Blurred Lines

Band: Robin Thicke
Album: Blurred Lines
Best song: I didn’t listen to the album.
Worst song: See above.

This piece is adapted from a series of emails, social media postings, notes and the like from the summer of 2013. I’m not enumerating anything anyone else already said more eloquently elsewhere — really, though, that’s the entire nature of this space. It this post seems dated, so be it. 

Fuck you, “Blurred Lines.” Leave me alone.

That sentiment, above, in all caps and without punctuation was expressed by the brilliant Andy Richter in late August on Twitter. It was favorited over 900 times and retweeted another 900+. I was among those retweeting it, not just because it echoed my frustration with the song, but because we all couldn’t get away from the dastardly song. It was soon after that Robin Thicke sang the song at the VMAs with Miley Cyrus — vilified much of the fall for simply being a dumb 20-year-old — after being on Stephen Colbert’s show and having Jimmy Fallon sing the song on kids’ toys.

It’s cute, certainly, but there’s something very nefarious in that song presented on children’s instruments. Specifically, it’s that chorus.

There’s precedent for “Blurred Lines” — and no, I’m not talking about the fact that the song is basically plagiarized from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” — in that songs are forgiven if they have a good beat. Chris Rock famously said in 2004’s Never Scared that “if a beat’s all right, she’ll dance all night.”

There’s a longer conversation to be had surrounding this topic; one about cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization in the human brain. Woody Allen was recently fêted at the Golden Globes and it spurred a lot of discussion about separating the man from the work. Extending that to a song echoes Rock’s line in the above video and the concept of separating the song’s content from the song’s “sound.”

I live in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in a formerly African American majority city and it’s the classic residential neighborhood in an urban setting (schools nearby, row houses, small apartment buildings, etc.). A lot of the people in my neighborhood have lived there forever and — despite the gentrification — everyone is so lovely and pleasant to one another. It’s the antithesis of the East Coast rude stereotype.

Over the summer, there was a block party in the neighborhood. A street was cordoned off, people were grilling food and music was blaring. I stopped by for a bit early in the event and walked my dog by it later the in the day. That second experience was indicative of both the joy of such an event and the frustration I have with “Blurred Lines” and all that the song entails.

It was, after all, an event with dancing in the summer of 2013. Therefore, “Blurred Lines” had to be played. It was also a block party in the middle of a Saturday, so people of all ages were there. Little kids in jumpers. Old ladies with walkers. Babies in diapers. Adults dressed like adults. And there was lots of dancing.

And they were dancing to a song with a hook that sings “I know you want it.” Little girls in their pigtails and little skirts, dancing to that song. “I know you want it.” They don’t even know what “it” is. “I know you want it.” Little girls who will grow up to be young women.

As a civilization, we do not socialize our women to be equals to men. This is not disputed, but that doesn’t make it any less awful. Social media and Google trends are treasure troves of sociological data and Slate recently wrote about the differences in how we parent our little kids. The piece’s headline really says it all: “Parents Ask Google If Their Sons Are Geniuses and If Their Daughters Are Fat.”

It speaks to the very nature of how we raise our kids. We subconsciously teach our little girls to value their looks and our little boys to value their brains and personalities. There is nothing better than for our sons to be geniuses and there is nothing worse than for our daughters to be overweight (or ugly, though that one’s a little more subjective). This, inherently, makes it so that women are more passive and are taught to be pleasers and men are taught to take what we want. Women need to look good for other people — mostly men. That is how we define them.

It’s awful and we see it in so so many places. It’s the whole “bitchy v. outspoken” thing. It’s this video of Nicki Minaj lamenting her reputation. It’s why people hated Hillary Clinton (and why she goes by Hillary Clinton in the first place, as opposed to Hillary Rodham or Hillary Rodham Clinton) in the 90s. It’s all fucking awful. We have this idea of what women need to be and it’s not just “different” than men. It’s subservient and it’s wallflower-y and it’s polite and it’s less than. And it’s horrible.

There are a lot of things that bother me about gender politics, but the way we use language to describe and socialize our kids is the one that bothers me the most. If parents fetishize a young girl’s looks, she will as well. And if parents fetisihize only a girl’s looks, she won’t value everything else like her mind or her own actual desires.

There was a thing last year about LEGO and it’s sets dedicated to girls. LEGO, in and of itself, is as gender-neutral as such a thing can come, considering our weirdo socialization of girls through toys and play. LEGO is about creativity and construction and the very nature of childish inquisitor nature. Why can’t LEGO simply put out ads featuring a girl building?

Oh, right. It did. In the fucking year I was born (1981).

