Just two years ago, Mars was the veritable muse of Fox's musical series, as its cast of goody-goody tweens covered two of his chart-topping songs on the show. Getting the Glee treatment was just a small slice of the whopping success this erstwhile Elvis impersonator from Hawaii has enjoyed since 2010.
Over that period, Mars put out his debut (Doo-Wops & Hooligans) that went platinum 39 times, wrote 11 top-10 hits, and won a Grammy (for "Just the Way You Are"). It's been an epic ride, one that now enters risky territory with his sophomore record, Unorthodox Jukebox, out this December.
If Doo-Wops & Hooligans revolved around G-rated romance, Unorthodox Jukebox is all about the sex. The new album still showcases Mars' singular skill for irresistible, easygoing melodies, evident in past hits "Just the Way You Are" and "Grenade." But while many of the lyrics on Doo-Wops focused on overwhelming love -- sometimes requited, sometimes not -- Jukebox enters a heavier place, dwelling on an overwhelming loss of self caused by hard partying and wild women.
This made the 27-year-old a perfect fit for the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. "These beautiful women are walking around in this lingerie," Mars says. "And I'm basically pouring my heart out to them saying they're the reason I am the way I am."
It's clear that Mars loves the ladies. Seated at a Japanese restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he is a huge ham and an even bigger flirt. He's that boy in grade school who just won't stop gabbing (or randomly breaking into song), but he's too charming to ever be irritating. Just ask the petite and pretty but decidedly stoic server, whom Mars innocently prods all night just to win a smile -- which he finally achieves after loudly gushing, "You can light up a room!" The server giggles and blushes in reply.But his interactions with the opposite sex don't always end this well. On Jukebox's second single "Young Girls," Mars sings: "All you young, wild girls / you make a mess of me / Yeah you young, wild girls / you'll be the death of me." The song is about "a young, wild dude," who happens to get "lost in the sauce," Mars says. "You're going out every night. You're drinking every night, being young... looking for love in all the wrong places." It's about trying to "take control of your life," he explains.
The new songs "definitely might be darker, a little more aggressive," he notes. "I'm saying some things that are probably going to open a lot of those doors."
One of those dark doors Mars is referring to is his 2010 arrest in Las Vegas for cocaine possession. "I know once you put it on record, it's on record -- forever." (Although those possession charges have been erased following some fines, community service and counseling.)
"It's weird," he admits, "because it's easier for me to sit down and write a song than actually talk about it." Given that, Mars vows he will never produce a song unless it shares "a personal story, a personal problem, a personal whatever" -- even if that makes himself vulnerable to tabloid scrutiny or means potentially alienating a fan-base more accustomed to maudlin love songs on Glee than burners fantasizing about "bomb-ass sex." Still, Mars insists, "I'm not trying to be dark. It's just me being honest and open."
And while Mars recognizes the risks involved in turning away from a winning formula so soon, he proclaims that he's not "afraid to fail." This attitude was never more evident than during Mars' gig hosting Saturday Night Live in October.
For all his commercial success so far, Bruno Mars is not Justin Timberlake. He's not Sting. And he certainly has not yet reached the renown of Mick Jagger. All of this contributed to the widespread shock that a singer with just one record out and zero acting credits (except for an appearance as "Little Elvis" in Honeymoon in Vegas twenty years ago) would join the aforementioned list of illustrious musicians who've doubled as SNL hosts. "To this day we don't know why that happened," he confesses. "I was skeptical. Everyone was skeptical."
Mars recalls telling SNL head writer Seth Meyers, "I signed up to go down in flames." But initial qualms aside, Mars remained undaunted: "It's like if you don't do this, you wasn't made for this shit if you can't take on something like that. So it was kind of a challenge. It was like, 'Fuck it, let's go.'"
And that seems to be the theme connecting all of his experiences: "The whole secret to our success was just that attitude. If we're gonna go down, we're gonna go down in style."
Fortunately, the appearance on SNL was a tremendous success, earning the show's highest ratings to that point in the season. In one skit, Mars played an intern at Pandora during a massive power outage. Faced with the potential apocalypse that would follow five minutes without Internet radio, Mars' character must fill the silence by singing as Katy Perry, Louis Armstrong and Michael Jackson, among others.
