The question dominated much of the nonfootball-related chatter in the run-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl: As the featured act of this year’s halftime show, was Bruno Mars really up to the job of entertaining a television audience of approximately 100 million people?
The answer, it turned out, was yes. But before he could prove it, Mars had to weather a storm of skepticism.
He’s only 28, decades younger than other artists who’ve played the show recently, such as Prince and the Rolling Stones. And Mars has released only two albums, a puny songbook compared to the deep troves of Bruce Springsteen and the Who.
The singer himself seemed to acknowledge his inexperience at a news conference last week, saying the call to perform “definitely came soon” in his career. (Wary of arming his naysayers, he quickly added, “I ain’t scared.”)
Yet after several halftime extravaganzas touched by controversy — including the appearance of M.I.A.'s middle finger during Madonna’s 2012 show and last year’s performance by Beyoncé, who just weeks prior had caused an uproar by lip-synching at President Obama’s second inauguration — it’s easy to see why the National Football League chose Mars to headline Sunday’s halftime show at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
An old-fashioned charmer with old-fashioned talent, Mars is probably the most wholesome star in Top 40 pop right now, not to mention the one whose skill set most readily overlaps with that of the legends of yesteryear. He’s not afraid to sing about sex, but he’s also deeply unlikely to flash any skin — a reassuring prospect to NFL brass still haunted by a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple 10 years ago.
But there’s another reason why Mars, despite his youth, was actually a safe bet for the year’s most-watched television spectacle: Onstage, this former pint-sized Elvis impersonator delivers — every single time.
He began his roughly 12-minute set at the Super Bowl hammering away by himself behind a drum kit, as if to tell viewers — particularly those unacquainted with his radio hits — that they were in the hands of a real musician.
And so they were: Before long, Mars’ touring band, a great funk-soul combo in the tradition of the O’Jays or Earth, Wind & Fire, had joined the singer for snapped-tight renditions of the reggae-tinged “Locked Out of Heaven” and the R&B throwback “Treasure,” each a lively demonstration of how much fresh energy Mars brings to familiar styles.
He called back even more explicitly in a zippy take on his song “Runaway Baby,” dropping in bits of James Brown’s signature footwork and a few lines from the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
Was it hopelessly retro compared to Beyoncé's bold electro-pop display? Sure. But with its live-wire electricity, the performance didn’t feel that way.
Or at least it didn’t until Red Hot Chili Peppers showed up.
Reportedly invited by Mars himself (though it’s hard to imagine that the NFL didn’t encourage their presence), the long-running L.A. rockers crashed the stage Sunday for a stale “Give It Away” that added zero to the proceedings — unless you count the disheartening sight of a bunch of white guys crowding out a bunch of black guys from their own gig.
Thankfully, the Chili Peppers vacated the premises quickly, in time for Mars to wrap up his set with his delicate “Just the Way You Are,” peppered here with video dedications from servicemen and women to their loved ones.
Singing beautifully and with the precision of a lifer, Mars performed the song standing in a pool of light on a small platform at the 50-yard line, all alone, just like he’d begun. He didn’t need anything — or anyone — else.