On Blurred Lines and Agency

“Oh no, another Blurred Lines thinkpiece, God, why?” Good question. I’ve had it kicking around in my head for the past few days. Really, it has less to do with the song, and more to do with agency in music.

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Look, I will readily admit that Blurred Lines has all the ingredients of a catchy song. The Michael Jackson sample is a welcome interjection, and no one is a bigger fan of agogo bells than me. The single is the result of a gradual personality shift on the part of Robin Thicke. For a dude whose biggest brush with success was the female adoration single “Lost Without U” seven years ago, he’s developed from a more sensitive Timberlake-lite crooner to a prototypical Pop&B singer more concerned with intoxication than morality.

The problems I have with Blurred Lines are numerous. Perhaps most important of these is that the song is so goddamn boring. I’ve heard it hundreds of times before, executed with more nuance and musicianship. From Miguel to Jeremih to Timberlake, there are more capable singers making the same type of music with more interesting and pleasing results. I might hate The Weeknd and how every song of his seems to imply date rape, but musically, they’re at least interesting.

This song is some shit that 2002 Pharrell would be ashamed to produce. There are no layers. There is no sophistication. It’s a reworking of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” without the fun (read: disco). It’s a simple song that has its place, but it’s like drinking tap water. It just tastes funny. I’m willing to forgive a lot of things if the music is good enough, but for all the issues it presents, Blurred Lines is not on the receiving end of this forgiveness.

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Now, on to the meat. A lot has been said about the “rapey” vibe that the song gives off. It seems like most of the people who point this out are resigned to a deluge of responses like “it’s just a song,” or “you’re not even a woman so why do you care” in my case. Well, tough shit. (Sidenote: why does the gender matter? Rape is rape. Qualifying evil just gives it room to breathe.) The song is rapey, and far more subtly than it appears to be. The lyric in question, “I know you want it,” is repeated several times in the hook. Big deal, right? Right. Which of these three lines is the most offensive to you?

“Told that bitch give me head, ocho cinco” - French Montana, “Ocho Cinco”

“Stop talking that shit, and suck a nigga dick for some Trukfit” - Lil Wayne, “Pop That”

“I know you want it, I know you want it, I know you want it” - Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines” 

The first one, an awful play on words concerning oral sex and Chad Johnson’s headbutting of his ex-wife, is bad. The second, a demand for oral sex in return for overpriced designer skateboarding gear (any price is too much), is just as bad. They’re both demanding sex acts from women in incredibly crass ways. The third, however, is the worst. It completely removes the implied woman’s agency.

Because Robin Thicke knows this woman want to have sex with him, her right of choice is stripped from her. In its repetition, Thicke tries to convince the woman that she does indeed want him, regardless of what she actually believes. It’s a rapist’s mantra: convince yourself she wants you, convince her she wants you, and if that doesn’t work, just keep telling her until she “sees the light.” This is basically how that conversation would go:

“I know you want it.”

“Wow. Uh, no, I’m–”

“I know you want it.”

“Look, asshole, I don’t want anything.”

“*steps in front of exit* I know you want it.

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I’m not condoning the message or the intent of the previous two lines, by the way. They’re still gross. But at least in French and Wayne’s lines, these women are implicitly granted the ability to say “no, fuck you” and walk away. Yeezus has been receiving a lot of criticism for seemingly misogynistic lines like “put my fist in her like the civil rights sign.” To assume this is patently offensive assumes that said woman did not want this act to occur. It may be taboo to some, but there’s no implication of a loss of agency. French and Wayne attempt to take away that agency, but there’s an escape hatch for the women. They spit the line and leave it be. Thicke returns to it and his skeezy insistence surpasses their vulgarity.

Thicke himself has done little to assure people that he’s not a complete loss. In regard to such criticism, Thicke responds “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.’“ That’s some slimy, greaseball shit that I want no part of. He’s saying “hey, I’m not an asshole, I just play one when it’s convenient. Also, I’m an asshole.”

Then we look at the video for the song. It’s simplistic and artful, if your definition of simplicity and art is “half-naked women barely moving while fully-clothed men ogle them for three and a half minutes.” The director of the video, Diane Martel, lingers awkwardly on the semi-clothed women while Thicke and his compatriots do their best to treat them like lawn gnomes with tits, using them as decoration until they want something to look at or whisper “seductively” to. They use them as bottle openers, cigarette lighters, dog sitters, but never as actual people. They’re sex objects, plain and simple, with no redeeming qualities. Not even T.I.’s hilarious soft-shoeing can distract from the intensely creepy vibes that the video gives out.

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If only that was all. The totally-not-degrading pair of Thicke and Martel also came up with a cutting-edge marketing push: why don’t we shoot the exact same chauvinistic, objectifying bullshit again, but this time, MORE TITS! Yes, there are two versions: one where the girls are wearing flesh colored two pieces, and another where they’re wearing half of those flesh-colored two pieces. If you didn’t get the point the first time, here it is again: women are toys. Use them for whatever you want, it’s not important, they’re here to Cater 2 U.

Finally, we reach the conclusion. So struck with these intensely original visuals and such an innocuously fun song, megamusicorporation Beats by Dre decided to hop on board, launching a massive marketing campaign for their new Beats Pill on the strength of the Thicke record. Naturally, they recorded some TV spots with it, and what was the result?

Dildos.

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Lots and lots of dildos.

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Dildos as far as the eye can see.

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Complete with the hashtag #UWANTIT (women aren’t objects, but who doesn’t want to fuck an audio system?), Beats just throws a bunch of phallic imagery at you. Look at how they strain to lift those dick speakers. Look at how shockingly large/small/whatever they are. Look at how the dick elegantly caresses the small of this woman’s back. Buy the Pill now, and they won’t know HOW to say no to your charming self!

Now, I can’t lay the blame entirely at Thicke’s feet. He has to promote his record somehow, and sex sells to the masses. Nor do I blame Martel/the directorial decision necessarily, although it certainly could have taken a tone different from a pop “Monster.” I don’t think Beats bears any responsibility for perpetuating the phallocracy. (Although, c’mon guys. Dick stereos. How wasn’t that focus-grouped out.)

The fault lies in society’s tacit acceptance of mediocre bullshit. In this age, the proliferation of thinkpieces and editorials is a welcome start on a road towards less shit. For all the grief people get for writing these pieces, at least they’re doing something against things they perceive to be wrong. From the hands of a few bloggers, the subtext of a really off-putting song was brought to light. That’s power. Even if you don’t think your opinion means anything, it can mean a lot to the right person. So don’t be afraid to speak your piece. It might prevent stupidity like Blurred Lines from gracing the top of the charts.

It might.

–Will