Critical to this skit was Mars' knack for musical caricatures -- a skill he developed during his very first gig as a five-year-old Elvis impersonator. Mars, whose real name is Peter Gene Hernandez, was born into a wildly diverse family in Hawaii. His father, a percussionist, was of Puerto Rican descent, while his mother, a hula dancer and singer, emigrated from the Philippines. The couple shared a passion for music, which they instilled in Mars and his five siblings at an extremely young age. As Mars grew up, he started playing with the family band, the Love Notes, while expanding his repertoire of musical mimicry to other performers such as Jackson and the Temptations.
By the age of 16, he set out on his own, regularly performing cover songs as the opening act of a nightly magic show in front of a thousand Asian tourists. Mars says that it was then that he realized "This is not what I was meant to do... I can't wake up ten years from now saying, 'Aloha, welcome to the magic show!'"
Mars decided to follow his older sister to Los Angeles, and in 2004 he signed with Motown. As a kid who grew up on Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Mars thought he struck gold: "It's like the dream coming true." But then, nothing happened.
"I felt like they just signed me and shelved me," he says. "You have no money and you're trying to figure out what happens, and then I got the phone call saying, you know, 'I think it's best that we go our separate ways.'"
Looking back, Mars points to being too green and lacking range in his writing. "I was just brewing and learning," he says. "Every song [I wrote] was some R&B love song."
And while Mars admits to feeling like a failure, he received enough encouragement from the industry to continue. The record-label execs liked some of his songs but wanted to give them to other artists. "That was the crossroads in my life," he says. "Either I be a snob, and I say, 'This is my music'" and move back to Hawaii penniless, or accept the offer to create music for others. Mars says "There was never a plan B." Making music is "all I wanted to ever do." And so, he chose the latter.
Soon Mars met fellow songwriter Philip Lawrence and engineer Ari Levine. The three joined forces to form the production and songwriting team the Smeezingtons. "We were just doing it on our own. Coming up with music that excited us," Mars says. And at night he was covering songs in a bar band with Jeff Bhasker (who would go on to helm records for Kanye West, fun., and Beyoncé). "That helped me so much as a songwriter and a producer, covering those songs. First of all, do you know how inspiring it is to cover a song, like 'Billie Jean'?" he asks. "You see people's eyes light up and you see the reaction, what that song does to people."
With the Smeezingtons, Mars started writing for everyone from Flo Rida to Matisyahu. And then the breakthrough came in 2010, when he cowrote and produced two songs that topped the charts: B.o.B's "Nothin' on You" and Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You." Doo-Wops was released soon after, debuting at number three on the Billboard 200.
Two years after Doo-Wops, the aptly titled Unorthodox Jukebox presents an unexpected, eclectic mix of musical styles. Working with all-star collaborators including Mark Ronson and Diplo, not to mention longtime partners the Smeezingtons and Bhasker, Jukebox evokes those same songs Mars was covering in bars just a few years ago -- "Billie Jean," "Roxanne," "Purple Rain" -- the kind of songs "that smack you right in the face as soon as you hear them."
"Music is supposed to put you in a mood or make you feel something emotionally," says Bruno in a rare flash of seriousness. "Same reason you go see a movie. I don't have the luxury of characters, like a movie. I can't paint a picture for somebody... I don't have three hours to give you something. I have three-and-a-half minutes to make you feel something. And three-and-a-half minutes to make me feel something."
It's a passion for that unique possibility of the pop song -- to uplift, overwhelm, and console millions through a few minutes of melody -- regardless of whether the lyrics revolve around love or hate, sex or drugs.
Soon enough, however, the solemnity subsides and Bruno Mars returns to his standard state. The fire gives way to the inevitable sweetness, as Mars reaches for a spicy shishito. "Got deep for a second," he grins. "Let me slow down and eat a pepper." Which he does before immediately flagging down that formerly stoic server to order some ice cream. This time she smiles immediately.
Styled by Olivia Purnell
Cover shot and Photos 1 and 3: Cardigan by RRL, shirt by Vince and hat by BorsalinoPhoto 2: Shirt by Sidian Ersatz Vanes and hat by Borsalino
Grooming by Jason Schneidman for Solo Artists / Tailoring by Malisa Browman / Fashion coordinator: Kelly Govekar / Photographer's assistant: Lee O'Connor / Stylist's assistant: Christian Salazar / Intern: Kevin Breen