I will begin this review by being straight-up with you, reader: I am a major Bruno Mars fan. As in, anyone who knows me knows that when "Uptown Funk" comes on at the club, I break into my very own special brand of choreography. "Natalie" is still one of my favorite songs to sing in the shower, and "It Will Rain" can bring me to tears with just a few notes. So when a few of my R29 colleagues recently criticized some of the lyrics from his new single, "24K Magic," I immediately went on the defense. But I couldn't really come up with a good argument against the fact that "some of his lyrics are gross." "Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends?" one of my colleagues commented. "I'm confused. Am I 'amazing just the way I am,' Bruno, or am I a 'bad bitch' with ugly ass friends?!" Frankly, it's not the first time I've heard other women say they aren't fans of Mars because of the mixed messaging he puts out there. There were myriad criticisms of "Gorilla," his 2012 single about hardcore, animalistic sex, and even more against his recent video for "24K Magic," which features Mars surrounded by quite a few scantily clad women, grinding their behinds for the camera in a way that feels reminiscent of the over-sexualized hip-hop videos of yesteryear. As an obsessive stan of multiple artists who have made some questionable decisions (I'm looking at you, Kanye), I've always been torn over how to both appreciate an artist and also recognize that I don't agree with everything they say and do (like, say, when a rapper lays down misogynistic lyrics, or when one of my favorite pop stars, Taylor Swift, seemed to lie to the public about that whole "Famous" situation). So when listening to 24K Magic for the first time, I decided to try to put my fandom for Bruno Mars aside and open up my feminist ears. Here's what I heard.
Sonically, Bruno's third effort is a continuation of his time travel through major moments in the history of R & B music. While his first record is full of earnest love ballads, and his sophomore album is a mashup of Motown, disco, and soul, 24K Magic is a fun, '80s- and '90s-infused throwback. Its carefree vibe feels like exactly what we need during a time when everything in our country feels scary, confusing and, well, serious. After my first few listens, I already have a few favorite tracks: "Chunky" is an electric, up-tempo ode to independent women who wear big ol' hoops (basically, my autobiography). "That's What I Like" is the sexy, '90s-style fantasy R & B jam that I've always needed, and "Finesse" makes me want to raise a glass with my girlfriends to the line, "Yea we got it goin' on / Don't it feel so good to be us / Ay!" Oh, and "Versace on the Floor" officially made it to my, um, sexy-time playlist. The whole album sounds like James Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe made a baby while listening to the Love & Basketball soundtrack. But, as much as I love listening to it, there are a couple of sexist, eyebrow-raising tracks I knew would hammer home my colleague's criticisms of Mars. The song "Perm" is clearly a tribute to James Brown, which I appreciated. But the lyrics, "Throw some perm on your attitude / You gotta relax" reminded me of the creepy guys on the street who are always telling me to smile when I JUST DON'T WANT TO. Hearing those lyrics immediately gave me the same irritated feeling I get when I'm walking down the sidewalk and a man I don't even know feels like he has the privilege and the right to tell me what to do with my mouth. ("Smile, girl!") And let me tell you: That strange man does not. The lyrics in "Calling All My Lovelies" also made me cringe. "I got too many girls on hold for you to be so bold / Too many on my team for you to act so mean / I got Alicia waiting, Ayesha waiting, all the -eyshas waiting on me..." It definitely gave me PTSD to some of the arrogant, cocky guys of my past (and, okay, present) who boast about all the women they have on their never-ending lists as some backward way of communicating to me how lucky I am to get in on their time. Boy, bye. But then... Bruno won me back with those infectious beats and suddenly I found myself two-stepping. That's when I thought: Wait a second. Don't I sometimes feel this same way? When I call a guy and he doesn't answer, don't I suddenly toss my hair over my shoulder, remind myself of how amazing I am, and then start popping off about how I have plenty of backups so I don't need him, anyway? Bruno's lyrics might, at times, feel kind of gross. But there's also something empowering, as a female listener, about flipping the lyrics to my own perspective. And sometimes, no flipping is even required. Can't a fun pop anthem be just that: A fun pop anthem? Is it really always necessary to break down every single element of entertainment until all that's left is cultural criticism and gender theory? Our world full of anxiety and stress and debate can be exhausting — and sometimes, at the end of the day, all I want to do is whip off my bra and turn on a song that makes me dance. I can't help but love this album. I won't apologize for it. There are most definitely some sexist, un-feminist lyrics that make me want to sit Mr. Mars down and tell him a thing or two about how to talk to ladies. But there are also plenty of moments that celebrate women — and love, and life, and how necessary it is to throw your cares to the wind every once in a while. It's a resurgence of the kind of music we don't get enough of anymore, the kind of songs that, as an '80s baby, I used to belt out the window from the backseat of my dad's Jeep while we sped down the highway. My personal definition of feminism means believing in equality for all sexes — and also believing that every woman can and should act, feel, and do as she damn well pleases. So maybe Bruno Mars does put sexist or un-feminist lyrics in his music (like many male artists out there). But his tunes lift my mood and make me feel good. And whether you agree with me or not, I'm perfectly entitled to enjoy that feeling. And its magic.