In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Bruno Mars- “Locked Out Of Heaven”
HIT #1: December 22, 2012
STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks
When America hit #1 in 1972 with “A Horse With No Name,” many people noted how lead singer Dewey Bunnell sounded a lot like Neil Young. Coincidentally, the band replaced Young’s own “Heart of Gold” at #1. In response, Bunnell said, “I try to use a different voice so that I won’t be branded as a rip-off. It’s such a drag, though, to have to not sound like someone when you can’t help it in the first place.”
40 years later when Bruno Mars hit #1 with “Locked Out Of Heaven” many people noted its similarities to the Police even though it had been three decades since the band’s commercial peak. Responding to those comparisons, Mars said it wasn’t his intention to imitate the Police but didn’t deny that they were a heavy influence on him telling MTV News, “I don’t think it initially tried to sound like anybody else, but I picked up the guitar and just started playing [the song’s opening chords]. That’s how it normally works; I’ll pick up a guitar and I’ll start humming a melody, and I started singing that, and I was up there in Sting-ville, in that register, so that’s what you get … I tend to listen to a lot of guys with higher registers — Sting being one of them, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder — because I’ve got a high voice.”
It may not have been his intention to copy the Police but Bruno Mars managed to use that influence to create a song that easily rises above most of Bruno Mars’ hits up to this point.
By the time of “Locked Out of Heaven,” Mars had already established himself in pop music thanks to his breakthrough in 2010 as a guest artist and with his debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans which netted him two #1 hits in “Just The Way You Are” and “Grenade.” After “Grenade,” Mars kept up the activity with Doo-Wops launching one more Top 10 hit, the breezy yet stupid “The Lazy Song” which peaked at #4 in 2011. (It’s a 3.) He also got as high as #3 with “It Will Rain,” a song from the soundtrack to 2011’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1. (It’s a 6.)
Despite the success, Mars wasn’t comfortable with his early music feeling that his first album was rushed and controlled heavily by his label Atlantic Records. In statements leading up the release of his second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars said he had more freedom over the album and that it represented who he was artistically. This new creative freedom paid off as Unorthodox Jukebox was another hit helping to showcase his various influences in rock, R&B, and funk. The album led off with a song born out of a jam session between Mars and his band.
Mars and his regular songwriting partners in the Smeezingtons, Ari Levin and Phil Lawrence, initially came up with the title while jamming backstage after a show. They soon brought it to producers Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, and Emile Haynie in New York where while playing for them Mars came up with the song’s driving guitar riff on top of the lyrics. All three producers had had various levels of chart success up to his point with Bhasker coming off of producing “We Are Young,” the fun. song that had hit #1 earlier in 2012. The guys finished up the song in Los Angeles completing the lyrics and changing the melody to get a sexier feel with Lawrence telling The Hollywood Reporter that he felt the song was “empty but it had a carnal vibe to it.”
Lyrically on “Locked Out Of Heaven,” Mars sings about the euphoric feelings of love and sex which he stated was inspired by the actress Halle Berry. He starts out as a man who’s been hurt by previous relationship to the point where he starts to lose faith in love not wanting to hurt himself further. But the sex his girlfriend gives makes him feel alive when he’s with her making him feel like he’s missing out on something as the title suggests. Sex to Bruno Mars represents heaven and paradise and not having sex makes him feel like he’s been locked out of heaven wanting to spend the rest of his life with this girl because of it. Mars describes a lot of this in further religious imagery, “But swimming in your water’s something spiritual/I’m born again every time you spend the night/You bring me to my knees, you make me testify/You can make a sinner change his ways.”
Normally, this kind of attitude wouldn’t make someone likable but it helps that “Locked Out Of Heaven” is a killer song with a fun, tight, and energetic performance. Mark Ronson brought in some members of his backing band the Dap-Kings, bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Homer Steinweiss, to play on the song and they lock in really well together. “Locked Out Of Heaven” is the sound of professional musicians who know what they’re doing. It’s a real bar band type of groove they got going here and hit various points of catchy effectiveness- the crisp guitar, busy bass, soaring chorus, the constant “Hey’s,” and the satisfying “woo” grunts.
As for the Police comparison, the song certainly sounds a lot like the tight and crisp new wave the Police had mastered but to me, it’s a case of close but no cigar. While “Locked Out Of Heaven” owes a lot of inspiration to the Police and new wave no regular listener is going to mistake the song or Bruno Mars for the group or actual new wave rock. “Locked Out Of Heaven” is another song that doesn’t belong to any one genre. The closest genre description that fits is pop rock but the song’s Wikipedia page notes it as reggae rock along with funk which also fits so it internalizes these influences without ever becoming any one of them.
And honestly who cares if it sounds like the Police. If anything, I much prefer Bruno Mars imitating other artists than trying to be a sensitive romantic balladeer most of the time. A song like “Locked Out Of Heaven” forces Mars to bring more energy and fun than he had before and it works to his advantage. You can clearly tell Mars is enjoying himself as well as the rest of the band. You don’t have to think a lot about what it’s about. It’s all about the energetic singing and play along quality the song brings. I would know because I performed “Locked Out Of Heaven” in high school.
For the song’s music video, Mars directed along with music video director and country musician Cameron Duddy who had directed the video for “The Lazy Song” as well as his 2010 track “The Other Side.” Mars wanted an old fashioned performance clip filming the video on a VHS camera as shown by the screen quality reminiscent of old VHS tapes, “The concept is just old-fashioned fun. No story line, it’s not me singing to a girl, you get a good sense of what you’re going to get live… It’s very VHS-y. I love that man, it takes me back to my childhood, when the tracking is off and the color is off, there’s a beauty in that.”
Mars got what he wanted in the video. It’s not a big-budget piece of art but rather a simple performance clip showing Mars and his band performing in a club while he and his bandmates engage in various activities. Like the song, the video shows everyone having a good time together. In a way, it’s another sign of the song’s retro leanings considering early MTV music videos of the ‘80s were also just simple performance clips without much of a high budget narrative attached to it. It fits the song well.
The success of “Locked Out Of Heaven” lined up perfectly with the release of Unorthodox Jukebox in December 2012. The album peaked at #1 going four times platinum in the United States. For 2013, Nielsen SoundScan listed Unorthodox Jukebox as the #5 seller of the year selling more than Florida Georgia Line’s Here’s To The Good Times but less than Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions. The song was also nominated for Record and Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammys losing both times to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” in the Record category and lost in the Song category to a song that will eventually appear in this column. (“Get Lucky” peaked at #2 in 2013. It’s a 10. As featured artists, Daft Punk will eventually appear in this column.)
But that’s not the end of the hits from Unorthodox Jukebox. The album spawned two more Top 10 hits including one that will be in this column shortly enough further cementing Bruno Mars’ status as the old school entertainer of 2010s pop. Two of the song’s producers, Jeff Bhasker and Mark Ronson, will also be back in this column with Ronson eventually appearing as a lead artist in another Bruno Mars collaboration.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bruno Mars performing “Locked Out Of Heaven” at the 2013 Grammys with Sting joining in a nod to the Police inspiration before singing his group’s own “Walkin’ On The Moon” and joining in a Bob Marley tribute:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2018’s Status Update where Ross Lynch and Olivia Hart sing “Locked Out Of Heaven” in a dance scene:
THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: The Lumineers’ simple yet charming indie-folk ditty “Ho Hey” peaked at #3 behind “Locked Out Of Heaven.” It’s an 8.
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