Uptown Funk: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars hit no. 1 on the Billboard chart. Why?

America’s New No. 1 Song Is to Electro-R&B What “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Was to Punk

America’s New No. 1 Song Is to Electro-R&B What “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Was to Punk

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 13 2015 11:30 AM

Why Is Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” No. 1?

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Bruno Mars, in white fedora and pink jacket, and Mark Ronson, on guitar, perform “Uptown Funk!” on Saturday Night Live.

NBC

Maybe it’s the exclamation point!

I’m talking about the official, fully punctuated title of “Uptown Funk!” That’s the spirited new No. 1 song in America, according to Billboard’s flagship Hot 100 pop chart. The jamming, horn-inflected single is indeed exclamatory. Like a sexy Ginsu pitchman, the peacocking singer insists, over and over, that his hot-damned funky groove will “give it to you,” satisfaction guaranteed: “Don’t believe me? Just watch!”

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Credited to Mark Ronson and featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk!” pairs the Grammy-winning British producer, taking his first chart lap as a credited artist, with the cross-genre, Super Bowl–worthy pop star. For a song not by chart hegemon Taylor Swift, “Uptown” has been a notably fast-breaking hit. It debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 65 in late November, the same week Taylor began her run at No. 1 with “Blank Space,” and seven weeks later it has ejected Swift’s song from the penthouse. It was helped particularly by holiday downloading: Billboard reports it’s been America’s top-selling song twice in the last three weeks.

Ronson and Mars seem to enjoy curing us of our January blahs: This is the second time they’ve teamed on a song that topped the chart right at the start of winter. Only this time, their roles are reversed. Two years ago, “Locked Out of Heaven,” the unabashed Police homage fronted by Mars and produced by Ronson, commanded the chart for six weeks just after Christmas 2012. That’s not all “Funk” has in common with prior January toppers. With its lyrics devoted to club-dwelling (“Saturday night and we in the spot”) and hottie-peeping (“If you sexy then flaunt it/ If you freaky then own it”), the song maintains the perennial tradition I described last year, when Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber” owned the Hot 100: wintertime hits devoted to partying indoors.

Bottle-popping lyrics aside, one hesitates to call “Uptown Funk!” a club record per se. I mean, maybe a club in 1981. Whereas the chilly months usually bring us more cutting-edge, up-to-the-minute beats, with this latest hit, Ronson and Mars have gone all the way retro. The song is a brazen return to the electro-funk of the early ’80s, a fertile, transitional moment when black artists grafted brassy ’70s R&B to New Wave synthesizers. So dense are the song’s allusions that you could strip it for vintage parts, like a Cuban car. It contains just one modern borrowing, the “Don’t believe me, just watch” refrain taken directly from Atlanta rapper Trinidad James’ 2013 R&B/Hip-Hop chart hit “All Gold Everything,” a bite so overt that Ronson & co. properly include James in the songwriting credits. But that’s just the most litigable interpolation: This Billboard dissection of the song’s forbears by radio expert Sean Ross lists more than a dozen antecedents, and if you know even a little about this period of R&B the borrowings will seem uncanny.

For instance: Isn’t the chant “Up-town/ Funk you up/ Uptown funk you up” a steal from the Gap Band? Yes, cross-pollinated with some early Sugar Hill Records. That stomping party-train beat—doesn’t it have the stank of post-disco James Brown? You know it, and Bruno’s lyric “Gotta kiss myself, I’m so pretty” also owes something to the Godfather of Soul. How about those gurgling, Vocoderized vocal sounds—where have you heard them before? On classic funk records by Zapp’s Roger Troutman (as well as German synth-funkster George Kranz). Didn’t Prince protégés Morris Day and the Time patent that preening-vocal-plus-multi-dude-chorus approach? You know what time it is. And those syncopated horns—didn’t Rick James make his bones with that sound? What did the five fingers say to the face?

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Here’s the thing about the roughly 35-year-old records I cited above: All were huge R&B hits, but none were big pop hits. That even includes Rick James: His singles were black-radio smashes but all failed to reach the Hot 100’s Top 10. Yes, even “Super Freak” (No. 16, 1981; the 1990 M.C. Hammer hit that sampled “Freak” did better than that). As Ross notes in Billboard, the turn of the ’80s was a particularly segregated time on the radio. The “disco backlash,” he writes, “effectively kept all types of black music, not just disco, off of Top 40 [radio] for three years, beginning in fall 1979.” And “many other developments in R&B music—the beginnings of rap, the return of disco to its R&B roots, the emergence of a second generation of funk artists, many of them influenced by new wave—happened mostly off of Top 40’s radar.”

This is why, ever since “Uptown” dropped two months ago, I’ve found it ironic to see so many bloggers, critics, and friends of mine calling it a ready-made smash. Sure, it sounds like an instantly familiar chart-topper to us now. But “Uptown Funk!” is to vintage electro-R&B in 2015 what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Basket Case” were in the early ’90s to vintage punk: a catch-up. It’s a penance by America for not making an irresistible style the pop success it deserved to be the first time around. There’s been a lot of that in the Hot 100’s penthouse lately. Ten months after Pharrell took Impressions-style soul all the way to No. 1, and four months after Meghan Trainor did the same with Doris Day girl-group pop, one wonders what mothballed music style we will revive next. Two-tone ska? Prog-rock? Baroque pop? (Personally I’m pulling for doomy goth-dance.)

