Number Ones - Bruno Mars 'Grenade'The tenth installment of a recurring feature where we listen to and analyse the latest number one Australian single so you don't have to.
With 'Grenade', Bruno Mars has his second #1 single of the year, after 'Just The Way You Are'; Mars knocks the Black Eyed Peas' execrable 'The Time (Dirty Bit)' off the #1 spot. It's not the first time 'The Time (Dirty Bit)' has been knocked off the top of the charts – the week before last, Ke$ha's 'We R Who We R' jumped back to #1 – but hopefully this time it will stick. Produced by the Smeezingtons (who are also behind Travie McCoy's 'Billionaire', B.o.B.'s 'Nothin' On You' and Cee Lo's 'Fuck You'), 'Grenade' seems to show that everything Bruno Mars touches turns to gold right now; after all, 'Just The Way You Are' and 'Grenade' are basically the only two solo singles he's released so far.
Bruno Mars - 'Grenade'
If Bruno Mars feels an emotion, he feels it dialed up to 11. You get the impression that, if some pretty girl smiled at him, he would feel like there was a second sun burning away at him; if he missed the bus, he would feel that in missing the bus he had missed his one and only chance at true love; if he hit his elbow on a door frame, he would not only feel pain but SuperPain so disabling that he would be bedridden for a week. In Bruno Mars' previous #1 single, 'Just The Way You Are' (which I wrote about here), the lyrics were the purest of sugary fairy floss; the conceit of the song was going to all lengths to convince a girl that he thought she was perfect, with lyrics like “she's so beautiful and I tell her every day”, “her eyes make the stars look like they're not shining”, and “when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while”. In contrast, a large proportion of guys in a similar situation would just say something along the lines of “yeah, you're pretty hot I guess.” (May I point out that, if the whole world – all seven billion of them - stopped and stared at you, you'd probably be pretty freaked out. I mean, that whole world includes Charles Manson and Richard Wilkins.)
And the reason I mention 'Just The Way You Are' is because 'Grenade' comes across as a sequel. Where 'Just The Way You Are' is about how amazing some girl is, 'Grenade' is about how he's figured out, a few months later, that she actually has some pretty major problems. Both songs are full of overblown sentiment, but where 'Just The Way You Are' came across as slick loverboy patter, 'Grenade' is uncomfortably maudlin. Mars has figured out that the woman he is in love with isn't the nicest person, and doesn't actually care about him - she is the kind to “take, take, take it all, but never give” and to “smile in my face then rip the brakes out my car”. And he's pretty damn bitter about it: “Tell the devil 'hey' when you get back to where you're from”. Yet, despite her faults, despite his bitterness, he'd still “catch a grenade”, “throw my hand on a blade” and “jump in front of a train” for her.
The thing that makes these lyrics uncomfortably maudlin is, as he repeats these chorus lyrics throughout the song, it begins to sound less like a declaration of undying chivalrous love, and more like he's a little bit suicidal. I mean, when Bryan Adams voiced a similar sentiment in 'Everything I Do (I Do For You)' - “I'd die for you” etc - it was something he sang only at the very climax of the song. If Adams' statement has power, it is because it comes off as something Adams had only just realised was a logical extension of “everything” that he'd do for her. Adams sounds strangely sheepish singing it. In contrast, Mars seems to almost take a pleasure in singing about the unpleasant and dangerous things he'd do for her. And so it's not really a surprise when, at the very end of the video clip for 'Grenade', he is shown waiting for the oncoming train to hit him.
One of the things that struck me about 'Just The Way You Are' was that a grand total of ZERO attributes Mars claimed were amazing of his paramour, had anything to do with her personality. Or whether she was a good person. Instead, he's focused on her looks – her lips, her eyes, her hair, and the way she smiles and laughs. Perhaps the song should have been called 'Just The Way Your Face Is'? And, in a way, 'Grenade' is a very logical sequel to 'Just The Way You Are' – if you fall in love with someone's face, rather than with a whole person, should you be surprised to find out that the face is attached to someone who isn't the nicest person?
