Bruno Mars has definitely found his groove. After a series of successful, yet sonically schizophrenic, singles the pint-sized popster has settled into a sound that he clearly really likes. From Treasure, to Uptown Funk, to 24K Magic – and now Finesse – he’s clearly making the funk work for him. But are we wrong to think that it all sounds a bit familiar?
Early in his career, Bruno Mars was known to be a bit of a genre-hopper. Like Daniel Bedingfield before him, Mars would bounce from style to style, from single to single (the arena pop of Just The Way You Are; the Jason Mraz stoner beach vibe of The Lazy Song; the classic piano ballad sound of When I Was Your Man).
But since the release of Treasure – from his second album, Unorthadox Jukebox – he seems to have settled on a funk sound. And it suits him well. Uptown Funk, 24K Magic, his latest single Finesse (Remix) have all been critical and commercial successes – and now that MJ and Prince are both gone, there’s definitely a vacancy for an all-singing, all-dancing, singer-producer-dancer funkmaster type.
However, there’s something a little familiar about it all. Not just in the sense that it’s all been done before, more in the sense that it has actually all been done before. The songs themselves. They sound like other songs.
Mars is something of a melodic magpie, having consistent form with nicking other people’s riffs. It dates right back to his second single, Grenade, where the opening piano refrain is note-for-note the same as Coldplay’s Clocks (transposed up a third…)
…and it’s only got worse since.
In fact, he’s become so addicted to ripping songs off, he can’t seem to kick the habit. He’s even begun to rip himself off.
How did it get this bad? Let’s take a quick look at the history of counterfeiting in the Mars discography.
Locked Out Of Heaven
While the intro of Locked Out Of Heaven is most likely to put a listener in mind of Roxanne (track one of The Police’s Greatest Hits album), the song as a whole also owes a definite debt to Can’t Stand Losing You (track two of Greatest Hits) – as well as little nods to So Lonely (track three) and Message In A Bottle (track four).
It’s not just a vague influence. Locked Out Of Heaven pretty closely copies the time-honoured pattern of most of The Police’s most-recognisable songs.
First we have the reggae-lite syncopated guitar stroke dominating the intro – the sharp, stabby chk-chk-chk-chk sound that appears in Roxanne, Can’t Stand Losing You, Walking On The Moon etc.
This is then followed by a verse in which the vocalist (Sting/Mars) yelps out a melody that sits towards the top-end of their range – the sort of ball-tightening notes that regular civilians usually need a few beers before attempting at karaoke.
Then, just before the chorus, we have a bridge where the laid-back reggae-lite rhythm turns into straight rock beat while the vocalist sings a repeated lyrical refrain.
Finally, we hit the chorus which features a long sustained chord on a jazz organ or a synth keyboard of some description, which underpins the rest of the band as they chug and thrash out faster notes (So Lonely, Message In A Bottle etc)
In fairness to Bruno Mars though, there is no real plagiarism here. Locked Out Of Heaven merely provides a whistlestop tour of the Police’s biggest hits, all distilled into three and a bit minutes.
The actual melody-stealing started with Bruno’s next single.
When I Was Your Man
Given that he’s written and recorded 33 studio albums (as well as many more songs for movies, musicals and days of national mourning) you could reasonably argue that Elton John has taken up more than his fair share of melodies. There are, after all, only a finite number of notes to use.
So it’s inevitable that, occasionally, an artist will write a song that sounds almost exactly like an Elton John original.
One of those artists is Bruno Mars, and the song in question is When I Was Your Man.
Aside from a few tiny changes in rhythm and the final few notes of the line, the verses to Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word and When I Was Your Man are eerily similar.
The melody, the chord changes, the pace, the arrangement – all of these elements together are all too close to the original for it to be a simple coincidence.
However, like Locked Out Of Heaven, When I Was Your Man does eventually morph into its own thing. It may use a well-known song as a jumping-off point, but once Mars hits the chorus the song becomes distinct enough that you can tell the difference. Which is to say, if you turned the radio on halfway through you wouldn’t mistake it for Elton John.
That isn’t always the case with Bruno Mars’s songs though, as he so helpfully demonstrates with his very next single.
French act Breakbot first caught the ear of Mr Mars back in 2010. When Breakbot’s single Baby, I’m Yours was released, Bruno made a few backroom inquiries into covering the song for himself. Breakbot was too busy with recordings for his own album to arrange it though, so it never ended up happening.
Undeterred, Bruno Mars went ahead and wrote and released his own song, Treasure, in 2012.
The song – it won’t surprise you to learn – bears some extremely familiar sounding sections.
The similarities didn’t escape the notice of Breakbot himself, who immediately took to Twitter to call Mars out.
Breakbot and his label staff have since laughed this all off, claiming to be honoured that Mars enjoyed their song so much to be so influenced by it.
They didn’t choose to take any sort of action (beyond this bit of snarky tweeting, at least) but not everyone is so charitable – as Mars would discover with his next single.
Over the years since it was first released, we have written plenty about Uptown Funk but let us state once again for the record that it is an absolutely belting pop tune. Even after years of hearing it almost non-stop, it still brings a smile to our stupid faces and it probably will do for years to come.
It was, however, guilty of some absolutely shameless bits of plagiarism.
Since reaching a pre-release settlement with Trinidad James to include a sample of his (the line “Don’t believe me, just watch“), Uptown Funk has attracted a number of other accusations of plagiarism or copyright infringement. Some of the people who have put in claims include Sequence, defending their song Funk You Up; Serbian singer Viktorija, defending her song Ulice Mracne Nisu Za Devojke; and the Philadelphia band Collage, defending their song Young Girls.