“If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say”

There is nothing inherently terrible about the opening — non “hey” or “everybody get up” cliché bits of every dance track in America — lines of “Blurred Lines,” but I would argue that it — like most pop songs about sex — establishes the power dynamic. The singer is establishing within the opening lyric that he is the important actor in this little play. The woman is the opposition, in a way. Her desires are somewhat less important in this little sexual play, because she is not the one speaking.

History is written by the winners, you know?

I have three main feminism hobby horses:

  1. High heeled shoes/body hair removal
  2. Taking a man’s last name
  3. Aggression, in general, but mostly in dating

(Full disclosure: For the second and third points, it’s important to note that I’m coming from a white, straight, cisgendered perspective. I am leaving out non-straight, cis- relationships because I don’t have perspective on it in any way. For the most part, my feminism doesn’t touch on those things because of my ignorance, so I am still trying to gain information about those topics.)

The first is actually two things that can be connected under the “double standard that’s been around so long, it’s become a ‘I prefer it this way’ thing.” That more applies to the body hair removal thing than it does to the heels thing, as I’ve talked to plenty of women who say they wear heels because it’s expected of them in the workplace.

The taking of a name in marriage is something with which I fervently disagree, largely because I believe a name to be an integral part of one identity. Thankfully, with divorce so prominent, it’s less of an issue than it could be. Regardless, I cannot imagine a world in which I’d give up my last name. No way, no how. Why should ant woman assume she’s going to do it?

The third is connected with “Blurred Lines” inextricably. Women, as mentioned above, are taught to be demure and to suppress taking what they want (or even voicing what they want). In the dating world, there’s something attractive to me about that were it applied to me; I, personally, would like to be Penelope instead of the Proci. I adore it when women approach me, though it is not a common occurrence (mostly because I am unattractive and a pain in the ass).

But, it speaks to the larger issue. In 2012, Jezebel posted a piece about the lack of women proposing marriage (undoubtedly, the extension of them not asking dudes out). I posted it on Facebook and wrote one of the things of which I’m most proud, social media division:

Obviously, I’m single and marriage is not an interest of mine, but the whole of this piece is something for which I find wildly interesting on a larger scale. Moore makes the salient point, mostly, that gender roles remain in the “demure-agressor” continuum and I despise this.

Part of this is because I’m a coward with low self-esteem — I’d like to be desired, as well. Duh. — but, I also don’t want to live in a world where women are told to be demure and, ultimately, believe it (as in, they are socialized to believe being demure is good). This isn’t just happening in interpersonal romantic relationships, but also in the workplace, in business, etc. And it’s awful for women.

I know we all come in all kinds of flavors of personality. Plenty of men are not aggressors and plenty of women are not demure, but I do think the marriage/dating thing shows how deeply ingrained this nonsense is. And how much it peppers our other interactions.

If a woman can’t ask a man for a date, how is she going to ask her boss for a promotion?

That last bit is important. By socializing women to not state their desires, men have systematically told women to not play the game we (men) play. We (men) play a game of aggression and they are set up to lose by being demure. We (men) have systematically told women that we (men) know better than they do about what they want.

I have two journalism degrees, so I can somewhat speak to the notion of perception and audience. Indeed, one of my favorite professors in undergrad did an entire day on not offending readers with unintentionally offensive things. A lot of the examples were just of carelessness that offended people with delicate language sensibilities — a yearbook where one of the basketball players’ name wasn’t known at the time of layout, so the layout person put “some fucker” in there instead of the name. It was printed. But, one example spoke the very nature of naïveté, or really just ignorance.

An elderly African-American man in some small town had a shoe business that had started out as a shoeshine stand, if I remember correctly (apologies on the sketchiness of some of the details, as I was in this class over 10 years ago). Someone at the local paper did a profile on the man and his longtime business and it was featured as the main story on the front page of the lifestyles section of said paper. The word “shine” was prominently displayed. “Shine,” as some people undoubtedly know, is often used as racist word for a African-American person.

I have to think that the person who wrote the headline and the person who wrote the story were not trying to be racist. But, nevertheless, there was the word “Shine” right next to an elderly black man on the front of the lifestyles section of this particular paper. Not surprisingly, many readers were offended.

Once a creation is out into the world, it’s no longer the creator’s possession. It’s the audience’s. Having to do too much explaining of one’s work means that the creator wasn’t all that good at putting the work out there and/or identifying the audience. Certainly, sometime audiences misinterpret things that can be interpreted many ways — I’m looking at you, “Closer” — but in the case of mainstream popular culture, clarity should probably be paramount.

