The Ones of the ’10s: Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man”

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.

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Bruno Mars- “When I Was Your Man”

HIT #1: April 20, 2013

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

“When we started the record, I was like, ‘I’m never singing another ballad again,’ but that came from the gut – it’s the most honest, real thing I’ve ever sang. When there are no safe bets, that’s when I feel my blood move.”

That’s Bruno Mars talking to Rolling Stone in 2012 about his then-latest song “When I Was Your Man.” At the time, Mars probably had good reason to say he wasn’t going to sing another ballad again. He had broken through in 2010 largely singing down the middle pop ballads whether he was the lead artist on them or not. While those songs were well made and performed, it cornered Mars into a sensitive balladeer persona that he quickly wanted to grow out of.

He would grow out of it soon enough with his second album Unorthodox Jukebox. On the album, Mars plays around with every genre from R&B to rock to funk to even reggae specializing in largely uptempo jams. One of those songs, “Locked Out of Heaven,” a Police style pop-rock song, had gone to #1. But following “Locked Out of Heaven” to #1 was a song that sounded like nothing else on the album: a spare ballad featuring Mars playing piano and singing about his heartbreak and regret over a failed relationship. It also happens to be a good song.

“When I Was Your Man” was inspired by Mars worrying that his relationship with model Jessica Caban was ending writing it out of heartbreak telling MTV News, “No, I can’t fake it. I’ve tried and those songs have been thrown away. This song is about a special woman that I let slip away at one time.” Mars wrote and produced the song with his regular partners in the Smeezingtons and “Grenade” songwriter Andrew Wyatt.

Lyrically, “When I Was Your Man” is Mars’ honest admission of how he screwed up in his relationship by not giving his girlfriend the loving and attention she deserved, “My pride, my ego, my needs, and my selfish ways/Caused a good, strong woman like you to walk out my life.” He’s all hurt to the point where their song doesn’t sound the same and is upset by just hearing her name.

He knows he probably won’t get the chance to make it up to her so in a change on the final chorus he switches it from what he should have done to what he hopes her new man will do in treating her right adding a level of maturity that you usually don’t get in these types of songs. Mars wouldn’t have to worry about his relationship for long. He and Caban are still together now.

The success of “When I Was Your Man” probably has to with the success of Adele. In 2011, Adele had hit #1 with her own spare piano ballad of heartbreak “Someone Like You.” That along with her massive success helped to popularize this kind of stripped back ballad that has continued to dominate since. At #4 the week “When I Was Your Man” was #1 happened to be Rihanna’s own spare love ballad “Stay.” (“Stay” wound up peaking at #3. It’s a 5.) 

“When I Was Your Man” doesn’t have the instant memorability of “Someone Like You” but it hits the same notes regardless. Mars is just singing his heart out convincingly showing both heartbreak and resignation to the situation. While not hugely amazing, the solo piano accompaniment gives Mars the space and showcase for his vocals making you pay attention to his lyrics which is the right move. It’s a slight song but an effective one at that.

For the “When I Was Your Man” video, Mars teamed up again with Cameron Duddy, who had directed the “Locked Out Of Heaven” video. What they came up with is, like the song, a video that’s simple but effective. We see a taping for a TV performance showing Mars well dressed in sunglasses singing at his piano with a glass of whiskey on top in retro-looking video quality. There’s also a silhouette of a girl that appears when he sings “oooooh ooh” and an empty spotlight at the end portraying how his relationship still haunts him. 

Unorthodox Jukebox launched one more Top 10 hit: the early ‘80s R&B throwback jam “Treasure” which wound up peaking at #5 later in 2013. (It’s an 8.) After the album, Mars kept busy most notably by performing a highly rated set at the 2014 Super Bowl Halftime Show as the main performer alongside guests the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ highest-charting single, 1992’s “Under The Bridge,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) It was a notable performance as unlike prior Halftime performers to that point he wasn’t a legacy or long-standing act with a large catalog of hits that the show typically prefers. 

It’d be another three years before Mars would release another album but in between, he teamed up for an all-time smash cementing his status as the ultimate throwback performer of 2010s pop. We’ll see him again eventually. 

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Boyce Avenue and Fifth Harmony performing a duet version of “When I Was Your Man” posted in 2013:

(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, 2016’s Ty Dolly Sign collaboration “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 1. Member Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column as a solo artist.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sam Smith performing “When I Was Your Man” during a 2013 appearance on BBC Radio 1:

(Sam Smith’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Stay With Me,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of a pre-fame Charlie Puth covering “When I Was Your Man:”

(Charlie Puth will eventually appear in this column)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the similarly spare version of “When I Was Your Man” that country artist Thomas Rhett recorded in 2015:

(Thomas Rhett’s highest-charting single, 2015’s “Die A Happy Man,” peaked at #21.)