You know there’s hope for pop music when artists as smart and creative and deeply, lovingly musical as Bruno Mars andJanelle Monae can be such a success. In their soldout concert at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Wednesday, May 11, the two singer-songwriters showed why they’ve created such a buzz in the music world. They’re moving musical formulas forward, not with technology and spectacle, but with invention and talent.
Whether an artist as idiosyncratic, even radical, and creative as Monae can find a place in the mainstream is uncertain, but she is certainly superbly talented. Trained in musical theater, and working with the progressive Atlanta-based art/music collective Wondaland Arts Society, Monae is more Bjork than Beyonce. Her show was as almost as much pop-conceptual performance art as concert. The set and costumes for the 13 member ArchOrchestra (which included three violinists, a cellist, and two horn players) was retro white and black 60’s mod, with the elegantly sensual Monae in Mohawk/pompadour and androgynous white shirt and black tie.
Monae is a fabulous singer, with a velvety, powerful voice of terrific range and sweetness. In Smile, accompanied only by a guitarist, she soared with piercing, jazz-scatting emotional power; for the finale, Come Alive, she led a raucous, pumping jam (with rhythm and references straight from Rock Lobster, the eighties hit by fellow Georgians the B-52’s) with gospel rock fervor, even body-surfing into the crowd. Monae and her collaborators’ musicianship, energy and invention are impressive, and energizing, though the barrage of images and musical styles at times verged on chaotic.
Headliner Mars, who in the past year has rocketed from hit songwriter for the likes of Flo Rida and Cee Lo Green to pop idol himself, showed himself a worthy heir to teen heartthrobs from SOUL NAME to Justin Bieber. (The many middle-aged and up folks at the Fillmore for two 20-something acts were something of a mystery, until it became clear that most were escorting a large contingent of hysterically worshipful teen and pre-teen girls).
On Wednesday night, wearing his perky trademark fedora, t-shirt and denim vest, the boyishly good-looking Mars flashed an irresistible smile (dimples, even) and a classic soaring, full-voiced, knee-tremblingly sweet falsetto. His set, with giant shifting squares that flashed with graphic colors or video, seemed made for a much bigger venue; look for him soon at an arena near you.
But Mars brings his own personality to the party, remaking a classic formula – the sweet-voiced romantic idol – with his own character and talent. He’s a songwriter who gives a fresh twist to the union of melody and lyrics that combine for a song you can’t – and don’t want – to get out of your bobbing head. On hits like Just the Way You Are and Grenade his voice was so full and emotional, soaring from sweet to gut-churningly powerful, that he made potentially cliché romantic sentiments feel real. In an age of altered vocals, his voice needs no help. And when so many songs and singers extol hot bods and hook-ups, Mars tells girls “If perfect’s what you’re searching for then just stay the same” and “I’d catch a grenade for you”. (Years from now, guys will be using that line). He gave the slow jam First Time a sensuality and appreciation that made this ode to love-making an ode to love as well, fatal to females from pre-teen to pre-menopausal.
But Mars also has an impish humor and charm, that keep his music from being saccharine, and his persona from seeming false. He followed the so-romantic Marry Me with the brilliantly silly The Lazy Song, a satiric, spot-on anthem for the too-connected generation that had the audience singing enthusiastically along. He loves his pop and R&B traditions; seguing from a rocking version of the Motown classic Money into Billionaire (guaranteed to be the first song that gets 12-year-olds screaming “I just want to be on the cover of Forbes Magazine) and proudly asked the crowd “Wanna see my James Brown?” (they did) before launching into a foot-churning dance.
“This is the kind of music I love,” he told the audience, before leading three of his musicians in a gorgeous doo-wop harmony. Fifty years from now, you can imagine another star telling a crowd the same thing, as he leads a singalong of Bruno Mars songs.