Why Bruno Mars' '24K Magic' Is 'Stranger Things' in Single Form

Kai Z Feng
Bruno Mars

You'd heard Bruno Mars’ new single before “24K Magic” actually came out last night (Oct. 7). At least, you had digested every retro element of its production, and witnessed every drop of second-hand vocal braggadocio, before Bruno returned late on a Thursday to preview his first full-length in four years.

The words “24K Magic” might not have been familiar, but everything gleaming inside of it — the glittery disco synths, the cheesed-up vocoder flourishes, the popped-collar call-and-responses — certainly was. That doesn’t make Mars’ grand return any less exciting, or “24K Magic” any less impressive: The reference points are just clearer now, more than they’ve ever been, and if a synthesis of some well-worn ideas can stand on its own, what’s to prevent the masses from pressing play?

Nothing, it turns out. “24K Magic” is probably going to be a smash hit, just a few months after another piece of superb nostalgia, Stranger Things, dominated pop culture. You know the familiar feeling you got when you first heard the Stranger Things theme music and watched those red letters slowly come together onscreen? Bruno Mars knows that feeling well, and has harnessed it into a killer groove.

Set in 1983 Indiana and telling the story of a group of kids uncovering a supernatural mystery, Stranger Things is not a remake of a past film or series, but a reboot of an era of sentimental sci-fi filmmaking that’s instantly recognizable and fiercely beloved all the same. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer have openly discussed the show as an homage to Steven Spielberg’s '80s films, but fans of Poltergeist, The Goonies and Starman have also picked up on the nods in those films' directions.

The plot travels down well-treaded paths, with action sequences and government nemeses and unlikely heroes; there are character archetypes presented and subsequently deconstructed, to draw us in and then keep us on edge. Stranger Things would seem schlocky if it relied too heavily on its pastiche of source material, but something this carefully designed and thoroughly entertaining never had a chance to fail.

Same goes for “24K Magic,” which corrals Grandmaster Flash, Zapp & Roger, Rick James and the whole of G-funk into three minutes and 46 seconds, while adding some modern ornaments (“Got to blame it on Jesus / Hashtag blessed!”) for good measure. Mars, who grew up impersonating Elvis Presley and started his career as a songwriter for other artists, has become a superstar thanks to a knack for channeling different pop eras through his warm, expressive persona. Yet only recently have his gestures to the past become so explicit that a new single can produce memories of several classics upon first listen.

On 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, “Locked Out of Heaven” harkened back to the Police, “Treasure” took cues from funk greats like Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & The Gang, and “Moonshine” leans on the futuristic cruise of Bad-era MJ. There were clear-cut influences on each track, but they were hardly karaoke sessions. With “Uptown Funk!,” however, Mars moved towards the melting-pot approach, gathering the sounds of Prince, Chic, James Brown and The Gap Band and tossing in a few “hot damn!”’s on the way to his biggest hit to date. The homage was obvious enough that the members of the Gap Band got added to the songwriting credits after the release of “Uptown Funk!,” for the song’s similarities to their 1979 hit “Oops Upside Your Head.”

With “24K Magic,” Mars has continued to assert himself as Top 40’s premier pop rememberer, dishing out moves that are well-known (a dash of 2Pac’s Roger Troutman-provided “California Love” talk box here, a sprinkle of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” cadence there) and widely accepted as pretty great. Most importantly, Bruno doesn’t bury his personality underneath the past — “24K Magic” falls apart without his swagger keeping us engaged, or his ear for melody turning “Twenty-four karat magic in the a-a-a-a-a-air” into a rallying cry. He’s become an expert at this type of golden-oldie excavation, and makes the update sound effortless.

How long will it be before Bruno Mars’ throwback approach to pop turns derivative? He’s walking a tightrope with songs like “24K Magic,” but he has yet to fall. Netflix turned genre revival into the biggest new show of the year, and Mars still sounds fresh while mining the most bulletproof moments of pop’s past. “24K Magic” would sound good now or 25 years ago, in this world or in the Upside Down; Bruno's influences are very much on his sleeve, but that’s not a bad thing when they’re this unassailable.