But the one that has caused them the most trouble so far was the song’s middle eight, which is a lock, stock and barrel steal from The Gap Band’s I Don’t Believe You Want To Get Up And Dance (a song more commonly known as Oops! Upside Your Head).
Even down to the minute detail of breaking off the syllable ‘up’ from its parent word in the first half, then blending it back together for the second, this is a blatant (and extremely ballsy) bit of burglary.
It originally went uncredited until the Gap Band brought the threat of legal action against Ronson and Mars. Eventually the parties agreed to settlement in which the Gap Band’s members were named as listed writers on the song (and therefore entitled to the split of royalties).
It should be noted that the Gap Band are not entirely innocent of any wrongdoing themselves in this area. They, in turn, stole something for Oops Upside Your Head – a horn-break from the song Disco To Go by the Brides Of Funkenstein. So it could be argued that Uptown Funk is merely the continuation of a long proud tradition in funk – dating back to the 70s – where people plunder abundantly from the songs that came before them.
If that’s the case, then 24K Magic (the fifth in Bruno’s string of stolen singles) is a pretty logical extension, as this is where Bruno Mars starts to rip himself off.
Again, it’s worth prefacing this by saying that none of what follows discounts 24K Magic as a great pop single. It’s got a bounce and an old school charm about it that puts it head and shoulders above any number of other releases from the last few years.
Much like Uptown Funk, however, it owes a significant debt to a number of songs.
Bearing in mind that Ronson and Mars had to get pre-release approval from Trinidad James for the use of the line “Don’t believe me, just watch” in Uptown Funk (which was enough of the song to be considered a sample – one for which Trinidad James gets >5% of the royalties) who else could reasonably stake a claim in 24K Magic?
The third single from Lamar’s critically acclaimed album, To Pimp A Butterfly, King Kunta didn’t sell particularly well on its release but it was highly ranked in a number of end of year polls from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, the Village Voice etc.
Bruno Mars obviously enjoyed it as well, as the bridge of 24K Magic is delivered in an almost identical style. The lines that start “I’m a dangerous man with some money in my pocket” is basically delivered as a Stars In Their Eyes-esque impression of Lamar.
Snoop Dogg / Charlie Wilson / Justin Timberlake
You’d have thought that having been forced to include The Gap Band on Uptown Funk‘s credits would have made Bruno Mars think twice before going anywhere near them again, but no. Unless he doesn’t realise that Charlie Wilson was one of The Gap Band, Mars is skating on thin ice by stealing a vocal scat from the Snoop Dogg/Charlie Wilson/Justin Timberlake hit, Signs.
Mars’s “Tell me what you’re trying to do” at 3:12 is identical to JT’s “shoo-be-do-be-do-do-do” – and the synth sounds underneath it are pretty closely related too.
Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars
Yes, it’s technically impossible to plagiarise yourself (provided, of course, that you own your own copyright) but did Bruno Mars really think he’d get away with the lifts from Uptown Funk?
Not only is there significant overlap in the lyrics: from the gospel references (“Girls hit ya (hallelujah!)” v “Can I preach? (Uh oh!)”), to the namechecking of areas in LA County (Hollywood v Inglewood), to the second verse instructions of taking a sip (something that Bruno and his backing group, the Hooligans, all insist upon) – there are also a lot of musical tricks that are copied and pasted.
The most obvious musical lift is the verses, in which Bruno speak-sings the same quavers-rest-quavers-rest rhythm (i.e. “Stylin’ / While in / Livin’ it up in the city” v “It’s show time / Show time / Guess who’s back again!”)
The back and forth with the Hooligans is extremely similar too – with them adding the same sort of whistles, whoops and hollers that they did in Uptown Funk.
Then there are parts of the arrangement which are very familiar. During the dying moments of the song, 24K Magic reprises the brass breakdown hook of Uptown Funk (at 4:08 – 22 seconds before the end) only with synths and drums (at 3:23 – 23 seconds before the end).
And still, he’s not done…
There are eight listed writers on Finesse, so it’s not as if Mars was strapped for space on the liner notes. Yet somehow he didn’t find any room to tip his hat to Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins or Ronnie DeVoe – better known to the world as Bell Biv DeVoe.
Though Finesse is clearly an ode to the broader sound of New Jack Swing, there’s no way the track would sound the way it did were it not for Poison. And even if Mars knows exactly how to cover his tracks well enough to avoid a lawsuit, there’s no mistaking where he got that drum beat from.
Cardi B helpfully draws our attention to it with (what sounds like an affectionate pisstake of) Mars’s signature “Huh ha!” sound – but her entire verse could have been cut and pasted from a verse of either of the two previous songs.
Perhaps what Mars is doing here is deliberate. Perhaps – having exhausted his experimental stage –he is now trying to position himself as an ambassador for funk. Using his singles to take us on a journey of the genre, Mars has possibly been showing how the same musical fragment would have been treated across the decades. We have the disco funk of the 70s in Uptown, the synth bass funk of the 80s in Magic, and the drum machine R’n’B funk of the 90s in Finesse.
(It’s a stretch, we realise…)
They say that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. True though that may be, we’d really recommend that Bruno Mars try to curb his more cannibalistic excesses.
Borrowing from a song which stole from a song (which stole from a song before that) is bad enough, but if he continues to do this – especially when he feeds off his own back catalogue – Bruno Mars is going to find himself very quickly in Human Centipede territory.
And that didn’t end well for anyone.