I figured Bruno Mars had the goods ever since I saw him performing Barrett Strong’s “Money” on video a couple of years ago. But his earlier records, even the best of them, didn’t prepare me for how intense and beautifully crafted Unorthodox Jukebox is, and how far ranging Mars’s stylistic influences go. It’s not a perfect album—it’s stiff in places, shallow at times, and the production is too pristine for some of the ideas he’s trying to pull off—but it’s still one of the best pop albums of last year.
Among critics, the favorite track appears to be “Treasure”, a stunning Prince-style piece of pop funk that could have been released in the mid-eighties, or maybe even the seventies. For me, though, the most surprising track is “Gorilla”.
What makes “Gorilla” stand out is simple, yet rare: it’s dirty. That may not seem like anything special, but not many people make truly dirty records anymore. Not even Prince. Even at his most pornographic, Prince always layers his lustful fantasies with a sophisticated eroticism, the musical equivalent of soft focus and satin backdrops. Most of the time he kept a certain distance, hyping sex as a mystical and spiritual experience as much as a physical one.
But even records that avoid that sophisticated, lover-man vibe rarely dig deep into the idea of raunch. Rap records are noted for their pornographic attention to detail, but the sexual world of rap too often revolves around ideas of power and dominance, a defensive need to provide proof of masculinity, and, its worst, disgust. When it doesn’t, it works the loverman vibe as well, taking its cues from Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and, again, Prince.
But “Gorilla” is different. There’s no sense of domination or of a power struggle; the partners are equal in their gorilla-like lust and sexual energy (Mars brags about his prowess and pulls on her hair, but in the context of the song it sounds like part of their sexual back-and-forth, not an attempt to dominate). At the same time, even with its lack of graphic pornographic description, there are no romantic asides or sensual scene-setting in “Gorilla”. Mars and his partner meet, fuck, and as far as can be told from the song, don’t waste their time thinking about their past, their future, their relationship to each other, or anything else.
Aside from the music, which builds to successive waves of orgasm throughout the song, what’s most striking is Mars’s use of obscenity. The word “fuck” appears twice, and each time Mars sets it for maximum impact. At the end of the second verse he promises the woman she’ll be screaming “Give it to me motherfucker!”, and in one line in the final chorus changes “Making love like gorillas” to “fucking like gorillas.” Each moment comes as a shock, both in the context of the song and in terms of Mars’s persona.
It’s not that Mars hasn’t used obscenities before in his songs (think of the hook he wrote for Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”), and there are plenty on his Twitter feed, but it’s always been in a lighthearted, throwaway manner. At the same time, Mars’s voice, which at times echoes Smokey Robinson, at others Sam Cooke (and occasionally both at once), seems custom made for romance and sensuality. But Mars doesn’t show much interest in either one. If he is intentionally echoing those singers, it’s the Robinson of “Going to A Go-Go” or the Sam Cooke of Live at the Harlem Square Club that he’s trying to capture, not “”The Tracks of My Tears” or Live at the Copa.
The only apt comparison I can think of would be to the raunchy blues and r&b of the thirties through the fifties, even though “Gorilla” sounds nothing like them. Since Mars started his career as a very young Elvis impersonator, and as his cover of “Money” attests, he may be particularly attuned to that style of music and that era. Not just the music, though, but also the attitudes, the atmosphere, the smell.
Sex that is simply sex, as raunchy and dirty as it can be, is something that barely exists in the pop world anymore (Ke$ha may be the one exception, but she doesn’t seem as interested as she used to be). In its heyday it was hidden and shrouded in innuendo, in our more liberal era it’s a curiosity, overwhelmed by fetishizing and the boring everydayness of the explicit. When Mars says fuck he means it, and he wants you to feel it. Forget the sexy; he wants to bring the dirty back.