Bruno Mars in Ascension

Bruno Mars in Ascension

New York Times

Jon Caramanica

When history books address the pop seismology of the early 21st century, a chapter will have to be set aside for a discussion of the Sheraton Waikiki in the late 1980s. That’s where Bruno Mars, then just a few years old, performed as part of a tourist-trap family band, singing doo-wop, Elvis and more. He even made a cameo as a baby Elvis in the 1992 film “Honeymoon in Vegas,” appearing as a bouffant-haired tyke in a blue jumpsuit, with a fierce hip shake.

“I can’t believe that’s my past,” Mr. Mars said in an interview before his first solo New York performance, a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom in late August. “I wish I could tell you me and my rock band were traveling around, strung out. No, we were a family band. Straight Partridge Family.”

Still, there’s something to be said for learning a wide repertory at a young age, and also to feel no shame in people-pleasing. It’s made Mr. Mars, 24, one of the most versatile and accessible singers in pop, with a light, soul-influenced voice that’s an easy fit in a range of styles, a universal donor. There’s nowhere he doesn’t belong…

…But his placelessness hasn’t always been an asset. Born Peter Gene Hernandez, Mr. Mars is primarily of Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, which proved to be an obstacle in his industry dealings. “I was always like, girls like me in school, how come these labels don’t like me?” he said.

An early record deal with Motown went nowhere. Race was always a concern. “Sadly, maybe that’s the way you’ve got to look at it,” he said. “I guess if I’m a product, either you’re chocolate, you’re vanilla or you’re butterscotch. You can’t be all three.” He named his debut EP, released this year, “It’s Better if You Don’t Understand”—a taunt.

“Don’t look at me—listen to my damn music,” he said. “I’m not a mutant.”…

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