Of all the biggest takeaways one could take from the Grammys on Sunday night (Jan. 29), one of the least arguable is this: Bruno Mars stays winning.
In fact, no male artist in contemporary pop music has enjoyed a longer undefeated streak this decade than Bruno. His first charting single as a featured artist went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 2010, as did his first as a lead artist five months later. He’s topped the chart more times (seven) this decade than any other male artist. Each of his three LPs has been certified multi-Platinum by the RIAA, and in between two of them, he casually tossed off the most ubiquitous smash of 2015, practically as a favor to producer bud Mark Ronson.
Even when latest album 24K Magic looked like it might’ve landed a little soft by his otherworldly commercial standards, Mars managed to turn around his momentum and narrative. First single “24K Magic” stalled at No. 4 on the Hot 100 — his first lead single not to reach the chart’s peak — but then second single “That’s What I Like” climbed to No. 1 and became one of 2017’s biggest hits. The set failed to spawn a third single to really latch on with the public — but then he enlisted Cardi B for a late-game “Finesse” remix and video, which made the Internet swoon and propelled the song to the top 5.
And now, the album is etched forever in the W column: 24K Magic made Bruno Mars the biggest winner at the 60th Annual Grammys, not only winning him album of the year, but seeing two of its tracks — the title track and “That’s What I Like” — win record and song of the year, respectively. He even had one of the night’s best-received performances, with his and Cardi’s eminently enjoyable “Finesse” throwback romp. It became Bruno’s night, and the shot of him in sunglasses and a sparkly jacket, cradling an overflow of Grammy statues, will be one of this year’s enduring images.
But for the first time in Bruno’s career of uninterrupted success, he might’ve actually been better off taking the loss. Because while Mars was undoubtedly one of the year’s biggest artists, he’s not the one that a lot of Grammys viewers wanted to see repeatedly parading to the podium last night. Not in a year when two major rap albums by iconic MCs were looking to snap a 14-year drought for hip-hop in the non-best new artist general categories. Not in a year where female artists went largely unrepresented among the marquee nominations, and only one ended up winning on the Grammys telecast. And not in a year where the biggest Spanish-language song in Hot 100 history could have brought home some potentially historic wins.
Not that anyone went into the evening wanting to begrudge Bruno Mars. Despite his obnoxiously high career batting average, Mars has remained a consistently likable figure in the music world, with an infectious enthusiasm for pop and R&B history that filters into his throwback smashes, which historically bear more the signature of a prodigious student than a con artist. To put it reductively, Mars makes music to slot seamlessly into modern-day wedding and bar mitzvah playlists — and he does it better than anyone, as evidenced by the fact that you probably haven’t gone to either type of function since 2010 without hearing his voice at least once.
The problem for Bruno is that these are not necessarily the best times for a male pop artist with an endless history of unchecked success to still be succeeding so thoroughly, without making any obvious attempt to engage with the larger themes of the moment. Bruno’s acceptance speeches were hardly ungracious — he shouted out his fellow album of the year nominees for pushing him to be better, and went out of his way to name-check producers Babyface, Jam & Lewis and Teddy Riley, whose precedent 24K Magic would’ve been thoroughly impossible without. But there was no acknowledgment of the larger narratives at play that his wins were feeding into — the snubbing of hip-hop, of foreign-language artists, of women — and indeed, no real acknowledgment of the world outside his own career: his excitements and grievances were all personal and self-contained.
And again, in a vacuum, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Mars’ achievements are hard-earned, a combination of skill and study that leaves him essentially without peer in the current industry. It’s not incumbent upon him to speak for anything or anyone but himself, and it’s certainly not his responsibility to apologize for who the Recording Academy didn’t vote for. But he didn’t do himself any favors in seeming to have no awareness of what his wins (and his general pop supremacy) represented last night, beyond his own personal validation. As a result, Mars now finds himself as a sort of antagonist in the overall story of the awards, which reads something like “Unchallenging and unchallenged pop star triumphs over historically underrepresented musicians and artists.” And while that’s not entirely fair — Mars, of Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, is a minority in pop music himself — it may end up a hard association for Mars to rid himself of going forward.
Just ask Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. At the 2014 Grammys, they were riding about as high as any new artist of the decade: a pair of Hot 100-topping singles, a Platinum-selling debut album, and seven nominations at that year’s Grammys. But after the duo won of those awards — most in the hip-hop categories, and most at the expense of that year’s other breakout new artist, Kendrick Lamar. After a severe Internet backlash to their Ws, Macklemore texted Kendrick Lamar an apology for having “robbed” him, and then shared the text on Instagram as a sort of mea culpa, which was similarly poorly received. The duo’s career never quite recovered; while both are still pop presences in 2018, they’ve yet to return to the commercial heights they scaled pre-Grammys — and, for what it’s worth, they haven’t been nominated since.
Bruno’s situation isn’t the same, of course; he has a longer industry track record, his success doesn’t inspire the same debate over race and cultural appropriation as Macklemore’s, and his response to his Grammy victories was significantly less ham-fisted. But he similarly finds himself at the middle of a flashpoint moment in the award show’s history, and he’s not necessarily on the right side of it: While Mars’ hits are immaculately crafted, they draw from music history without really pushing it forward, playing to listeners’ pleasure centers rather than expanding their horizons. As frustrations over the awards’ retro-mindedness and seeming inability to reflect changing musical times reach a boiling point, it’s very easy to point to his success as Everything Wrong With the Grammys.
How that new status affects his career from here will remain to be seen — possibly for a long while now, as he’s already entered the victory-lap stage of this album cycle and might not be due for another until the 2020s. But it seems fairly likely that Mars, already well overdue for some kind of career regression, may finally start to feel it when he does return.
Another male pop star who enjoyed a winning streak of even greater length than Mars is Justin Timberlake, who was still spinning off soundtrack singles that were topping the Hot 100 as recently as 2016. But this time around, for upcoming album Man of the Woods, things already feel different; new single “Filthy” barely scraped the chart’s top 10 and is already plummeting. More importantly, he’s not going unchecked anymore; the video for “Filthy” follow-up “Supplies’ was roundly lambasted for its mixed-messaging and too-easy sloganeering, while Timberlake himself is feeling increased heat for past professional decisions, like starring in a 2017 Woody Allen movie, or not sticking out his neck for Janet Jackson in the fallout following their Super Bowl XXXVIII wardrobe malfunction. He’s not going away anytime soon — no one with Timberlake’s or Mars’ resume ever disappears completely — but he may never be atop the pop world as he once was again.
The comparison with Mars is again imperfect: Timberlake is older and more disconnected from this pop moment, and Mars hasn’t yet been at the center of any incidents as messy at the Super Bowl fiasco. As a matter of fact, before these Grammys, he’s managed to avoid pop drama pretty much altogether — aside from some minor appropriation accusations connected to his last album, he’s been essentially controversy-free for his whole career. But the time may come shortly where he’s forced to answer and grapple with some complicated questions connected to his Grammy victories, and if he’s not more adept than Timberlake over how to answer them, he may find himself in similar hot water. As we saw last night, Mars may not be the type to dig his own hole, but he also might not be the type who knows how to avoid falling in one that’s already there.
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