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Starbucks on Mars

The following is a summary of how I introduced my Spring 2013 History of American Music course. Class is in session–GR 
BrunoMarsPA150411LSI always find it difficult to begin a class. Where does one start, particularly in a course that covers all of the historical territory of something called “The History of American Music?” Where can one go but to “the present” in order to make students understand how much of an “Other” the past is and at the same time get them to see how some things have remained structurally consistent, especially where music is concerned?

I stopped at the local Starbucks for my fix and there he was right next to the overpriced chocolate covered graham crackers: Bruno Mars, the answer, being sold under plastic in a (soon-to-be obsolete) physical CD titled Unorthodox Jukebox (nice, it rhymes). Of course, I’ve heard a lot about him, but it’s been more difficult these days to separate the really important pop artists from the merely important pop artists when I no longer have teenagers in the house commanding the airwaves and discourses. Thus, I don’t know as much of his music as, perhaps, I should. But today he was the answer. Here’s what caught my attention. He’s in Starbucks, for one. The corporation has completely branded me to the point that whenever, however, wherever I see that green lady in the logo, I automatically need a shot. But the cover art really convinced me to buy. “A new prince of pop—maybe even a king,” says NPR; “One of the most versatile and accessible singers in pop” wrote the New York Times; and he was even named by Time, one of the “100 most influential people.” With the pressure of four major corporations—Starbucks, NPR, Time, and the New York Times—mounting pressure, how could I resist? “Yes, I’ll take a tall and this CD with soy milk on the bar, please.” “Awwright,” the perennially friendly Starbucks guy said, swiping my card with that “let’s get this coffee party started” gleam in his voice that corporate must certainly ingrain.

Mr. Mars’ racially ambiguous facial features fit the “versatile and accessible” adjectives that have been used to describe his music. An American pop star’s face for the millennium, indeed. I became eager to hear what all the fuss was about. Between their edgy, free downloads and easy listening atmosphere music, where on this continuum of genre meets coffee consumer does Mars fit in that Starbucks lady’s plan to take over the world?

During our first class we put on the official video to the song “Locked Out of Heaven” to evaluate. (Ran into my colleague Salamishah Tillet today, and she said I’d like that one). The song itself sounds like a conglomeration of analogue and digital sound worlds all couched in verse-chorus structures that depart from much of the looped-influenced songwriting of the last twenty years of black pop. The verse and chorus, in other words, are musically different with varied chords in lieu of the now standard songwriting technique of verse and chorus being harmonically indistinguishable. Amen to harmonic versatility, particularly in a song that moves from d minor to F major during the chorus. (I wonder what this harmonic “lift” could mean to a yearning for heaven?) Yet the structure earns its label as “pop”: verse-chorus structures in popular music have been an industry staple since the mid-19 century and calcified since the hit song “After the Ball” (1891). A good, accessible hook sells.

Students easily “read” the video. With its 1970s-ish nightclub scenario in which young, lithe bodies swerve and sway, 1980s sonic markers that include references to Michael Jackson and Sting, Mar’s clear and expressive tenor, and scaled down indy rock instrumentation, it’s easy to hear why he sells. The digital design elements in both the visuals (drum machine and “real” instruments) together with digital aural gestures, interracial partying, and not to mention beautiful young women kissing each other at the party surely marks this production as up-to-the second contemporary.

Look how we’ve gotten and without yet touching the “truth claim” of the lyrics—that part of a song that most listeners would say this song is “about.” We already understand something of the meaning of “Locked Out of Heaven.”

With this purchase various industries conspired to separate me from my money by creating in me the desire for something accessible, ineffable, repeatable, transcendent and rump-shaking. And they’ve convinced me that I can buy it in a jewel case or digitally. Mr. Mars didn’t disappoint. With this first lesson under our belts, let’s move now to where our story really begins—to the clashing worlds of Native “Others” and the early settlers whose desire for religious freedom, ironically created a need to discipline spiritual expression through printed hymn compilations designed to aesthetically unify the Church Corporation–for a small fee, of course.

Nobody, it seems, wants to be locked out of heaven (or the bank).