In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: In anticipation of this weekend’s Grammy Awards, the five songs up for the 2014 Song Of The Year award.
Three-hundred sixty-four days of the year, Bruno Mars is one of the most boring figures in modern pop music. You’ve heard “The Lazy Song,” right? Sub-Jack Johnson bullshit with a cloying whistle refrain and a single-take video that tries way too hard to be wacky. The guy has a way with a tune, but c’mon: He wrote a flimsy ode to not doing jack shit and was then too lazy to give it in actual title. Unless Mars is more self-aware than I’m giving him credit for, his music isn’t purely boring—it’s actively obnoxious.
Which is why it’s so hard to reconcile the image of the guy mugging among chimpanzee masks and the incarnation of Bruno Mars who keeps showing up at the Staples Center to perform at the Grammys. There’s clearly an electrifying performer within the co-writer of “Just The Way You Are,” “Grenade,” and other syrupy ballads for dorm-room troubadours. The prime example of that being the version of “Grenade” Mars put on stage at the 53rd Annual Grammys, a James Brown-aping torching of the single that he followed by backing Janelle Monáe on an even more fiery take on her “Cold War.” He struck similar poses in a Video Music Awards tribute to Amy Winehouse, giving a Motown revue-style spin to Winehouse’s “Valerie.” A pattern emerged: When Bruno Mars isn’t playing Bruno Mars’ music, he’s pretty fucking good.
Which brings us to “Locked Out Of Heaven,” Mars’ second Song Of The Year nominee alongside collaborators Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine. (Collectively, they’re known as The Smeezingtons—which, seriously, Bruno… it’s a goddamn roller coaster with your corniness.) “Locked Out Of Heaven” is a Police lift so shameless, it would’ve been rude to play the song without Sting at last year’s Grammys ceremony. The drums don’t have anything on Stewart Copeland, but “Locked Out Of Heaven” makes The Police’s itchy, dubbed-out post-punk sound more vibrant than it has since the original pressing of Zenyatta Mondatta. I don’t want to come off like I’m encouraging a young, still-developing artist to give up on any of the qualities that make his music unique—it’s just that I don’t think I could identify such a quality within earlier Bruno Mars compositions. He’s a cipher, but a cipher with an agreeable record collection. (It’s still surprising to me that “Treasure” is a track from Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox—sigh—and not Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.) If The Smeezingtons want to keep synthesizing yesterday’s favorites into today’s hits—and their work on Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” shores up their bona fides on that count—I could find it within myself to stomach Mars on more than one night of the year.