Pop Song Review: Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”

Welp, didn’t see that coming. There I was, happily assuming that 2014 was all wrapped up music-wise – end-of-year lists coming out and everything (I’m even publishing one of my own next week) – and that I wouldn’t have to write another pop song review until January, when this one shows up out of nowhere, getting all sorts of praise and shooting up the charts faster than Father Christmas up a–wait, he goes down chimneys, doesn’t he? See, my similes are all out of sorts. It’s been a long year – I need rest too, people.

So anyway, people have come to the conclusion that old school funk music is awesome. Good of all of you to finally catch up. Anyway, today’s review is the up-and-coming “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, a song that wasn’t even a single yet until its popularity ballooned after somebody sang it on The X Factor. Strange days have found us, indeed.

First impressions: So let’s be honest: how many of you even realised Mark Ronson had anything to do with this track when you first heard it? Just give the credit to Bruno, man – he’s clearly the main attraction here.

The music: Well, it definitely is a funk song, as if anything about the music, lyrics or marketing would have you think otherwise. There are horns, hand-claps, choppy Nile Rodgers-esque guitar and some cool, confident vocals, all set to a nice, elastic groove.

At the same time, though, there’s something very cold about the whole thing. Maybe it’s the sheer rigidity of the beat or the sparseness of the verse instrumentation (I may have to do an entire piece about underwritten verses in modern pop music) or the fact that everything is clearly so computerised and acutely programmed that none of it feels natural: the horns flash and then promptly zap out of existence as if they’d never been there, the backing vocals sound like a chorus of Budweiser frogs, the bass is all compressed and squidgy instead of full and warm like it should be… was anything on this track performed by a human being, apart from the vocals? Funk is supposed to be loose and fresh, isn’t it? So why does this sound so stiff and mechanical?

The pre-chorus rise, I guess, is meant to emulate EDM, hinting at an attempt to appeal to the club crowd that is actually pretty depressing. There are surprisingly few melodic hooks, given that the verse melody basically amounts to Mars and his multi-tracked pals yelling at you in unison, though what few there are here are decent enough (which is okay, I suppose, given that the groove is the main songwriting focus). Mars is a good singer and he does his job well. The “don’t believe me, just watch” part is pretty striking and clearly intended to be the main hook, judging by its sheer repetition; and honestly its the one thing that really sticks with me after repeat listens so… good job there, I guess.

Sorry, but I just can’t get too excited about this. Yes, it’s a funk song – all the pieces are there – but that’s about it; and it wants so hard to be a funk song, too. It’s just too calculated, though, especially considering that Mars is known for mimicking older styles of music, so in many ways it feels like just another box on his list of vintage sounds to be ticked off. I don’t want to come off as an obnoxious hipster here, though, because… well, surely we all know better by now, right?

You know what this is? This is funk by numbers, like somebody filling in the colours on a blank, segmented copy of the Mona Lisa – sure, it looks like the real thing, but it ain’t the real thing. Of course to many mainstream listeners, especially the younger ones, who’ve never experienced much soulful, syncopated music in their years of listening to rigid, staccato dance beats, this is going to sound like a breath of fresh air – which it should. To that extent, at least, I’d say I’m behind it. Those male backing vocals get annoying pretty quickly, though.

The lyrics: First things first, there’s a Michelle Pfeiffer reference in here, so if “retro” was what this song was going for then it knows what it’s doing.

“Girls, hit your hallelujah / ‘cos Uptown Funk gon’ give it to ya / Saturday night and we in the spot / don’t believe me, just watch.” Watch what? If I disregard your assertion that you and your companions are “in the spot”, how exactly do you plan to prove otherwise? Or am I supposed to question your promise that Uptown Funk is going to give this vague, elusive “it” to me? If so, how can I be sure that I haven’t already received “it” and, thus, do not require any further clarification on your part? Will I know when the aforementioned “girls” hit their “hallelujah”; and how will I know when that’s occurred? I feel like I need more information here.