Like, you know, lyrics to a pop song. As I wrote in an email to a friend about the song (more on that in a second):

There is an awful lot of explaining and, particularly, mansplaining going on about this song. It’s a pop song. It shouldn’t need to be interpreted. “Let’s Get It On” doesn’t need explaining. That dopey Daft Punk song doesn’t need explaining. It’s not rocket science.

I had an email debate about “Blurred Lines” with a — dude, it should definitely be stated — friend of mine in which he defended the song’s lyrics. I think his defense is one that is overly optimistic (at best) or, more likely, stems from male privilege and living in a whole where we (men, but mostly white men) make the rules. His defense, basically, is one that comes from a post-sexist place. To whit:

Claiming that it’s a rape anthem or that it’s about eliminating a woman’s sexual agency is a misinterpretation of the song, I think. Thicke’s lyrics are about wooing a woman by appealing to her sexual agency — and specifically doing that in the context of the woman’s significant other not giving her what she wants. He’s asking her to let him do these things to her… Some people have kinky sexual desires that involve dominance and submission. And I think that’s a more plausible interpretation of the song.

My friend’s opinion is based on the notion of sexual agency for women, something I wish was a full-blown reality, but is, ultimately, not reality (He also mansplained the “good girl” stuff, but my friend is taking a beating here, so I’ll just let it be). I like the idea of Thicke appealing to a woman who is smart, decisive, etc. However, as I told him, I believe the rest of the song suggests it is the exactly opposite:

I agree that the song can be interpreted in more than one way and I doubt that Thick & Co. meant it to be a rape anthem. And I know that sexuality can come in many forms, including those that include power dynamics. But, I will point to the song’s lyrics, including those that infantilize women and those that compare women to animals in conjunction with “I know you want it” to suggest that the song is, at the very least wildly misogynistic. The song devalues women to such a large degree, it shocks me.

And, in a later email

The song could’ve used Any. Other. Phrasing. than “I know you want it.” ANY. It’s like comparing Allen Iverson to a monkey on a broadcast. The intent probably isn’t there to compare an African-American player to a monkey in a racist way, but you gotta be fucking better than that. We, as human beings, need to understand context. It’s a buzzphrase specifically associated with rape. I cannot emphasize that enough.

The latter point is important. Artistic integrity or not, there is history behind “I know you want it” and Thicke and Co. chose to ignore it completely. In doing so, the song automatically becomes about rape. A reasonable person knows this and rewrites it or something. They did not. They put it out.

Still, “good girl” is a phrase that gets used. Often. A young woman may hear it from her mother, father, aunt, grandmother: “Be a good girl.” Usually, it means be quiet, be polite, be well-behaved. In its most insidious context, it means be subservient. Obey. For centuries, women in cultures around the world have been expected to be silent, demure, submissive, deferential, pliable. (In addition to virginal, of course. Not having sex is implied when it comes to being a good girl.)

So wrote Dodai Stewart on Jezebel over the summer. She referenced the song in the piece (“‘You’re a good girl,’ croons Robin Thicke in “Blurred Lines.'”), but the piece itself is more about the concept. The idea of a “Good girl” is one that comes from the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

A person cannot be good or bad. It doesn’t work that way. You can do good things and bad things and think terrible thoughts and do charity work and have selfish days — years — and call your mom all the time and regret the time you were cruel to a boy in fifth grade while rescuing kittens. Layers, shades of gray, complexity. That’s just how humans — and women are people! — are.

Stewart’s right, of course, but that’s the inherent frustration with song-as-complex-message thing. Popular music doesn’t have much to say on complex subjects, so to expect a dance record to explain that sort of thing is most certainly foolish. Ultimately, to expect Robin Thicke to understand the reality of societal gender roles may be the proverbial bridge too far.

The problem, in my eyes, with the “good girl” phrasing is twofold. First, the simple notion of a dichotomy in regards to sexuality is monumentally stupid. It entirely plays off of the “sex as taboo” thing as a dichotomy. Thicke’s lyric exists as a way to make the good girl into something else (a sexual being).

The second problem is the phrasing itself.

Let’s talk a little about language, privilege and power. There was something of a debate over in the summer of 2012 about rape jokes and the notion of humor around rape (see my role in that here). Wherever you come down on the debate, what keeps getting lost is the power of language. The reason the rape joke debate was so frustrating was because so many people kept saying “it’s just a joke.”

Yes, jokes are, inherently, not to be taken seriously. But, they also mean something. They are not nothing. People listen to jokes, just as they listen to music and they listen to film and TV.

