Columns

Robin Thicke’s ultra-problematic (and problematically catchy) single, ‘Blurred Lines’

Hey, you guys! Your summer jam is probably rapey and gross!

I’m talking about Robin Thicke, of course, and his ultra-problematic (and problematically catchy) single, “Blurred Lines.” The title itself is a master class in subtlety.

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When I say problematically catchy, I mean that a lot of people loved the song so much  they didn’t catch (or chose to ignore) the misogyny rife within — until, of course, THAT VIDEO came out. Described as “a disturbing wonderland of male privilege,” by CBC Music’s Andrea Warner in this excellent analysis, the clip features naked models in flesh coloured thongs, dancing around a (fully suited, natch) Thicke, canoodling with PETTING ZOO ANIMALS. Which makes it truly horrendous when Thicke sings, “OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you/But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature/Just let me liberate you/You don’t need no papers.” This whole video IS about domestication/women’s bodies as playthings/degradation.

In her piece, Warner also points to Rick Ross’ “U.O.E.N.O.” — which includes such barftastic rape culture-enforcing bon mots as: “Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it” — and Kanye West’s new single “On Sight”  — which includes the following love poem to his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian: “Took her to the ‘Bleau, she tried to sip the fountain/ That when David Grutman kicked her out/ But I got her back in and put my dick in her mouth” (Aw. Who said romance was dead?) — as examples of “a new kind of misogyny, a deliberate and task-oriented degradation and objectification of women that’s far more disturbing than the casual, inherent misogyny of generations past.”

I completely co-sign that, but I’d also add that the casual, inherent misogyny of generations past is also VERY DISTURBING in that it has completely desensitized a generation to this “new” (but really old) brand of misogyny. Yeezus et. all are young guys who grew up respecting their mamas. These are young guys who should know better. And yet, as Warner also points out, they still feel it’s their right to degrade women, perhaps because popular music has always a long legacy of degrading women. Which makes it very easy to hide behind excuses like Because music! or Because art! or Because creative expression!

A listening public has also been desensitized to it — see: the collective shoulder shrug of “that’s just the way it is” or “don’t listen to it, then.” The Rick Ross example is an extreme because the outcry was measurable. Other examples, like Kanye and Thicke, are still pretty easy to ignore — and ignore them people have; “Blurred Lines” continues to dominate charts and Yeezus is a critical darling that will doubtless top Best of 2013 lists. In other words, we’re disgusted — we’re just not disgusted enough to stop consuming it.

No one likes it when their favourite song/band/artist is criticized for being misogynistic because they think it’s a reflection of them. As an obsessive music fan, I get that; what you listen to and who you are feel inextricably linked. But instead of acknowledging the problem like grown ups — “Yes, this song has issues but I still like it and I will probably do squats to it at the gym at some point” — many people jump on the defensive: “I doubt these guys ACTUALLY hate women,” or “chill out, it’s just a song.” Well, no. Songs, like anything else pertaining to culture, do not exist in a vacuum.

Pro-tip from me to you, Robin Thicke apologists: listening to a song that’s inherently misogynistic doesn’t make you a misogynist or a shitty person. You know what DOES make you a shitty person? Pretending that misogyny/rape culture doesn’t exist so you can enjoy your summer club jam.

Jen Zoratti blogs about feminism and pop culture at SCREAMINGINALLCAPS.com and writes about music in a variety of other places. Follow her on Twitter @JenZoratti.

 

 

  • Sparky

    I’ve read a few articles criticizing this song. I think the criticisms ring true for the most part, and I never found it terribly catchy to begin with.

    Still, I thought I would point out that every article I’ve read uses the same misquote, “I tried to domesticate you,” to make its point.

    In fact, the actual line is: “HE tried to domesticate you, but you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature.” This line is followed by the lines, “Just let me liberate you. You don’t need no papers. That man is not your maker.”

    Again, I’m not arguing that the correct lyrics are any less sexist than the misquote, but they are definitely a more complicated sexism than what is presented by articles like this one. All these articles make it sound as if Thicke is vaunting the joys of domesticating women, when clearly these lyrics actually claim that he wants to liberate them from domestication and allow them to embrace their animal sexuality.

