My older sister has always provided me with musical gems that I’d have been oblivious to on my own. She had ‘discovered’ John Mayer with the rest of the world a day introduced me to the airy sweetness of ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’, the angst ‘Heartbreak Warfare’ and his earlier polemic ‘Waiting On The World To Change’. From her playlists I heard Leann Rimes covering Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ and more recently, she and Rihanna asked me to Stay. And then one day mid last year I heard Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines coming out her phone’s tinny speakers, the song that was drawing stinging rebukes for counts of misogyny, sexism and advocating ‘rape culture’.
Since it hit the records last year July claiming to be a fun summer hit, the ire that Blurred lines has attracted from critics, notably feminists has led to no less than 22 universities slapping blanket bans on the song on campuses in the UK. So was my sister complicit in encouraging sexism, misogyny and rape by insisting on listening to Blurred Lines?
Let’s examine the syntax of the song that has made up most of the heat for the aggrieved counts of felony, by blogosphere jurisprudence at least (the rest went toward Blurred Lines’ provocative video). The initial furor over the lyrics is fairly understandable: the lines: “You’re an animal/Baby it’s in your nature/Just let me liberate you” and “Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you/ he don’t smack that a** and pull your hair like that” pronounced Robin Thicke’s arrival as the antithesis to the effete, self-conscious man; he’s arrogantly sure of himself in a way the sensitive man attuned to the rivalry of power between the sexes cannot afford to be.
The refrain “I know you want/…the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty” is what carries this outrageous song beyond the language of sex and persuasion, refusal and rebuttal, kinks and taboos, into the realm of sexual politics that feminists desperately wish to be un-opaque, explicit and simple.
The blogger Lisa June has said, “Call me a cynic but that phrase [“blurred lines”] does not exactly encompass the notion of consent in sexual activity.” This is a reasonable claim; the words blurred lines can provoke the image of sleazy old men with sticky fingers being pummeled or led away in handcuffs decrying, “But it seemed like she wanted it!” For American feminists, it is this swift connection to the acquaintance rape ‘epidemic’ at university campuses in the US in the 1990s that has powered the move to ban the song on campuses for fear of distressing rape victims and to ‘shut down myths and stereotypes around sexual violence’, says the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. I’ve always thought of universities as the ultimate space for conflicting liberties, and also the place for reconciling them, free from the administration’s blanket disapproval to shape discourse, and yet at Edinburgh University among others, a student union is carrying out the censoring, taking the lead usually left to the administration in this dystopic repression of free speech.
Robin Thicke himself has somewhat ineffective in his defense of the song’s title, justifying ‘blurred lines’ as putting men and women on equal grounds, though I can see a fair explanation under the gaucherie of his statements to the press. Still, you’d really think the songwriter of such a presciently outrageous song would prepare his media statements before he led with that. Diane Martel, the video’s director has claimed that all power in the video, which features all but nude models prancing around with the fully dressed Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the song’s co-writer, belongs to the women and that the song is simply about silly, ridiculous fun.
The nudity of the women has unsurprisingly drawn outrage for their “objectification”- which has to be the most overplayed word in the sexual pundits’ politically correct lexicon. Not only is it overdone but it is also complex, capacious and strangely compelling; it draws the user to it again and again once they’ve crossed that threshold of recognizing and confronting sexism, but as the indignant utterer continues to use the word, the distinctions between indignation and puritanical censure will inevitably be erased.
I think that the blurred lines that Thicke repudiates, “hates”, is that heady frustrating feeling two people experience when navigating sexual tension but communication isn’t stellar, it lacks much for transparency, and it seems like there’s a duality at present, an elephant in the space between them that mocks over-cautiousness and colours half plays with the stain of blush. This feeling that there are two languages being communicated, one verbal and its darker, nascent twin, is what Robin Thicke meant, as anyone who’s ever flirted with sex and unconsciously and subconsciously signalled mutual consent without ever explicitly stating so at every stage, should know is so, so ordinary. This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for such frank conversation between two people in this situation; it’s even welcome (sometimes) but in most sexual and social situations, it’s in a definite minority.
Needless to say, navigating these pathways can be nerve-wracking for the unsure and the uninitiated but much, too much of the US’s and UK’s national dialogues on sexual consent and relations, which most developing countries inadvertently import, blatantly ignores the agency and personal freedoms of individuals (more the adult women than men) in their haste to apply bureaucratic, formulaic definitions to sex. If the song’s number 1 stay on the charts in numerous countries is anything to go by, there are hundreds of millions, and surely there are some women in there, who don’t share the opinion of the track’s critics, yet feminists have always berated women for what they see as their giving up of autonomy and complicity in their own ‘objectification.’ It’s a particular blend of arrogance and out-of-touchness in a movement that I’ve always had much respect for that could lead to such crude blanket censorship and constant politically correct policing that feminism stands for today.
Blurred Lines is not a lyrically remarkably song though it is ridiculously catchy and I like it all the more for being provocative and for rattling fragile sensibilities.