Mark Ronson's Uptown Special
by Madeleine Saaf
Nostalgia is a tricky business to tackle in music. In fact, it is often called copyright infringement. The last few years have seen a wave of nostalgia-infused songs featuring writing credits from artists like Tom Petty (Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”) and Marvin Gaye (Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), after a bit of litigation. One of the top hits of the year, “Uptown Funk,” added the members of The Gap Band to the credits after similarities arose between their song “Oops Upside Your Head” and the “uptown-funk-you-up” break down at the end of the song.
Mark Ronson’s album Uptown Special, which “Uptown Funk” carries, thrives on the nostalgia-fever plaguing culture at the moment. In his TedTalk on sampling, Ronson explains that in music, “we take something that we love and we build on it.” This has clearly been his motto since he came out from behind the turntables of New York City clubs and took a seat at the soundboard. It’s evident in the work he did as producer on Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black and on his own records, like Version, where he took already produced songs and remixed them to fit his aesthetic, in many cases producing work better than the original (“Valerie” should only be played off the Ronson album). It was his album Version that brought him his first BRIT award for Best Male Artist, an award that raised a lot of questions about when a producer becomes an artist. Ronson doesn’t sing on his records, aside from a small chorus line on his song “Lose It (In the End),” and he cannot claim ownership over most of the lyrics, yet they are his songs. He arranges them, he helps get the best performances out of the artists he works with, and you can hear him in every song. He is akin to Wes Anderson; you might not see his face or hear his voice, but you know without a doubt who that work belongs to.
Defining just what Ronson’s sound is can be a difficult task. Uptown Special has provided the greatest aid at defining this sound, proving that Ronson could take what he had lent so well to other people's music and harness it into his own. It’s R&B and funk and gospel and blues and 80’s synthpop. It’s big lapelled jackets and coiffed hair. It’s multigenerational -- just Google “‘Uptown Funk’ covers.” It’s not defined by a mood or an audience or any particular place in time. It’s New York and London and a bit of Mississippi and Prince’s Minneapolis. That’s the novelty. Because Ronson’s sound is so many things it allows itself to be its own thing.
Ronson pointed out that what saved Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black from running “the risk of being very pastiche” were her incredibly present lyrics. The sixties girl groups that influenced her greatly would not have been singing about rehab stints. Perhaps this thought is what brought Ronson to seek out his favorite contemporary novelist, Michael Chabon, to write most of the lyrics on Uptown Special. Tales of .44 clips, teen zombies, and Adderall addicts riddle the eleven-track album, capturing vignettes to which only a Pulitzer Prize winner could do justice. The song “Heavy and Rolling” is told from the point of view of a taxi driver, talking about his ride. “My sweet companion is long as the summer, black as the river and built to glide. Smooth as glass, smooth as Marcus Miller. Cold as ice when you climb inside.” Chabon’s lyrics save the album from sounding like how the polyester suits of the “Uptown Funk” video must feel on the skin -- cheap and scratchy, something that should have been left at the thrift store.
“Uptown Funk” only grazes the top of this sound Ronson has crafted. The muffled vocal track of “Summer Breaking” from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and the melancholic pairing of guitar and piano create that anti-pastiche yearning for a place and time never experienced but yet are so familiar. “In Case of Fire” is infectious in the way that “Uptown Funk” isn’t -- nine months later it will still be on your Current Rotation playlist. “Crack in the Pearl Pt. II” has a harmonica line that might have sparked another copyright infringement case, this time from the Stevie Wonder camp, had Ronson not pulled in Stevie Wonder himself to record it.
Hiding underneath the multi-decade musical-influence and shoulder pads is a man with his finger on the pulse of not only what worked in the past but what will be a success in the present, a man with the knowall and charm to pull the right forces together to create that right sound. For the past decade we’ve waited for Ronson to find the balance and his own distinct sound, to claim it as his own and not let others get the credit for it. Now that he’s found it, let’s hope he never loses it.
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