Weeks on chart: 11
Peak: No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, March 16, 2013
Current radio play frequency: N/A
YouTube hit count: 20,240,160
For a while now, I’ve been forwarding a half-baked theory that Bruno Mars is the reincarnation of Billy Joel. Granted, the seed was probably planted because both men happen to have hit songs called “Just the Way You Are.” But Bruno and Billy are also guys who I would describe as “old pros” — they have a special knack for turning out easy-listening chart-bait that would be popular no matter the era, and performance-wise, they display an affinity for durable show-business pizzazz deriving from the non-rock worlds of the ’50s and ’60s.
This explains Bruno/Billy’s lack of fealty to image or genre: On his most popular album of the late ’70s, 1977’s The Stranger, Billy Joel flitted from an Abbey Road tribute (“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”) to Springsteenish eye-talian rock (“Movin’ Out”) to swingin’ Sinatra kitsch (“Everybody Has a Dream”). Two years later he was openly aping Steely Dan; one year after that, he was imitating Some Girls–era Stones and the Knack. Billy Joel couldn’t help himself; crowd-pleasing was in his bone marrow, and he was attracting a very large crowd with disparate interests.
Saturday Night Live adeptly based a sketch around Mars’s pantomiming skills, somehow forgetting to include Elvis Presley (Mars was an Elvis impersonator when he was a kid, and had a cameo in the 1992 Nic Cage/Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com, Honeymoon in Vegas) and Jack Johnson (who was body-snatched on his execrable million-selling 2011 single “The Lazy Song”). The title of last year’s Unorthodox Jukebox suggests a tableau of guises — most notably the Police on the current top-10 smash “Locked Out of Heaven” — which makes it doubly amazing that “When I Was Your Man” is among the tracks to be released as a single. A piano ballad as stripped-down as “She’s Got a Way,” “When I Was Your Man” might be the most daring song on the charts right now, featuring nothing but piano and Mars’s pained, pleading vocal. It’s by far the record’s most Billy-ish song.
“When I Was Your Man” was produced by the Smeezingtons, who also oversaw “Heaven.” Unlike “Heaven,” which was one of my favorite hits of 2012 (probably because I grew up listening to Zenyatta Mondatta), “When I Was Your Man” hardly sounds produced at all. The first time I heard “Man,” the song finished before I expected it to; I kept waiting for the inevitable wash of strings or crash of drums to intrude on Mars’s solo piano-man act. But that never happens; in its current form, “Man” almost sounds like a demo. The only other recent hit I can recall being as instrumentally pared-down is Ronnie Dunn’s plaintive “Cost of Livin’.” (“When I Was Your Man” could make a really good country single; Tim McGraw, for one, would crush this.)
I actually think the no-production production of “When I Was Your Man” is genius, because it makes you instantly sit up and pay attention to what’s going on in the song. Mars has said that “Man” is “the most honest, real thing I’ve ever sang,” which I guess means that the narrative about losing a girl because she didn’t receive flowers or whatever from the protagonist is based on a true story. Otherwise, it’s pretty typical pop-song stuff — except for the presentation, which makes “Man” seem more direct and “human” than everything else on the radio.
Final verdict: Not hot funk, not cool punk, not old junk — it’s still Billy Joel to me.