GG‘s Number Ones column reviews every Billboard Hot 100 #1 single of the last 10 years.
There is a certain kind of song that should not succeed. Such songs are too simple, too obvious, too basic, or just plain too old fashioned to ever hope to possibly make it. And yet every now and again an artist launches their career with one. Bruno Mars‘ ‘Just the Way You Are’ is one such song.
From Struggling Songwriter to Superstar
Bruno Mars was born in October 1986 in Waikiki, Hawaii. His parents were of Puerto Rican and Filipino heritage. It was a musical family and Mars followed in the tradition by becoming an Elvis impersonator at age 4. (He would later find success imitating Michael Jackson.)
An industry outsider, Mars found early success writing and recording hits for other artists as part of production team The Smeezingtons. Establishing a name for himself behind the scenes, Mars then made guest vocalist appearances on chart-topping hits from B.o.B and Travie McCoy. Following this, Mars was well placed to realise his ambition of launching a solo career. All he need was the right song.
It arrived in the form of a tune Mars and The Smeezingtons almost gave away. ‘Just the Way You Are’ was originally offered to Gnarls Barkley‘s CeeLo Green. The Smezingtons had worked with Green for hit single ‘Fuck You‘ in August 2010 and they were sure the song was the perfect follow-up. Fortunately for Mars, Cee-Lo disagreed. “I personally think [the song] was better for [Mars],” he later shared of passing up on the song while in conversation with Billboard magazine, “like ‘F*ck You’ was better for me. I don’t think he could have sung that song.”
Bruno Mars Knew What Worked
A performing vocalist since age 4, Bruno Mars knew what worked. When he sang love songs he noticed they drew the strongest reaction. And of all those present it was women who reacted the most. Mars’ debut single built on this experience. Its melody was clear and its simple sentiment easy to understand.
Talking with Blues and Soul in 2010, Mars shared that he wrote the song in the style of ’70s hits like Joe Cocker’s ‘You Are So Beautiful’ and Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’. “You know, there’s no mind-boggling lyrics or twists in the story,” Mars reflected, “they just come directly from the heart… There’s nothing mind-blowing about it. I’m just telling a woman she looks beautiful the way she is – and, let’s be honest, what woman doesn’t wanna hear those lyrics?”
Love is, after all, pop’s greatest of emotions. “95 percent of music is about love,” Mars stated to NME in 2016. “That’s why cavemen were hitting stones to get everybody around the fire and get them feeling sexy. It’s exactly the same principle, the same thing: just get people on the dancefloor, get the girls smiling.”
Retro Pop with a Modern Edge
In addition to Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker’s love ballads, ‘Just the Way You Are’ paid homage to the ’50s doo-wop and Motown hits Mars’ father played him as a child. “There were no TRICKS,” Mars once enthused. “You just needed a beautiful melody, you needed a beautiful voice, and you needed to connect!”
In this comment sits what could be read as Mars’ mission statement. Many of his biggest hits take a more-is-less approach. Mars favoured vocal-driven pop melodies combined with a modern twist on classic pop production.
Mars’ secret weapon was his mix of old and new approaches to recording music. His vocals paid homage to the vintage soul but set over a popular hip-hop breakbeat. Mars’ breakthrough single sampled Ralph Vargas and Carlos Bess ‘Ode to Mr. Bess‘ to give the song a more contemporary feel. This rhythmic flow drew from the ’90s R&B which had soundtracked Mars’ teenage years.
“That was my childhood; that’s why I fell in love with music,” Mars continued to share with the NME in 2016. “Those ’90s songs are what I was singing to get the girls in school, the songs that the girls like, what we were dancing to as children.” Mars cited New Edition, Boyz II Men, Blackstreet, Mint Condition, Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Teddy Riley as influencing him in this regard.
Bruno Mars Tops the Charts
Sandwiched between Katy Perry‘s ‘Teenage Dream’ and electro house single ‘Like A G6’, ‘Just the Way You Are’ was strikingly different from the other chart-topping hits of its day. Mars could be said to be behind the times but perhaps a better way to put it was that he was outside of them. As a result ‘Just the Way You Are’ sounded unlike anything else on contemporary pop radio. Given pop’s hunger for novelty, this may be what won it over.
‘Just the Way You Are’ topped the US charts on October 2, 2010, and it remained within the Billboard 100 for 47 weeks. It also topped charts in 10 other countries. According to the website Chartmetric, Mars’ single has since been streamed more than 1.5 billion times on YouTube and Shazamed 6.3 million times.
Bruno Mars and ‘Just the Way You Are’ Live
The song remains a staple of Mars’ setlist. In fact, at the time of writing, Mars has performed it live more than any other song. By Setlist.fm‘s records 380 times. The second is ‘Runaway’ which has been performed 365 times. Third comes ‘Marry Me’ with 359 performances.
Does It Still Hold Up?
“Love is a category, not a topic,” website Secrets of Songwriting assures aspiring pop stars. “We call them love songs, but simply singing that you love someone doesn’t usually give the audience enough to make that all-important emotional connection. You need to give more. There needs to be a story (actual or implied).”
Going against this wisdom, Bruno Mars’ debut song had barely any story at all. Relying on a beautiful voice and a slick melody, Mars appealed to pure sentiment. And the result speaks for itself. ‘Just the Way You Are’ made him a star.
12 x Platnimum Smaltz
‘Just the Way You Are’ was cornball, sure. Complete Smaltz. 12 x Platnimum Smaltz.
Mars knew what he was doing. While modern production may have spiced it up, he did not draw on current trends to sell himself. Instead, he used what had worked for him his entire life. He trusted his instinct and what was true for him turned out to be true for a million others.
Ten years on from the release of ‘Just the Way You Are’ few people are talking about the news, politics and current affairs of 2010. Ryan Reynolds is no longer People Magazine‘s Sexiest Man Alive. Chances are, however, that if someone told you value them and that they were beautiful just the way they were, the recipient would graciously accept their praise. Flattery is a difficult thing to reject. Who, after all, doesn’t want to feel good about themselves?
‘Just the Way You Are’ Peak Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1 (48 weeks on chart)
Australia/ARIA: #1 (37 weeks on chart)
UK/Official Charts: #1 (66 weeks on chart)
Bruno Mars 'Just the Way You Are'6
To the point
Not exactly reinventing the wheel