by Patrick Ryan
With an unorthodox jukebox of chart-topping singles, pop-music poster boy Bruno Mars is ready to shimmy his way into America's living rooms Sunday night as the Super Bowl halftime headliner. But with a career that broke out just four years ago (co-writing, producing and singing on smash singles such as Travie McCoy's Billionaire and B.o.B'sNothin' On You), does he have what it takes to command TV's biggest stage?
"This is a bigger tent than Bruno has ever dominated before," says Billboard editor Joe Levy. "Where he's dominated has been on the radio, and he's done it in almost a stealthy way," surprising people who may not know his name but instantly recognize radio hits such as Locked Out of Heavenand When I Was Your Man.
"He's someone who's really a classic entertainer, a song-and-dance guy," says Rolling Stone senior editor Simon Vozick-Levinson. "In terms of demographics, he's got a lot of young fans, but older fans can appreciate the classic way he sings and performs."
While his résumé may not stretch as long as recent headliners such as Beyoncé, Madonna and the Black Eyed Peas, his position as a consistent hitmaker (with five No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100) who sells out arenas makes him a natural candidate for the gig, Levy says. "He already is a household name, I just don't know whether Mom and Dad are the ones in the household that know (it)."
But is there a risk in Mars not being quite risky enough? There's little fear of a wardrobe malfunction (Janet Jackson's infamous performance with Justin Timberlakein 2004) or Mars giving the middle finger to the cameras (M.I.A., making a guest appearance during Madonna's 2012 halftime show).
"Is it as exciting? Are people just watching to see if it'll be outrageous?" says Alan Light, former editor in chief of Vibe and Spin. "If it's just to watch somebody give a nice music performance, there are certain limitations on how much people care about that."
To keep those unfamiliar with Mars captivated, visual spectacle and outstanding choreography are key to give the performance "some 'wow,' " Light says, something Mars has done well in showy performances on the Grammys and the MTV Video Music Awards. "It's one they really need to beef up and make visually arresting."
Having the Red Hot Chili Peppers take the stage with him won't hurt either, especially in appealing to the masses of classic-rock fans who miss the not-too-distant past of Rolling Stones-, Bruce Springsteen- and Tom Petty-led halftime shows.
"There's enough overlap between (the Chili Peppers') funk thing and (Mars') soul thing that they can find something that's going to meet," Light says. "But given that it's in New Jersey, I can't believe that Bon Jovi isn't home seething on Super Bowl day."
So if Mars delivers a knockout performance that is both musically and visually electrifying, could this take him to the next level? After all, Vozick-Levinson says that he's "positioned himself as heir to Michael Jackson's position in pop."
"You're talking about a moment where he can turn into an icon," Levy says. "Musically, he's shown that ability, but now it's about showing it in a performance setting to an audience this big."
The worst case is that "it's a neutral," Light adds. "And if he delivers, it's an amazing opportunity (for him).
"That's what it is to be a superstar: When you're given those moments, you transcend them. We'll see if he's ready for that."