Stand up comedian - improviser - writer
  • Should I Feel Bad About Liking Robin Thicke?

    Sat 31 Aug 2013  ·  4:56AM

    Since I first heard the song in June (2013, following Thicke’s appearance on the Graham Norton show), I’ve been pondering the question “is it ok to like Blurred Lines?” at least once a week.

    It’s an interesting debate, forced into being by the video’s nudity content, and an unfortunate interpretation of the lyrics; my general instinct throughout life is that it’s not ok to subjugate women, and yet this catchy, catchy tune makes it very difficult to dislike the song.

    Having spent so much time thinking about it, this week I finally had the opportunity to engage in an online debate about it; admittedly, not the ideal debate – I only found out afterwards that the person I was arguing against was a teenaged American girl. Had I known this from the beginning, I’d probably not have bothered, but in retrospect, this did explain why she’d twice changed the issue she was arguing over in order to avoid defeat, and when I’d countered her final effort, she claimed she didn’t “have time to read so many paragraphs about why [her] opinion is wrong.”

    Honestly! Why enter the debate if you’re not going to see it through?! Anyway, with her having stormed back off to the corner of the internet where no-one challenges her opinion (and presumably having declared the argument a draw – I admit it’s possible I’m being equally childish about this) I suddenly found that I’d written a mid-sized essay on the song in question, and what follows is a tidied up version of that.

    The initial debate began with a parody version of the song, produced by a group called Mod Carousel. The video for which can be found here.

    The argument was that this version is designed to show men how ridiculous the original looks from a female perspective*. Except, I don’t believe it does do that. The real problem with Mod Carousel’s version is that it isn't actually clear which side of the gender-debate it's meant to be on.

    Certainly, the presumption is to say "they're showing how ridiculous the video would look if the genders were reversed", except that what's depicted is not an accurate reversal.

    By having the men featured here be in the same state of undress and level of make up as the girls in the original, yes, they do look ridiculous. The problem is that the fantasised ideal of the girls portrayed in Robin Thicke's version doesn’t look ridiculous; they look like the fantasised ideal.

    Had the original version been sung by women, and the video had featured "hunky", muscle-bound men in tight briefs dancing around them, no-one would've batted an eye-lid, and we wouldn’t be having the debate. It's an odd double standard in society that male upper-body/posterior nudity is perfectly acceptable, whereas female upper-body/posterior nudity is considered to be derogatory. Consequently, Mod Carousel couldn’t do this in their rendition, as it would just look like a group of female singers had reversed the lyrics and made their own tribute to the video. Instead, they had to take the three men appearing alongside them, and feminise their appearance to reflect the girls of the original.

    So by doing it this way, they must be commenting on how uncomfortable they find the original video, mustn’t they? Well, for me at least, that’s not entirely clear...

    You see, the lyrics of Mod Carousel's version are more or less a clean swap in gender terms, and actually make a very good song. I've got no reason to assume that you couldn't release it as a legitimate single, and see it do equally well in the charts. But consequently, this is where the initial presumption falls apart.

    If they were genuinely trying to say "here’s how uncomfortable to watch this video is", then they didn't actually need to change the lyrics at all. Swapping "you're the hottest bitch in this place" to "you're the hottest dick in this place" is the accurate lyric swap, gender-wise, but actually just highlights the fact that the original lyric is intended as a compliment, not an insult. Had they left it as "bitch", men might've found it more derogatory.

    At this point, I should say that I'm not saying the original is without fault; the rapped section with the lyric "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two" is really not ok. However, I do think if you separate the song from the video, there are far worse music videos (in terms of objectification) than this one, but they go unnoticed because the song attached wasn't as successful. I feel that a large part of this is the typical blowback that comes with success.

    Also, the girls in the video don't seem to be there against their will. They seem to be enjoying themselves and largely just being silly. Presumably, they're ok with the nudity (in fact, I know they are as I've read various tweets on the matter from Emily Ratajkowski).

