“Will Uptown Funk! be US Billboard’s Hot 100s No 1 Song of 2015?” is a question that is already being asked by both pop moguls and pop aficionados. I must confess that I only heard the song a couple of weeks ago (I know what you’re thinking: where has this guy been?). It has an undeniably catchy, retro disco feel while still being part of today’s pop zeitgeist – which, I think you will agree, is a very clever trick to pull off.
Because I subsequently found myself humming the melody (note: not the lyrics which I could not remember) when I was on my way to do some shopping and not thinking of anything in particular I understood very well why Uptown Funk! had shot to the top of the charts, not only in the US, but also in neighbouring Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, France, Ireland and the UK.
Then, by chance, I saw the accompanying Uptown Funk! video on TV. What immediately struck me was how extraordinarily good Hawaiian-born Bruno Mars and his four backing singers were at dancing. Quiff-haired English music producer Mark Ronson, from whose album Uptown Special the song is taken, also makes occasional appearances, but for the most part he is either standing or sitting, simply clicking his fingers, tapping his feet or rotating his head on his neck.
By contrast, Mars and his group perform some very intricate moves with their whole bodies, using the street and a nightclub stage as backdrops. Occasionally Ronson pops up in one of the group sequences but you can see for yourself that he doesn’t do very much. Overall he cuts a fairly reticent figure – the nerdy, studio-based introvert to Mars’s street-wise musical extrovert, as it were. Perhaps Ronson is purposefully embodying the stereotype that white, middle-class British guys can’t dance – or at least can’t dance very well.
The second thing that struck me is that catchy, feel-good pop songs are nearly always tagged with a simple dance routine that more or less any able-bodied person can quickly learn and replicate. Examples include The Twist, The Ketchup Song and Gangnam Style. In this way there is a dynamic interplay between the appeal of the song and the appeal of the dance. Music producers, and their grateful marketing teams, refer to this as synergy, and find it a useful way of creating differentiation in an otherwise over-communicated marketplace. And that must surely be good for the bottom line.
But some pop songs exemplify another dance tradition, which is: watch me dance and be amazed at what I can do. Michael Jackson performing the moonwalk to Billie Jeanne in NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever in 1983, and MC Hammer dancing the “running man” and “Hammer dance” in trademark baggy trousers in the video U Can’t Touch This in 1990 are representative of this alternative dance tradition. So it’s intriguing that the dance moves in Uptown Funk! straddle these two pop dance categories.
Some research on YouTube and I find Mars and Ronson performing a few live versions of Uptown Funk! Perhaps the most interesting clip is from The Ellen Degeneres Show. While some of the arms-above-the-head-body-swaying moves in the Uptown Funk! video can be reproduced relatively easily – you can see how easily if you watch the beginning of the clip in which Mars, and his singers, start their performance by standing in the front row, their backs to the audience – once more complex movements, involving synchronicity between the upper and lower bodies, are introduced it’s time for Bruno and his very well-coordinated and well-practised companions to leave the people and climb on to the stage and become the stars that they really are.
But another thing that stands out in the live version of Uptown Funk! is how, at the end of the song, Mars and his singers, and Ellen and members of her audience, are wearing very big smiles. Even Ronson, who again plays a relatively marginal figure spinning the decks in a different part of the studio, joins in. These are not so-called stage smiles either. The smiles are genuine as you can readily observe (though no doubt everyone involved – performers and audience members – is aware of their designated roles and the requirement to appear “happy” on comedian Ellen’s Emmy-award winning show).
But the big point is that the reaction of musicians and audience members to Uptown Funk! performed live is very good evidence for the theory proposed by biological anthropologist Robin Dunbar and others that active participation in music and dance generates powerful emotional responses through the release of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, by the central nervous system.
I must remember that next time I’m moonwalking.
Dr Sean Carey is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester
A version of this article has appeared at anthropologyworks.com
* Published in print edition on 13 March 2015