“If you sexy, then flaunt it / If you freaky, then own it / Don’t brag about it / Come show me”
– Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk” (Uptown Special, Mark Ronson, 2015)
Bruno Mars wants to give his lady the best orgasm of her life and then take her out to dinner and talk about feelings. Bruno Mars can be a cocky asshole and he knows you like it, but would be prepared to apologize profusely if he ever did something genuinely hurtful. Bruno Mars sometimes makes bad choices because he has a soft spot for beautiful women, but he never blames them for the dumb things he does on their behalf. Bruno Mars knows he’s hot, his lady is hot, and that they’re even hotter together. Bruno Mars is a man who listened to all of his female friends complain about their shitty boyfriends and took copious notes on what not to do. Bruno Mars reassures his girl that he honestly loves doing “girly” stuff with her. Bruno Mars talks about women the way I would talk about my girlfriend and the way I would want my boyfriend to talk about me, which is why I find his music so enjoyable. He’s confident instead of arrogant, sincere instead of self-flagellating, and he just wants his lady to have a good time and know how much she’s loved without demanding anything from her in return. What’s not to love?
I’ve never encountered a male singer or writer who pays attention to the practical concerns of his love interest the way Bruno Mars does. He consistently proves that he’s looking out for his girl, emotionally and physically: name-dropping Elizabeth Taylor’s “White Diamonds” perfume, promising to “kiss [his girl’s] neck and shoulders,” reminding her “you better have you hair weave strapped on tight” before vigorous sex, observing (at the 2017 Grammys) “I see you, ladies, in your brand new dresses. You’re all looking so beautiful. Some of y’all still got the tag on it but it’s cool. You want options. I get it,” and bragging about how easily he can undo a bra. James Corden complimented that particular skill during Carpool Karaoke, admitting that it sounds romantic in the song (“Versace on the Floor”), but “when I get home with my wife and she says, ‘Can you undo this?’ it takes me a good four to six minutes, in which time all romance is gone. It’s a puzzle!” These little details are not standard slow jam fare, but perhaps they should be; they prove that he is genuinely paying attention to his lady as an autonomous human being. It’s a lower bar than the Bechdel test, but still manages to be a highly endearing and impressive accomplishment.
Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” in her groundbreaking 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” with an analysis grounded in a feminist re-appropriation of the Freudian term scopophilia (pleasure in looking). She writes that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” with depictions of women that are universally “coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” She encourages a close reading of visual texts in order to understand the sexual politics of media representation; pop culture “poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing.” Mulvey posits the male gaze as a powerfully exploitative force, capable of reifying harmful and reductive stereotypes of women that are impossible to rectify without a careful assessment. The critical feminist “can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides.”
If there is a male gaze, there can also be a female gaze. While it is not the “dominant order,” it is still an oft-maligned and ignored perspective. By speaking directly to a female audience, Bruno Mars’s music avoids the exploitative “active/male and passive/female” dynamic, which is thrown into even sharper relief when his songs are pitted against others that are similar in genre and sentiment. He is fully aware that his girl might be insecure, and realistically addresses a variety of highly specific concerns in a way that is quite rare for the smooth-operator baby-maker genre. If she’s afraid that he’s going to think badly of her for pursuing sex, he replies, “I won’t think you’re easy, I won’t think you’re fast.” If she’s afraid to explicitly tell him what she wants, he replies, “your eyes say, ‘oh, please me,’ but your lips get to ask.” If she’s afraid that he just wants to do his thing and doesn’t care about her pleasure, he replies, “you’re so delicious, like ice cream on a sunny day / I’m gonna eat you before you melt away / Is that all right? Is that okay?” If she’s afraid that he’s smiling derisively instead of adoringly, he replies, “don’t be confused by my smile ‘cause I ain’t ever been more for real.” If she’s afraid of being too maintenance, he replies “lucky for you, that’s what I like // all this is here for you.” If she’s afraid that he doesn’t like the way she looks naked, he replies, “don’t be afraid to show it all / I’ll be right here ready to hold you / You’re perfect from your head down to your heels.” Rather than showering her with platitudes, he shows that he’s listening.
Not only does he know what she likes, he assures her that he really enjoys doing it with her. Even when he’s spending obscene amounts of money, he’s always doing it for her. An illuminating comparison can be drawn between “That’s What I Like” and T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.” Although both songs are narrated by men who enjoy showering women with luxuries, Bruno Mars wants to create memories, whereas T.I. is more interested in gratifying himself by making sure everyone knows exactly how wealthy he is. Even the titles, similar as they are, betray this fundamental difference: T.I.’s girl can have “whatever,” but Bruno Mars wants his girl to know that he’s just as enthusiastic as she is. Consider the difference between
Jump in the Cadillac, girl, let’s put some miles on it / Anything you want, just to put a smile on it / You deserve it, baby, you deserve it all, and I’m gonna give it to you / Gold jewelry shining so bright, strawberry champagne on ice / Lucky for you, that’s what I like // If you say you want a good time, here I am, baby / Talk to me, tell me what’s on your mind
(“That’s What I Like”)
You want it, I got it, go get it, I’ll buy it / Tell them other broke n***as, “Be quiet” // Any time you want to pick up the telephone / You know it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you // You ain’t gotta downgrade, you can get what I get
(“Whatever You Like”)
While money is certainly no object for Bruno Mars, he is focused on the experience, even enthusiastically suggesting stereotypically girly things to do, whereas T.I.’s gauche reference to “a couple stacks” and apathetic “you can get what I get” reminds everyone that he’s happy to indulge his lady but is mostly just pleased to have the cash. And T.I. really is reminding everyone– he wants his girl to report back to other men, brags “you ain’t never had a man like [me],” and competes with “those old sugar daddies.” Meanwhile, the only other person Bruno Mars references in “That’s What I Like” is Julio, who also appears in “Uptown Funk,” and is presumably the Albert to his Batman. Bruno Mars doesn’t need to compare himself to anyone because he’s confident that he can make his girl happy and, failing that, they can resolve conflicts through the power of communication.
