The Thicke of It

You would have to have been on a self imposed media blackout to miss the furore over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. A quick google will throw up national newspaper articles, blog posts from those disgusted by the song discussing dancefloor sit-ins and requests to radio stations to delist the song, and subsequently the ever to be expected backlash in defence of Thicke’s cod-funk summer anthem.

I’m not particularly interested in making a value judgement – musical, culturally or otherwise – on the song, its detractors, or even its detractors’ detractors. I am also not interested in the scale of the response from those at odds with the political decisions around banning the song in venues up and down the country, or whether this constitutes a valid way in which to instigate a safe space policy. What has captured my attention is bound up in one of the frequently heard criticisms of feminist responses to Thicke:

“There are hundreds of other songs that are sexist and misogynistic, I don’t see you banning The Rolling Stones or Eminem, ‘feminists’!”

Stepping away from some of the more politically implicit conclusions here – that it is somehow hypocritical to not campaign over every sexist song that hits the charts, that sexism is rife in society and thus will be present in popular culture etc etc – there is a core question that deserves some exploration.

Lets not overintellectualise this. That some feminists might be a wee bit up in arms about a song that centres its entire message around the ‘blurred lines’ of consent isn’t exactly unwarranted. That such a blatant message might stand out in a sea of samey songs from boy bands about creepy love crush type things, or the scores and scores of stalker songs that people seem to play at their weddings, is hardly rocket science, or indeed popular musicology. Yet there are still some interesting issues to explore around the reception of Blurred Lines. So why Blurred Lines? Why now?

The ‘why now?’ is relatively simple to answer in that, over the past ten years or so, with the advent of mass online interaction tools from MySpace (lol) to twitter and facebook, politically engaged young people have been able to come together and formulate positions and arguments on a broader scale than ever before. These nascent political movements are also disseminated into the public sphere in a far greater scattering of attention than ever, which is why the Daily Mail now consists of at least 50% of stories made up of copy-pastes from Twitter. Further to this, young women in particular who through these forms of political organising adhere to particular schools of feminist thought – particularly intersectional third wave feminism – are being increasingly elected into positions of power not only in places like Students’ Unions, which run a huge number of social spaces ergo being able to ban songs, but also into local and national electoral positions. As a result, their voices are brought together in a critical mass, are able to be heard and, key to the media attention, able to make change. Whether the tactics around banning the song are effective or warranted are a different conversation and not one I’m interested in exploring here.

Meanwhile, popular songs of the past with similarly dodgy subject matter – from The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar to My Sharona by The Knack – enjoy a retro nostalgia value that places them at a distance to political messaging within the text. This is not to argue that popular music loses its potency with age, but rather that affective responses to popular music texts are almost always anchored in the now and in the contemporary. An excellent example of this at work is The Sex Pistols’ reissue of God Save The Queen for the recent Jubilee. Despite the ability to promote any song into the charts through digital sales alone over the past decade, the single required the act of ‘the reissue’ in order to render it politically relevant and present in the contemporary public arena.

In light of this, what we are able to limit ourselves to is contemporary popular music of the past 5 years or so, as texts that have existed in a political context where those at odds with their message are in any way empowered and/or voiced to raise these issues. So why Blurred Lines? The first point I want to make is that, actually, in the arena that we’re talking about – of mainstream pop hits – Blurred Lines does actually sit off on its own to some extent, in the levels at which it explicitly demonstrates a dominant male (hetero)sexuality, explicitly dominant white male sexuality. (If anyone can give me an equivalent example I would welcome it, however after a very unscientific afternoon of facebook posts from a broad range of friends, I’m still yet to see anything that shares these qualities with Blurred Lines.)

However, I think there are some more interesting dimensions of class and race that remain little discussed around the track, yet play out heavily in its reception. Specifically, I believe it is Thicke himself, presented as a middle class, besuited middle aged white man both within the video and the text of the song, and the intrinsic relationship between the genre of music he is creating and his persona, that makes Blurred Lines as divisive as it clearly is. Key to this is how Thicke juxtaposes his presentation of a respectful middle class whiteness with codes and performative gestures of a now mostly retroactive working class black musical movement – funk. While funk has spawned huge numbers of genres from hip-hop to acid jazz, Blurred Lines’ stripped down backing track, with its references to both Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ and Funkadelic’s ‘Sexy Ways’, is clearly rooted in the 1970s albeit with an electronic instrumentation more fitting for 2013. The comparisons don’t stop there, with Thicke’s vocal delivery, particularly his trading between chest voice and falsetto register, pulled straight from both Gaye and Clinton. In utilising funk’s musical characteristics, Thicke also leans on some of its lyrical riffs. Yet a ‘baby girl’ from Marvin Gaye, besides being culturally relative to, ooh, near enough 40 years ago, still doesn’t spawn the same sense of revulsion as Thicke’s ‘good girl’ of the Summer. Why is that?

A white middle class man, the son of a Canadian TV presenter, Thicke is an outcast in a style and genre not of his own. Oh for it to be the case that Robin Thicke is the only white artist to mercilessly appropriate blackness for their own devilish aims. Any poor soul who has had the misfortune of listening to Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl, amongst the HUNDREDS of other artists that have done this, know this not to be the case. What renders it particularly relevant around the reception to Blurred Lines, however, is two things – firstly, how this serves to reinforce colonial notions of power and domination that operate within the song, but also, the KNOWINGNESS within the entire text. Unlike Elvis, or The Bee Gees, or Adele or countless other artists who do it really quite well and develop extensive careers out of it, Thicke chooses not to obscure his appropriation, instead making use of his self-aware pastiche of funk to render an uneasiness within the track that is, well frankly, a bit creepy. And unlike Andre, or the sad chaps mocked at http://whitepeoplerappingpoorly.tumblr.com/, who are just unwittingly doing it so wrong that its torturous, Thicke’s knowingness weaves back into the narrative around the song to reinforce his position of power.

