Bowling with Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams: The New Politics of Pop (Opinion)

Both acts have built 21st-century careers, working as performers, producers and songwriters, taking their time between albums, but keeping themselves on listeners’ radar through their productions and guest appearances -- showing up for a chorus or rap on other stars’ singles.
Florent Déchard/Atlantic Records

The crowd at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night -- the first of two sold-out Bruno Mars/Pharrell Williams shows -- was diverse, even for Los Angeles. There were boxes of stylish double-daters, gaggles of single ladies decked out for a night on the town, families who brought the kids not to save on a babysitter but because this was a rare pop concert where both generations were excited to be there. (And if how many kids are dressed like the headliner is a legitimate metric of success, Bruno Mars is doing very well; during a trip to the concession, I saw at least a dozen kids, from preschoolers to tweens, sporting black and gray houndstooth vests and Mars’s signature broad-brimmed hat rakishly perched on their heads. In comparison, Pharrell’s oversized Dudley Do-Right Stetson was nowhere to be seen.)

Pharrell took note of the audience’s age range and admitted he was trying to tone down the language because of all the kids in the house. (Gwen Stefani, who joined Pharrell on a riotous “Hollaback Girl,” apparently did not get the memo, as she retained the song’s PG-13 lyrics, reminding the crowd that “this shit is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!”)

What brought out the celeb-studded crowd (also a diverse group, including Quincy Jones, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Paul Anka, Quentin Tarantino, Howie Mandel, Jessica Alba, Kaley Cuoco, Lea Michele and Zac Efron) were the two most successful pop-soul figures working today, in a line of American music that can be traced back to Motown. But where Motown famously called its recordings “The Sound of Young America,” Mars and Pharrell do it one better: they’re making “The Sound of America.” What made the show fascinating were the different routes they take to get there. 

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Both acts have built 21st-century careers, working as performers, producers and songwriters, taking their time between albums, but keeping themselves on listeners’ radar through their productions and guest appearances -- showing up for a chorus or rap on other stars’ singles. Both included these side projects in their sets: Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire” and B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You” for Mars;  for Pharrell, Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” N.E.R.D’s  and his two vocal tracks from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, “Lose Yourself in Dance” and “Get Lucky.” But Mars’ 90-minute set was all about the performance, while Williams was more concerned with sound. 

Mars, who admitted this was not only his Bowl debut but the first time the 10-year L.A. resident had ever set foot in the storied venue, is an unabashedly old-school entertainer, an exponent of the “more is more” philosophy. There’s not a minute when something isn’t happening: Everyone dances and Mars ranges the stage with an impish energy, his songs touching on a dizzying range of styles. He is so charismatic that until the all-stops-out finale of “Gorilla” -- with flames billowing, fireworks bursting in air, and lasers crossing overhead -- the consistently fine lighting and effects barely made an impact. He’s a well-adjusted Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz without the preening ego. 

If you don’t want to go so far as to call him the the perfect pop star of the Obama era, he’s certainly the most Obama-esque: a mixed-race son of Hawaii with a megawatt grin. He manages to thread a very political needle in “Billionaire,” as nakedly mercenary as any rapper (he wants to appear on the cover of Forbes, not Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair or Spin), but it’s aspirational, a narrative of how he’d live when he makes it. It's a song that could be loved by both the 99 and the one percent. (And don’t politicians and modern top 40 stars follow a similar blueprint for success: Keep the base happy while expanding to new audiences? It’s a strategy that allowed Mars to become the first Latino and performer under 30 to do a Super Bowl halftime show.) 

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Williams is a more straightforward figure; he is mostly concerned with party anthems and sly seductions. (He does pull a nice maneuver during “Blurred Lines,” defanging the song’s uncomfortable aspects by crooning “you’re such a good girl,” while having “I know you want it” and other lubricous lyrics on tape.) Onstage, he’s a genial presence, shoulders sloped, knees bent, chin tucked and eyes hidden by the brim of his hat (bright green tonight, for those who care about these things), his posture a human question mark. He’s more of a host, making sure everyone’s having a good time and the drinks are refreshed, than the guest of honor. But his eight female dancers, as carefully diverse as the United States of Benetton, and the brightly colored psychedelic animations are more than enough to keep your interest. The music, both retro and modern, remixing elements from Michael Jackson, Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, is both spacious and  spare, with a bouncy, breezy charm, and carefully replicated by a live band. 

Mars and Williams are a mutual admiration society -- Mars names Williams as the producer he grew up listening to, and Williams calls Mars the greatest entertainer he knows. But their one joint performance, on N.E.R.D’s “Girlfriend,” was anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Noisy and cluttered, they were unable to find a comfortable common ground. With two such talented and practiced collaborators, it’s probably only a matter of time until they do.