here it is:

(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Rick Astley, someone who’s been in this column a couple of times, regularly covers “Uptown Funk!” at his live shows. Here he is, singing the song on the Dutch talk show RTL Late Night in 2016:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At a 2017 live show in Alabama, former Gap Band leader and credited “Uptown Funk!” co-writer Uncle Charlie Wilson covered “Uptown Funk!” and mixed in a little bit of his own group’s “Oops Up Side Your Head.” He bodied it, too. Here’s the fan footage:

(Uncle Charlie Wilson’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 2005’s “Charlie Last Name: Wilson,” peaked at #67. Wilson also reached #6 as a guest on Snoop Dogg’s Justin Timberlake collab “Beautiful” in 2003. It’s a 6.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. If you freaky, then own it.

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