There are plenty of popular songs that I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard them. For the most part these memories are bittersweet. I become nostalgic for a time before they were part of an inescapable soundtrack found in every gym, restaurant, and grocery store. But man, November 22nd 2014 was not one of those times.
This was a period in my life when I was on the precipice of but not in sync with the popular music zeitgeist. I used to be able to hear a new song or an album as a total surprise and with a clean head. Sometimes I miss those days. As a now daily (borderline compulsive) reader of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and others, the element of surprise is all but impossible due to music publications being a never ending series of references. Read them enough and you will eventually have the release schedule of the new Imagine Dragons album programmed into your brain without ever remembering how, when, or why it got there.
I had never heard of Mark Ronson prior to the announcement of him as the co-musical guest on a November episode of Saturday Night Live. Not only that, he had top billing over Bruno freaking Mars. How could a guy I had never heard of be featured over the guy who just played the Super Bowl?! I saw Bruno on the Unorthodox Jukebox tour that summer which converted me into a permanent fan of him and his work. The fact that his name was attached at all made this episode appointment viewing. I went in with no expectations of what Mark Ronson was or could be, but that didn’t stop me from crafting hilarious and absurd scenarios of how he could validate his top billing status. Did he play his guitar with his teeth? Could he make two voices come out of his mouth at once, Bobby McFerrin style?
That November Saturday was the culmination of a helluva month for SNL – Prince had made a rare live TV appearance two episodes prior, and To Pimp A Butterfly– era Kendrick Lamar had been on the week before. Cameron Diaz was the host on this night and she gave the usual introduction: “Ladies and gentleman, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars!” The set (a similar aesthetic to the eventual music video) reminded me instantly of one of my favorite video games – Grand Theft Auto Vice City, set in 1986 Miami. And then that bass/vocal riff kicked in and away went Bruno into the first live rendition of “Uptown Funk.”
In hindsight, it was the only time Bruno has ever had to truly carry that song. For that reason it is the best performance of it he will ever give. He delivered a brand new song with a swagger like he knew what it was about to become. Mars has never lacked for bravado but this was a noticeable jump in his stage presence and delivery. There was no drum solo, no dance breaks, no crazy vocal riffs to accentuate his performance . It was amazing simply because it was him.
Like any good millennial I instantly reached for my phone. I had to hear that song again. In short order it was a fixture of my workout playlist and on some days repeated listens could get me through an entire cardio routine. Little did I know that my independent obsession would eventually serve me well professionally. By the time I started my nightclub job the following February the song was really taking off and being played multiple times a night. My intimate familiarity with it made me an asset at a stage when many players are struggling under the volume of material that a cover band musician must learn.
I loved “Uptown Funk” so much that I bought the Mark Ronson album which brought about the collaboration the first place, Uptown Special, despite having not heard any of the other songs. It’s absolutely brilliant record (“Summer Breaking” and “In Case of Fire” are particularly incredible) that’s held up as one of my all time favorites to this day. Go figure. Not bad for a guy who’s billing status once so deeply offended me.
I began to get worried about what effect the song might have on Bruno’s future output as it continued to get bigger and bigger. I was relieved that his next album 24K Magic was not a collection of “Uptown Funk” sequels but a love letter to late 80s/early 90s R&B and new jack swing. It’s excellent and at times exceptional. He was just as great when I saw him a second time on that album’s tour.
To this day the appeal of “Uptown Funk” remains somewhat mysterious to me. It’s only two chords, the chorus is a horn riff, and a lot of the lyrics border on cheesy ( “Too hot, make a dragon wanna retire” and “smoother than a fresh jar of skippy”). It’s cool because it’s accessible and it’s accessible because it’s cool. No one is beneath dancing or singing along to it. Most songs that become enormously popular fade, their enjoyment turning from of-the-moment to nostalgia. “Uptown Funk” is one of those extremely rare evergreen songs. 20 years from now, people will still lose their minds over it at wedding receptions.
Don’t believe me? Just watch.
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