Uptown Funk! has the moves – and the endorphins

By Sean Carey

“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 heard the song just 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 (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 U.S., but also in neighboring Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, France, Ireland and the U.K.

Then, by chance, I saw the accompanying Uptown Funk! video on TV. It immediately struck me how good, Hawaiian-born Bruno Mars and his four backing singers are 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 on the street but you can see for yourself that he doesn’t do very much. Overall he cuts a fairly reticent figure – the nerdy introvert to Mars’s street-wise 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. So  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 good way of creating differentiation in an otherwise over-communicated marketplace. And that must be good for the bottom line.

But some pop songs exemplify another dance tradition: 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 simple and complex dance moves accompanying Bruno Mars in Uptown Funk! straddle these two pop dance categories.

Doing some research on YouTube, I found Mars and Ronson performing a few versions of Uptown Funk! live. 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 at the beginning of the Ellen DeGeneres Show 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-practiced companions to climb on to the stage and become the stars that they really are.

Another thing that stands out when observing the live version of Uptown Funk!  is how, at the end of the song, Mars and his singers, and Ellen and her audience have very big smiles. Even Ronson, who again plays a relatively marginal figure spinning the decks in a different part of the studio, joins in – at least to some extent. 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 social requirement to appear cheerful on internationally-renowned comedian Ellen’s TV show!).

The reaction of musicians and audience members to Uptown Funk! played live bears out 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 by the central nervous system.

I must remember that next time I’m moonwalking.


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