    Then there’s the question of whether or not the video is intended to be art in its own right. After all, is the Venus De Milo an objectification of women? Is Michelangelo's David an objectification of men? When is nudity art, and when is nudity objectification? I read an Entertainment Weekly article in which the video's director (Diane Martel - a woman no less) said she'd wanted to film something with live nudes for a long time, and then the opportunity to direct this video came along. It was always her ARTISTIC intent to produce the video this way, and not the choice of the singers, or due to any meaning derived from the lyrics.

    (This is NOT that article, but does include some of Martel’s opinions on the controversy, and also – just so you’ve got the full picture – refers to this interview with Thicke, where he makes some seemingly unfortunate comments, which (in context) sound to me like they were said with tongue-firmly-in-cheek. Martel’s comments are definitely worth reading, as they support many of the points I’m making here.) 

    In my next show, there'll be a section about how magazines like Heat, or Now, or Closer, or whatever they're called these days (research for show pending) are actually far more damaging to women than something like Page 3, because they delight in any imperfections that a woman has shown. "Here's how to get rid of your excess weight in time for summer", "look at this female celebrity's pit-stains", "oh look, she's leaving her husband; she must be bad in bed", "10 ways to get your man's attention – and keep it", etc etc... That's surely far unhealthier for women, and actually, a far more aggressive form of objectification – designed to criticise rather than glorify.

    As I said in a previous blog, I try to be a feminist, but really, I'm an equalist. Equality requires the genders to be truly equal, and the Mod Carousel version doesn't depict an equal role reversal, as the original doesn’t seek to make the girls look ridiculous; instead, its goal is to show their beauty in its rawest form.

    Having covered the video’s intentions, the debate then moved on to the lyrics. The criticism says that the song has a creepy, subjugatory, and perhaps even rapey message, based around lyrics such as “I know you want it” and “the way you grab me; must wanna get nasty”.

    Yet I’m not convinced that this is what the song is about. Until the 32nd line, there's no lyric that makes me think anything especially dodgy is going on whatsoever.

    My degree is in Creative Writing, and as part of that, we were taught to analyse poetry line-by-line in order to decipher its meaning; if I apply those skills to this song, here is the meaning that leaps out at me:

    In the first verse, Thicke is talking to a girl, asking if he correctly understands what she’s going through, saying “this is what I know is going on with you, and it’s why you’re not happy, unless I’ve gone mad”. He then outlines what he knows; that the girl's previous partner tried to limit her to the lifestyle of a 50s housewife (“he was close; [he] tried to domesticate you”), whereas the singer is saying he knows that she can't be caged in this way; she's "an animal" and needs to be free to live her own life. Thicke even says "that man is not your maker" - he doesn't control you.

    Now, admittedly, from line 32 onwards, the distinction does become a little blurred (how ironic). From this point it does insinuate that the reason she doesn't want to be tied down is because she prefers a more physical, passionate relationship than her previous partner would have given her (and if true, what’s wrong with that?), but I'd argue that the lyrics continue to give the power to the woman. Even when the lyrics say "Must wanna get nasty", it's still followed by "Go ahead, get at me". He doesn't act on his suspicions without consent; instead, he invites her to act on her desires, on the off chance that he's correct.

    And presumably he is, because in the next verse he can't believe his luck that this beautiful woman's attracted to him, as he sings "I feel so lucky; [that] you wanna hug me".

    Even in T.I.'s rap, which I've already agreed is far from ideal in terms of its content and phrasing, he's still giving her the power – "swag on, even when dressed casual" or in other words, "you look good even when you're not trying to". "Nothing like your last guy; he too square for you" keeps to my theory that the song is about her former partner wanting a very specific, old-fashioned relationship with her. The final line of T.I.'s rap says "I'm a nice guy, but don't get it if you get with me" - he's saying, "I get that I'm a nice guy, but I really can't understand why you'd even want to be with me."

    Incredibly, what we have here is that rarest of things: a rapper with an inferiority complex.

