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by Justin Farrar

February 10, 2014

Breaking Down Bruno Mars' Image

by Justin Farrar  |  February 10, 2014

Over the last few years, several pop stars have appropriated the fashions and styles of vintage rock 'n' roll and R&B, but no more thoroughly than Bruno Mars. As the Super Bowl halftime show demonstrated, his retro image is natural and earnest; it's not about post-modern pastiche for the guy. He simply appears to love dressing up like the icons of oldies radio: James Brown, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Dion, Jackie Wilson, etc. In fact, what struck me about his performance was the odd disconnect between what I was hearing -- Michael Jackson-informed electro-soul and dance pop geared toward 21st-century teens -- and what I was seeing -- a dude who looked as if he stepped right out of the 1956 Alan Freed flick Rock, Rock, Rock!

Don't get me wrong: Mars' music certainly boasts nostalgic flair, particularly in its use of instrumentation such as horns, piano and guitar. Those, however, are really nothing more than cake-top decorations. Ultimately, it's in the image department that Mars' love for the vintage is most potent. Let's first address that fantastic hair, a fairly faithful re-creation of the perfectly sculpted hairdo Little Richard sported on his 1957 debut album, Here's Little Richard. (Also see the skyscraper-like pompadour of crate-digger obscurity Esquerita, from whom many pop historians believe Little Richard "borrowed" his look.)

Then there are the gold dinner jackets donned by Mars and his backing group at the Super Bowl. Probably the most classic uses of gold threads are to be found on the covers of James Brown's 1968 set Live at the Apollo Volume II and Elvis Presley's 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, the 1959 greatest-hits collection that immortalized The King's totally over-the-top gold lamé Nudie suit. As for Mars' cache of flamboyant dance moves, that's a mixed bag of inspiration. James Brown looms large, naturally. But the choreographed steps Mars and his band unleashed during halftime were clearly inspired by The Temptations, arguably the most graceful and agile dancers in pop music history (though there's no messing with The Jackson 5 either).

There's one other thing that needs mentioning: the cover art of Unorthodox Jukebox. Obviously, the jukebox is an iconic symbol of 1950s and early '60s rock 'n' roll, and it appeared on myriad albums throughout the era. But my favorite example has to be Chuck Berry's New Juke Box Hits, released in 1961. I have no idea if Mars is aware of this specific title, but he did drop Berry's name in his 2012 profile for USA Today. One thing's for sure: Dude knows his rock 'n' roll history.

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