And if there’s one producer you might have predicted would retrofit an old style for modern airplay, it’s Mark Ronson, the nattily dressed 39-year-old Brit whose celebrated production transformed the late Amy Winehouse from a talented hip-hop-soul singer into the premier postmodern revivalist of her day. His 2008 Producer of the Year Grammy honored an exceptionally successful year in which he manned the boards for hits not only from Winehouse but also Lily Allen and himself. That year could well have been a fluke, and Ronson has earned his share of criticism as a Lenny Kravitz–style necromancer—whether he’s hiring Sharon Jones’ backing band the Dap-Kings to craft letter-perfect ’60s soul recreations or teaming with Duran Duran to help them meticulously reconstruct the sound of their Rio-era selves. But Ronson has outlasted his Grammy moment and proved himself a hard-working and durable studio polymath, facile in range of styles, even if many of those styles are as old as he is.

What was not predictable, in any case, was Ronson scoring a chart-topping U.S. hit. In England he’s a near–household name, having scored a half-dozen Top 40 hits with a range of singers. (Ronson’s 2007 cover of the Zutons’ “Valerie,” fronted by Winehouse, is basically a U.K. dancefloor classic at this point; and his pop-and-B reworking of “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” sung by Daniel Merriweather, wound up the highest-charting version of a Smiths song in U.K. history.) In America, though, despite that Grammy win, Ronson was largely known only by attentive pop fans and music industry followers. His production on tracks like “Locked Out of Heaven” and Winehouse’s smash “Rehab” brought him to the Hot 100 as a fine-print credit, but he’d never touched the chart as an artist before. He doesn’t sing or rap like fellow producer–artist Pharrell Williams, but Ronson has now matched Williams’s improbable feat last year with “Happy,” scoring a chart-topper near his 40th birthday—and like Pharrell with last year’s GIRL, Ronson is dropping his new album, Uptown Special, which arrives this week, with a No. 1 hit already on it.

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Before we get carried away crediting Ronson for his song’s success, though, we should acknowledge that right now 29-year-old Bruno Mars could probably sing over the Mr. Softee theme and score a hit. As a Puerto Rican–Jew–Filipino from Hawaii, the man born Peter Gene Hernandez is used to being unusual. His U.S. chart presence is especially singular right now due to gender and timing. Mars has been representing for the dudes at Top 40 during a five-year period that’s been dominated by female pop queens; Billboard reports that “Uptown’s” rise to No. 1 this week ends a record five-month streak of female dominance atop the Hot 100, during which women blockaded the entire Top Five for several weeks.

Since he started scoring hits five years ago—first as a supporting vocalist on B.o.B.’s rap-ballad “Nothin’ on You,” and later in 2010 with his own inescapable radio staple “Just the Way You Are”—Mars has been the most consistent male voice on the radio; “Uptown Funk” is his sixth No. 1. So as the vocalist on “Uptown Funk!” and America’s favorite showman, Mars is obviously the main reason Ronson’s hit topped our chart. (Probably the U.K. chart, too—while Ronson is more famous in his homeland, “Uptown” is his first No. 1 even there.) In radio terms, Mars is the Michael Jackson to Ronson’s Rockwell, or better yet the Janet to Ronson’s Herb Alpert. But Bruno is not mere window-dressing for a producer-mastermind: He is himself an accomplished songwriter and studio wunderkind. Even before he began scoring No. 1 hits under his own name, his three-man production collective the Smeezingtons cowrote and/or produced hits as varied as Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire,” Far East Movement’s “Rocketeer” and, perhaps most impressively, Cee-Lo’s witty, foul-mouthed Motown pastiche “Fuck You!”

Hmm … a revival of a vintage black music style, reupholstered for the ’10s into an improbable chart hit. Sound familiar? And “Fuck You!” wasn’t even the only time prior to “Uptown Funk!” that Bruno pulled this trick: His own summer 2013 smash “Treasure” was a note-perfect homage to early ’80s black pop, its video a low-tech tribute to Earth Wind and Fire or pre-Thriller Michael Jackson. Yet despite  his overt love of vintage black sounds, Bruno has been largely ignored by black radio and scarce on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart. After B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You” made a brief Top Five appearance there in 2010, Bruno hasn’t come near the R&B chart Top 10. Even the Trinidad James hook on “Uptown Funk!” isn’t helping Bruno’s urban-radio cred.

This is especially odd for an artist who you might say has crossover in his blood. After seeing Bruno in concert in 2013, Ann Powers wrote a mash note about his multi-genre appeal for that year’s edition of the Slate Music Club: “I love this guy—he’s funny and sexy, he puts his heart into music that honors the past while working to stay up to the minute, and he incessantly releases songs about how women should feel proud and strong. The show unfolded smooth as the band’s silk jackets, but what I loved the most was the audience, a rainbow of race, ethnicity, age, class, sartorial sense and dancing abilities.”

This, then, is the final irony of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk!” A lovingly constructed amalgam of styles that, in the early ’80s, could only be heard on black radio, can now, in 2015, only be heard on Top 40 radio. Let me be fair: Billboard’s R&B chart is too dominated by pop-crossover hits as it is, and as I’ve observed before, black music’s mission has long been to point the way to the future, not the past. But in the depths of a mournful, malaise-filled winter, I honestly wouldn’t mind “Uptown Funk!” blanketing every corner of the radio. The whole country could use its life! affirming! jolt!

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