These questions – I mean, I am questioning whether Mars was really in love – are starting to get into stuff for the philosophers. And to echo the great Stoic philosopher Haddaway, “what is love?” Many a pop music philosopher has tried to answer this question: according to many, love is “a many splendoured thing”, “here to stay”, “gone”, “what the world needs now”, “all we need”, “the answer”, “real”, “the drug”, “my drug”, “surrender”, “the devil”, “only a feeling”, “paranoid”, “a serious business”, “the law”, “like jazz”, “like a bottle of gin”, “all around”, “blindness”, “like a heatwave”, etc. In popular culture, love is a mystery, something ineffable.
But perhaps this is not the case; neuroscientists find differences in where different feelings of love are found in the brain. The feeling of lust, for example, is associated with a separate part of your brain than where the romantic head-over-heels being in love feeling lives. Which in turn, is separate again from the home of long-term attachment. The journalist A.J. Jacobs, in a recent entertaining Esquire article, lay in an fMRI brain scanning machine while looking at various pictures of his wife. The neuroscientists found that Jacobs' brain looked as if was sexually attracted to his wife, and felt a very strong long-term attachment to her, but wasn't head-over-heels in the first flush of romantic love with her anymore.
Bruno Mars' singles here are completely about that first flush of romantic love. What the ancient Greeks called "eros". As far as the brain is concerned, that rush of first love is literally quite similar to a hit of cocaine – it seems as if eros gives you the same feeling of elation you apparently get from snorting cocaine. If you look at it from this perspective – that Mars is addicted to this woman! - 'Grenade' is about the feeling of withdrawal. Mars knows she is bad for him, that's she's preventing him from thinking straight, that he can't actually have her the way he wants, but he still nonetheless has crazy desires for that rush of romantic cocaine that he gets from her.
Musically, the song is pretty effective. As you'd expect from a number one single called 'Grenade', it's going to leave musical shrapnel in your ears for weeks. Take the rhythm of the opening melody in the verse, the way that the rhythm of the vocal “easy come, easy go” is repeated later with “should've known from the start” - that's a big hook, and a hook in the very first line he sings. The chorus is big and anthemic, with its Beatles-style “yeah yeah yeahs” and a catchy melody underlying the outlandish and painful things Mars claims he'd do for his love. In 'Grenade', Mars excels at "almost-repeating" rhythms and notes in the melody. These almost-repeats make the melody pleasingly unpredictable, and gives the melody time to develop, while keeping its thread and creating a massive hook or two along the way. In regards to this kind of thing, Mars comes across as a musical kind of guy in a way that, say, the Black Eyed Peas don't; for all the overblown sentiment here, there's a sense of musical tastefulness to 'Grenade' that's utterly absent from 'The Time (Dirty Bit)'. The song's producers, the Smeezingtons, aren't as cravenly stuck to a formula as Dr Luke and Max Martin.
'Grenade' sounds a lot like Michael Jackson. In fact, it sounds a lot more like Michael Jackson than even the current Michael Jackson single 'Hold My Hand'. (If only because 'Hold My Hand' is so bloodless and uninspired; interestingly, Claude Kelly, a co-writer of 'Grenade', is also a co-writer of 'Hold My Hand'). The march rhythm underpinning 'Grenade' resembles the military beat that Jackson would sometimes use on angrier singles like 'They Don't Really Care About Us' (and using a military beat under a song called 'Grenade' is the kind of subtle musical signifier you'd never hear in a Black Eyed Peas song). Mars' voice has a similar quality to Jackson's; both have clear, high, tenors with just enough grit and trembling to convincingly sound anguished. The melody of the chorus sounds like a tip of the hat to the chorus melody of Jackson's 'Dirty Diana'. And when Mars sings “you tossed it in the trash, you did”, the hint of vibrato during the word 'did' - a Jackson trademark - seems an obvious tribute. And lastly, Michael Jackson was not averse to a bit of overblown sentiment. After all, he was the man who wanted to heal the world, who wanted you to know that you're not alone. Jackson was one of the few singers from which such (perhaps naïve) sentiments actually sounded like deeply held beliefs. Rather than just cynical moneyspinner words. Meaning that, in many ways, using MJ's techniques to get across similarly overblown sentiment might not be the worst idea.
So, all in all, there's worse songs that could (and have) reached number one. But seriously, Bruno, she's not worth catching a grenade for, however nice her smile is. Women are presumably throwing themselves at you at this very moment. It could well be the case that some of them are not only physically attractive but also nice people! And if you focus a little more on the personality when you're going into it, maybe you'll have a better time?
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