This power dynamic is the core of what makes Blurred Lines so uncomfortable to watch and listen to. It is the basis of all discussions around consent, and it is consciously manipulated within the context of the track. This construct of Thicke’s ultimate position of superiority and power is placed clearly on show within the opening shots of the video, with Thicke, and later Pharrell Williams &TI, fully clothed in smart suits suggestive of power and status juxtaposed against young women in sheer skin coloured underwear, presented as effectively naked but for high heeled shoes – reminiscent of pornography.  In the opening verse, Thicke’s falsetto is backed by a stripped down funk bassline and Thicke and William’s call and response hollering, addressed at an unknown or unknown girl(s). In Thicke’s own words – “[Pharrell] and I would go back and forth where I’d sing a line and he’d be like, “Hey, hey, hey!” We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, “Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!” That’s why, in the video, we’re doing all these old men dances. It was great”. See? Knowingness. A George Michael for the Hollaback generation if you will. The lyric is bare and upfront – positioning it first and foremost in the listener’s mind. This positioning, and Thicke’s vocal phrasing, for example the drawn out  ‘girl’ of ‘good girl’ in a high head voice, extending over the bar, leading into the stacatto “I know you want it” in increasingly dropping chest voice, suggestive of hypermasculinity, ensures that the meaning of the lyric is centralised and to be understood.

Nowhere is this knowingness more at play than in the first verse of the song, when Thicke sings, “let me liberate you”. An explicit reference to the language of the women’s liberation movement, it is this line that places the listener with no doubt to Thicke’s self-aware narrative within the lyric. “That man is not your maker”, states Thicke, who in interview has pointed toward this as an example of how Blurred Lines can be taken as a feminist anthem. Right… What is implicit, of course, in this exchange, followed by “I’m gonna take a good girl”, is that we are in fact trading the concept of ownership of this ‘good girl’ between Thicke and her current gentleman suitor. That man isn’t your maker, sweetheart, I am. Mrs Pankhurst would be turning in her grave.

Later on, it is absolutely clear within the chorus that while ‘Blurred Lines’ may well point to the muddy moral waters of flirting with a woman who has a partner, they also refers to blurred lines of consent, neatly packaging the “no means yes” rhetoric of early modern caveman into a funky pop beat. “I hate these blurred lines/ I know you want it but you’re a good girl…” with “no more pretending/cause now you’re winning/here’s our beginning” in the final verse both confirming that within the life of the song, nothing has yet to happen between Thicke and his “hottest bitch”, and also that he’s not beyond recycling the lines of ‘nice guy’ creepers everywhere. (Rumours that the B-side has Thicke calling her a frigid lesbian when she continues to refuse his advances are seemingly exaggerated).

I have expressly kept away from both Pharrell William’s and TI’s contribution to Blurred Lines. It is here I think we see further how it is Thicke himself that creates the tension around the track. In N.E.R.D.’s 2004 hit, “She Wants To Move”, Pharrell tells us all about a girl who has an ass like a spaceship that he wants to ride, whose mister has a girl who loves it. It’s almost identical in its narrative – boy meets girl, girl has another boy, boy addresses song at other boy objectifying girl. Yet, far from eliciting the response of Blurred Lines, She Wants To Move joins a canon of hip-pop hits alongside beloved of drunk white people everywhere. Even taking into account the political climate, why didn’t that cause as much (if any) controversy? There are two underlying assumptions. That hip-hop, and more specifically music made by black men, will be sexist and misogynistic and that, in the context in which it operates, Pharrell’s cheeky track about riding ass is nothing in comparison to those mean gangsta types singing about tricks and hos. This relies on the second underlying assumption, an understanding of Pharrell and other black hip hop stars as unknowing – as being unaware of the constructs that surround sexism, misogyny and objectification. While Thicke stands as a predator, Pharrell comes across as the jester, marrying yet more colonial understandings of blackness this time with constructions of black men as ignorant and uneducated.

Looking and sounding more like Michael Buble’s creepy Uncle after a few too many all night parties, Thicke’s vocal delivery, voice grain and performance style sit uncomfortably with the listener. They remind the listener that Thicke is appropriating and colonising a sanitised version of a genre far from his experience, and thus reinforce the domination expressed within the entire text. Stood next to Pharrell, Thicke creates a knowingly colonial persona aware of this positioning. It is the knowing nod, his understanding his position from a lofty educated perspective, that creates the tension between “standard pop hit” and “lets sit down on the dancefloor until security move us on”. That Blurred Lines is an exceptionally crafted piece of uncomfortable listening is without question. That other songs are similarly problematic and yet do not face such scrutiny is rooted in a number of issues – namely an insidious form of racial understanding that both lends Thicke his power and stereotypes and stigmatises black artists, operating as a mask for the “nice” objectification and misogyny of the likes of Scouting for Girls and Alt-J. If you ask people to name modern-day misogynistic lyrics, they will likely pull from a pool of two broad genres – hip hop and metal, so rooted are creepy pop lyrics in our understandings of romantic love.

I will end my ramblings in Thicke’s own words. “We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.’ People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’”

What rhymes with hug me? – http://whatrhymeswithhug.me/

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