    Characterizing women as repressed nymphs who need a well-dressed male saviour to come out of the wilderness and liberate them from the shackles of domestication is definitely problematic, so don’t nobody go calling me a “Thicke apologist.” All I’m saying as that the similarities between the misquotes and criticisms in this article and others seem to imply that a lot of people are getting their info about this song from poorly researched critical articles rather just listening to it for themselves.

    • Jen Zoratti

      This column has been edited; you’re not the only one who noticed it the misquote.

      For my part, it was a mishear — a mishear that was reinforced by other things I had read. For that, I certainly apologize.

      Still, I think my point remains the same. For me it’s not more complicated; still just garden-variety sexism. Basically, we need MEN to liberate us from OTHER MEN. Still gross.

      And that wasn’t really the point of this piece. The point of this piece was to illustrate how insidious misogyny has impacted music.

      • Sparky

        Well said.

        • Jen Zoratti

          Thanks for engaging! I always appreciate critical thought/debate/being called out on factual inaccuracies. (I’m being sincere.)

  • Baby Ears

    I really appreciate the end of your article. It’s so easy to get defensive. I really liked this song but always had it too low to actually listen (baby in the back). I’ll be listening now! or not, because I really don’t want my daughter to start her “music listening career” with stuff like this.
    So thanks. I actually feel empowered (and mindful).

    • Jen Zoratti

      Thank YOU for the kind words.

  • Spence Furby

    I’ve got two things to say about this column. First, it’s likely that some people enjoy the songs partly because of the sexist content, not in spite of it.

    Thing is, enjoying the macho lyrics and music of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones or Kanye doesn’t make me macho or sexist anymore than watching a movie about a psychopath makes me one.

    Still, there’s people who want to take the play-acting out of music, the artifice out of art.

    Second, Sparky’s comment is more interesting than the column. Thicke is posing as the liberator of the woman. He’s showing her the way out of her domestic cage.

    Many men like that shit. They like to be the one to let the woman express herself.

    I’m sure the idea of finding a man who will help liberate her sexuality is appealing to many women too. Of course, the idea of needing another to liberate us is not just sexist — it’s part of the romantic ideal.

    Get rid of art, get rid of romance. Then we’ll be safe and we won’t need anyone.

    • Jen Zoratti

      Yeah, people enjoy weird shit. I can’t explain the ways of people. It’s not for me to judge. You do you.

      “Thicke is posing as the liberator of the woman. He’s showing her the way out of her domestic cage.”

      “They like to be the one to let the woman express herself.” LET!

      Yup. Both pretty sexist ideas — and, if we’re taking art, both VERY well-worn tropes. Sexist ideas can certainly turn someone on — but that doesn’t make them any less sexist. See: my last paragraph. Even if you like a song BECAUSE it’s sexist (which, K), my point is the same: you can’t explain away the culture surrounding it. Still sexist.

      Also, “I’m not a misogynist I just play-act one on TV” is a weak argument.

      • Spence Furby

        My partner helps me express a part of myself that wouldn’t be expressed without her.

        I must be in the dark ages or something.

        • Kayla Jeanson

          The implication is that women need sexual liberation from men, that we cannot liberate ourselves. He is not liberating himself, and neither is she.

          I see what you are saying, though, Spence. Maybe it’s because there are a handful of women in the video that Thicke is singing to (or maybe he sings to none of them?) that we extend his lyrics to women in general. So many pop songs do that – talk about “you” in a general sense. So, it becomes easy to criticize his lyrics, because they seem to be directed at no one, and therefore at women in general.

  • Lexi

    Alright, so I’m posting this comment because I need some insight. Robin Thicke has addressed Black women in terms of his wife, his love for Black women and men, and even why Black women can’t find a good Black man. So when I hear this song, as a Black woman it makes me very uncomfortable because it sounds like a racist man who occasionally likes to have sex with Black women. Lines like “you’re an animal” and “you don’t need no papers” just make me feel really uncomfortable. Does anyone else understand/feel the same/have any explanations?