Why all the whining over Blurred Lines?
The hysteria over Robin Thicke’s hit shows PC has colonised every area of life.
The amount of ink that continues to be spilt over Robin Thicke’s R&B smash ‘Blurred Lines’ is frankly astounding. Released in March, and having gone to number one in 40 countries, this slightly lewd come-hither anthem has been railed against time and again by enraged cultural commentators. It’s been deemed ‘rapey’, ‘creepy’, and accused of carrying a ‘hefty undertow of sexual violence’. Its rampant success even led one particularly irate Vice writer to call into question the ‘future wellbeing of half of the global population’.
There has been a shrill outpouring of shock and horror from reactionary lefties, feminists and rape-culture theorists. They’re especially mad at the video for ‘Blurred Lines’, or, more accurately, videos, which show a dapper Thicke, producer Pharrell Williams and rapper TI cavorting with three nubile models. In the unrated version, said honeys appear wearing nothing but flesh-coloured thongs and vacant, supposedly permissive expressions in response to Thicke’s less than gentlemanly chat-up line, ‘You know you want it’.
The outcry has gone on and on; hardly a month passes without professional offence-seekers creating another faux-controversy over ‘Blurred Lines’. The song’s ongoing chart domination has caused some observers to turn on consumers, too, accusing them of sacrificing the gains of gender equality at the altar of an ‘insidiously catchy tune’.
Then, of course, there was Thicke’s performance with Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. The former Disney princess donned a ‘nude’ bikini and twerked on Thicke’s crotch, leading journos to let out a collective ‘I told you so’ as Thicke’s malevolent influence on young females was apparently being played out before our eyes. Six months since ‘Blurred Lines’ was released, the hysteria shows no sign of letting up, with news breaking yesterday that the University of Edinburgh students’ union has banned the song from being played in any of its buildings.
What is this fury about ‘Blurred Lines’ really all about? It can’t simply be that the song is, allegedly, misogynistic. Because actually it is incredibly tame by modern pop and R&B standards. Thicke’s attempt to ‘liberate’ a ‘good girl’ with the powers of his penis smacks of little more than macho hubris, not a nonchalance towards female consent. Over the past few years, alternative R&B singer The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye), has shot to the top of critics’ choice lists with a string of releases far raunchier than ‘Blurred Lines’, all documenting his depraved, strung-out antics – plying groupies with drugs and bedding them as a means of keeping his spirits up during a nasty comedown.
Also, the video for ‘Blurred Lines’ is hardly shocking. As sites like YouTube and Vevo have become the music video’s primary medium, nudity – for hip hop and R&B in particular – has become commonplace. Thicke’s cartoonish, Benny Hill-esque offering is nowhere near as leery as the crotch-shot-strewn strip club scenes of others. Indeed, it is markedly more self-aware than most: the silver balloons spelling out ‘ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK’ at the end of the video seem to poke fun knowingly at the over-egged machismo.
This all raises the question of why this one crooner and his jaunty single have been so vilified, constantly dragged out for a good moralistic kicking.
Of course, hip hop, with which R&B is so often conflated, has been criticised before, from Nelly’s infamous ‘Tip Drill’ video to the recent controversy over Miami rapper Rick Ross’s blithe reference to date rape in one of his verses. But such criticism usually emanates from within the hip-hop community itself, with socially conscious rappers like Talib Kweli or hip-hop intellectuals like Tricia Rose doing all the brow-furrowing. In relation to Thicke, though, everyone’s at it. The reason? Because Thicke is white.
Flanked in his much-maligned video by two of hip hop’s biggest stars, his lyrics strewn with all the usual vernacular, white Thicke has merely become a proxy target for a cultural elite that would really like to lay into black hip-hop culture, but feels that it can’t. Through Thicke, observers made uncomfortable by black hip-hop culture can unleash all their pent-up disdain for swaggering, lustful, ‘rapey’ rappers and R&B stars, who they daren’t criticise for fear of being branded racist. Like Elvis before him – another radio-friendly pillager of vibrant black music whose wanton sexuality shocked God-fearing American conservatives – Thicke is seen as the embodiment of the supposedly pernicious influence of black culture on buttoned-up society. The well-connected white feminists and commentators attacking Thicke are really getting their longstanding hatred of sexist hip hop off their chests, in a seemingly safe, PC, non-racist fashion.
The idea that ‘Blurred Lines’ underlines a deep-seated culture of sexism is preposterous. In fact, what the controversy about this song really exposes is the extent to which virtually every area of life has now been colonised by bourgeois notions of decency. We’re now in a situation where even pop music, traditionally the realm of harmless frivolity, is set upon by the politically correct in an effort to cleanse it of any potentially corrupting elements – in this case the lechery of hip hop and R&B culture. This blurring of the lines between our everyday interactions – in which we should rightly abstain from bragging to women about the size of our todgers – and our cultural lives – in which we can surely engage in some escapism and fun – is the real scandal in all this.
Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked. He is chairing the Battle of Ideas debate, ‘Taking the rap: Hip hop, R&B and social responsibility‘, at the Barbican Centre on Sunday 20 October.