“I’m too hot / call a police and a fireman / I’m too hot / make a dragon wanna retire, man.” First of all, I don’t see what use a cop is going to be in helping you cool down, assuming that’s what you even want. If anything that sounds like a waste of police time which is usually an offence punishable by up to six months’ prison time and a £40-80 fine, at least here in Blighty. Second of all, were Ronson and Mars really that strapped for words rhyming with “fireman” that they had to include some nonsense about a mythological creature having envy issues regarding its innate ability to shoot flames out of its mouth? Okay, yes, fine, the lyrics are supposed to convey confidence, not any deeper meaning, so their word salad construction is likely a deliberate move designed to showcase the song’s easygoing and light-hearted nature. That’s the point.

You know, actually, that might be the problem as well: the lyrics aren’t about anything except how awesome the protagonist is. All the classic funk songs were written in the Seventies in the wake of the civil rights movement, so most of them at least had something to talk about. All “Uptown Funk” has to say is, “I’m funky. Please acknowledge this.” The sheer daftness of the lyrics doesn’t reinforce the song’s funk credentials but, instead, inadvertently highlights why this song doesn’t quite work for me: it’s too aware of itself and the expectations it feels it has to match up to. In that sense, for a song designed to exert confidence it’s actually pretty neurotic.

On top of that, it never gives us a good reason to buy into its strutting confidence. Did you notice, in all the braggadocio, that the narrator never actually does anything? Sure, he talks about being stuff and having stuff done to or for him, but he never actively does anything to make us think, “man, maybe this guy really is funky?” The only time he even expresses any agency on his own part is when he tells you that he and his chums are planning to “hit the spot”, though no indication is given of how they plan to do this or even what it means.

Is he a good lover? A good dancer? Did he save a child from a burning building? Discover a cure for asthma? Write a play? Lose two pounds? Fend off the snipers to win an eBay auction? Solve a particularly tough kakuro in the morning paper? Get his Avengers DVD and RiffTrax commentary to synchronise perfectly on first attempt? Did he do anything of value or contribute anything worthwhile to himself or humanity?

Nope – this is the lyrical substance of “Uptown Funk” condensed to a shortlist:

  • Women exist
  • I’m sexy
  • Uptown Funk is going to give “it” to you
  • It also plans to “up” you
  • Someone pours me a drink
  • We take a limo somewhere
  • Dance for me

Look at that – the same vapid lifestyle reporting of the vain and privileged you’ll hear in any modern pop, dance or hip hop song. Terrific. This puts “Uptown Funk” in the same “hollow bragging” category as Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Katy Perry’s “This is How We Do”, albeit with far better music. Just what the youth of today needed, though, right? Another mantra for entitled douchebags who don’t feel like they have to accomplish anything to gain respect and admiration from others. I used to think Horrible Histories writer Terry Deary was off his rocker about wanting to close all schools and send children off to work when they turn 11, but every time another song like “Uptown Funk” slinks along, crotch out and duck-lips thrust firmly forwards, I wonder if we shouldn’t all be paying attention to the man.

“Don’t brag about it, come show me.” Yes, indeed, stop bragging and simply show me how and why I should buy into your funkiness. Sell me the funk.

Also, what is it about “uptown” that’s funkier than downtown, exactly? What town are we even talking about? I mean, uptown Conwy, Wales has fewer shops and more countryside so it’s generally less busy up there, which makes it a more pleasant area to take a relaxing stroll around as the crisp Welsh breeze flutters across your skin and the sounds of the mountain strike a harmonious chord in the soft, Celtic air; but then downtown Conwy has the castle, the woodlands, the quay, some lovely pubs and a marina full of colourful ships – not to mention a wonderful view of Deganwy from across the estuary – as well as several locales and venues where you can grab a bite to eat, learn about the rich history of the town or just take the weight off your feet with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee and a good book. Visit Conwy, is what I’m getting at here.

Verdict: Honestly, as much as I wanted to like it, I’m not particularly impressed with “Uptown Funk”. It feels more like a successful pastiche of a classic funk song than one in its own right. That said, musically at least it’s a well-done pastiche, so a 3 out of 5 it is. The lyrics can go straight to Hell, but if this at least means more funk in modern pop music then I’m all for it.

Today’s double-up is Glenn Hughes. Just… everything the man’s ever written. What, just one? Oh, very well, here’s “Soul Mover”. Now this is funky.

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