    That brings us to the third part of the debate – what does the term "Blurred Lines" actually mean? An article by Tricia Romano, writing for TheDailyBeast.com, implies that the title refers to blurring the lines of sexual consent. But let's look at how it's applied. Given the context of the song that I've already suggested, could blurred lines actually be about self-identity? She wants to be "a good girl", but if she's true to herself, she has a wild side that she wants/needs to embrace. By trying to be both things – by trying to blur the lines of her identity - she's not being true to herself.
    "Can't let it get past me
    You're far from plastic
    Talk about getting blasted
    I hate these blurred lines."
    In other words, "I can't ignore the fact that you're not this barbie-esque housewife that he wants you to be, and it would be unfair to blast away part of yourself by trying to distort what you really want."

    Now of course, as with all literary analysis, it's possible I've thought about it more than the author ever did. But if one was writing an academic study of this song (and let's face it, I'm half way there now), if you can make the argument that that's what the song is about, then it'll be taken seriously by those reading it. Also, I know I've just taken fragments of the song to make my case, but I did read through all the lyrics in order to arrive at this conclusion, and I’d encourage you to do the same, because if you read them with this perspective in your mind, I believe it holds up to scrutiny.

    And why has Blurred Lines been singled out, anyway? It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of examples of female artists using lyrics in which the singer wants a more physical, perhaps even deviant, relationship with her partner. Off the top of my head, take Rihanna songs such as "Rude Boy" or "S&M". One is about questioning whether her partner has sufficient manhood to "get the job done" (if you will), and the other is about how she's turned on by pain (particularly alarming when you consider the history of her relationship with Chris Brown). Neither one underwent the scrutiny that Blurred Lines has undergone (perhaps because it never achieved "song of the summer" status), but are equally, if not more, damaging to easily-influenced young minds.

    I resent being put in a position where I feel bad for liking something because someone else disapproves of it. It is entirely possible that I’m completely wrong, and if someone wants to convince me so, I’d be happy to listen. I’ve noticed that a large part of the song’s defence centres around the fact that Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell are all married with kids, and therefore have been shown to respect women. However, I’ve tried to avoid that argument in this debate – choosing instead to focus on the work itself – so as to avoid the philosophy of art question; can three decent men, who respect women, create a piece of art that is derogatory towards them (it’s actually a pleasant change for the question to be that way round – usually with philosophy of art the question is “can an evil person create beautiful art?”)? Well, I don’t think they have (or, at the very least, not to the extent that people are claiming), and that’s why I’ve structured my argument in this way.

    I summed up the original debate by saying that I was glad we were even having the discussion. It's incredibly important to be sceptical of what the media tries to sell us; to analyse its product and have the debate, because it helps each of us to fully form what we believe, and our attitude to the world.

    I hope I’ve made clear in this post that I’m in no-way saying it’s ok to distort the common understanding of sexual consent; I’ve been worried about even making this post public, for fear that people would misinterpret what I’m trying to achieve here.

    I know from doing stand up that some audiences will hear certain words or phrases in my set that cause them to presume what my intent is; in that moment, they stop listening to everything else, miss the point, and sit, stewing with anger about what they THINK I’ve said – even when the actual joke has nothing to do with that. Case in point, I have a joke in my set that uses some seemingly racial buzz-words, but the joke isn’t actually about race; it’s about how frustrating it is when other people seek to define you based upon a physical characteristic (in my case, my height) – the joke’s intent is actually anti-racist. I’ve been doing it for over three years now, but once a year (on average), an individual has heard the racial language, assumed my point was racist, and taken offence at the joke. Each time it’s happened, I’ve immediately spotted it, and won them back by explaining, then and there, what the joke’s premise is meant to be. Once the context is explained, they get it (in one case, apologise for the confusion), laugh, and move on.

    There’s an extent to which I feel that the same thing has happened with the song, and I hope that by showing an alternative interpretation here, it’ll get people thinking about whether or not the meaning they’ve derived from the song is what the authors actually intended.

    So, should I feel bad about liking Blurred Lines? Well, regardless of its meaning, it’s not changed my views on how women should be treated, nor on the importance of consent, nor the value of being true to yourself, and it cheers me up when it comes on the radio. So, I don’t feel bad about liking the song, but I believe I’ve thought about it enough at this point to have earned that right.

    * If you actually read the description on the original youtube page, you'll see that's inaccurate - I only found that after writing this argument though!