These songs lie at the ever-powerful intersection of money and sex. Consider the difference between
I will never make a promise that I can’t keep / I promise that your smile ain’t gon’ ever leave // Take a look in that mirror, now tell me who’s the fairest / Is it you? Is it me? Say it’s us and I’ll agree, baby // Sex by the fire at night / silk sheets and diamonds all white
(“That’s What I Like”)
Shawty, you the hottest, love the way you drop it / Brain so good, could’ve swore you went to college // Late night sex, so wet, so tight // I want your body, need your body / As long as you got me, you won’t need nobody // Let me put this big boy in your life
(“Whatever You Like”)
First of all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if a vulva is “tight” during sex, its owner is not sufficiently aroused, so, congratulations, T.I., you played yourself. Second of all, Bruno Mars talks about sex with affection and attention to detail, elegantly referencing both Snow White and White Diamonds perfume; T.I. delivers halfhearted and/or backhanded compliments while asserting the primacy of his needs. Bruno Mars sees his girl as a partner and himself as a worthy match while T.I. sees his girl as a resource to be claimed and asserts his entitlement to her time and energy without promising any pleasure, or even fun.
Even at his most sexually aggressive, Bruno Mars is always totally focused on his parnter; his most explicit song, “Gorilla,” provides a perfect case study. Even when he quite literally wants to fuck her like an animal, he still looks to her for enthusiastic, verbal consent: “Let me hear you say you want it all // I got a fistful of your hair, but you don’t look like you’re scared / You just smile and tell me, ‘Daddy, it’s yours’ // You’re screaming, ‘give it to me, baby’” Here, he successfully asserts his machismo without an ounce of chauvinism. Rather than getting off on degrading his partner, he makes it clear that his pleasure derives directly from hers: “I bet you never ever felt so good / I got your body trembling like it should.” He puts his money where his mouth is, bragging about what he is able to do for her rather than being generally self-aggrandizing.
As far as the archetypal “I want my lady to feel confident about herself” song goes, “Just The Way You Are” serves as the perfect antidote to One Direction’s “That’s What Makes You Beautiful.” Consider the difference between
I know when I compliment her she won’t believe me / And it’s so sad to think that she don’t see what I see / But every time she asks me, “Do I look okay?” I say, / “When I see your face, there’s not a thing that I would change, ‘cause you’re amazing just the way you are / And when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while
(“Just The Way You Are”)
You’re insecure, don’t know what for / You’re turning heads when you walk through the door / Don’t need makeup to cover up, being the way that you are is enough / Everyone else in the room can see it, everyone else but you […] You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful / Girl, come on, you got it wrong / To prove I’m right, I put it in a song / I don’t know why you’re being shy and turn away when I look into your eyes
(“That’s What Makes You Beautiful”)
While Bruno Mars pays a lot of direct, specific compliments– regarding her eyes, her hair, her lips, and her laugh– to the woman in question, One Direction not only fetishizes her low self-esteem but proceeds to blame her for it. Bruno Mars wants his girl to think she’s beautiful; One Direction wants her to know that he thinks she’s beautiful but not to embrace it herself, thus trapping her in a need for his validation. The bizarre paradox of this song is that One Direction insists that the fact that she doesn’t know she’s beautiful is what makes her beautiful but also turns complimenting her into an argument they intend to win. Bruno Mars is having none of that; he just sincerely wants to tell his lady she’s beautiful, which he does “every day.”
On that note, “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” has no references to the narrator actually talking to the girl in question; there is an intense focus on the impact she has on other people and the narrator’s attempts to decode her body language. The littlest turns of phrase reveal major differences in thought: “the way you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed” reeks of male gaze and makes her actions all about what he thinks, whereas “her hair falls perfectly without her trying” may still be a Male Opinion but at least it’s entirely focused on the girl. “The way that you are is enough” implies that she could improve herself if she wanted (although not through makeup, which is for high maintenence sluts) but that the narrator is willing to accept her as she is; Bruno Mars reassures his girl that “if perfect’s what you’re searching for, then just stay the same.”
All of this is why my most immediate response to bingeing his discography was, “Bruno Mars sings about women like a lesbian.” It is rare for straight men to so thoroughly adore both their own partner and women in general, notice and remember the accoutrements of femininity, and be sensitive to specific internalized misogyny-related insecurities. Men describing flirtation, courtship, and/or sex per se as a conquest or a chore has always been alienating to me as a woman who likes women, because it is so far removed from how I conceptualize it, and as a woman who likes men, because I would never want someone to think of me that way. Bruno Mars loves women in a way that I would want to both emulate and experience.
Bruno Mars songs referenced (in order): “Uptown Funk,” “That’s What I Like,” “Chunky,” “Versace on the Floor,” “Show Me,” “Our First Time,” “Just The Way You Are,” “Gorilla”
About the Author
Molly McGowan is a 20 year old college senior, transplanted from the South to New England. She enjoys art history, trying to learn too many languages at once, hiking, reading tarot, and not shutting up about whatever book she is currently reading.