I referenced it above — and heaven knows the “who has had it worse?” conversation around sex and race is never a good conversation — but this comes a lot in race. In the 1990s, basketball analyst Billy Packer called African-American basketball player Allen Iverson “a tough little monkey.” Had Packer called a white player the same thing, it would not have mattered, because white people don’t grow up knowing the deck is stacked against them (well, Republican whites think that, but they are wrong). They don’t get rejected for jobs simply because of the names on their resumes. White people don’t live in a country that, by law, sublimated them for 4/5 of its history and continues — via arcane drug laws, coded language, redlining, etc. — to sublimate minorities.

It’s easy for white people to laugh off being called a monkey. Monkey? Would a monkey have all the power in the world? It’s why “honky” and “cracker” don’t hold much sway in the popular imagination, while racist language against minorities — and even not overtly racist, but coded language like “thug” — matter more. Those words signal something. “I am more important than you are,” they say. “And I know it.”

Which is how it connects to rape jokes and the way we talk about rape. Women, systematically, have had less power than their male counterparts in nearly every society in history. In the United States, women were not even allowed to vote until less than 100 years ago (1920). Women continue to be outside of power circles in so many places, including places in which there are systematic rules against their obtaining power.

How we talk about things matters. We call rape victims ‘survivors’ instead of ‘victims’ because of the impossibly dehumanizing nature of the crime. People make jokes about rape because it’s uncomfortable. As mentioned, I tend to think no topic is off-limits, because humor exists for us to process a chaotic and terrifying world. But, that’s not to say that rape should be the topic of a joke; if not done well, it’s awful and completely misses the point of humor. It makes us worse, as a society, to joke that rape is something less than the horrifying thing that it is. Bad rape jokes are worse than other bad jokes because they echo.

Language matters. I cannot emphasize this enough. The deftness by which Louis CK navigates the best rape joke ever is masterful, not because he uses the analogy of a wild animal, but because he simply explains, like Carlin or Pryor, the very nature of being a heterosexual woman.

But women still say, “Yeah, I’ll go out alone with you. At night.”

What are you, nuts?!

Other comedians simply would joke that a woman takes her life into her hands and make a joke about rape that doesn’t explain it so well. Because taboo is inherently funny, just saying “rape” would make plenty of people laugh. Louis CK doesn’t say the word “rape” but, everyone knows.

The way we talk about women matters. I’m going to break my arm patting myself on the back here, but I’m proud to say I’ve never called a woman a “bitch” or a “cunt.” Let’s be clear: I am a terrible person who throws insults at people a lot, but I use the term “asshole” the most. I suspect I called some people “pussy” in high school, but I do not remember doing so. In high school, I remember a friend making note of the fact that the worst thing I would call people was “a bad person,” because it speaks to the person’s very soul. I’ve used “faggot” and “gay” as pejoratives more frequently, though that was in junior high, most assuredly.

To cycle back to the “monkey” thing: Why does it matter when you call an African American man a “monkey” or a “gorilla?” It’s because animals are not human. We kill and eat animals; cannibalism is one of the longest-standing taboos in human history. We exploit animals for fur and wool to make our clothing. We make animals produce our food or create our shelters. Animals, in many ways, are tools for humans. They are not to be treated as equals, because they are not.

To call a white person a gorilla is evocative, certainly, but again, it’s akin to “cracker” because of the power dynamic. A white person can brush it off because the white person has power.

(There’s a conversation about great ape sentience here, but I’ll leave that for another time. Either way, “gorilla” or “monkey” remains huge insults.)

What about “boy?” Because black men were infantilized for most of this culture’s history, it matters. To call an adult person “boy” is to say that you are inherently better than him. You’re more grown, with all the things surrounding being older (knowledge, experience, agency, role in society, etc.). In order to live up to the façade we’ve built that says we’re not a racist one, we need to use language properly. A man is a not a boy and, certainly, a man’s race should not dictate his place in society. He’s a man. Not a boy.

And yet…

Again, I don’t want to compare the powerless and the struggles therein. Minorities (and women, who are not a mathematical minority) in American culture are without power too often. My comparison with the term “boy” is only to say that we reinforce our terrible power structure in  linguistic ways.

The notion that a sexual being is a “girl” is terrifying. Girls are not sexual; grown people are not, by law, allowed to be sexual with children. A “good girl” is not a fully realized person and is less than the speaker (or, in this case, the singer).

You know why I’ve never called a woman a “bitch?” Part of it is because I love dogs with all of my being. I think it’s a weird linguistic oddity that we call beautiful women foxes and ugly women dogs, considering they’re both canines. But, mostly, I don’t want to call a woman a “bitch.” It’s fine for other women — Nicki Minaj, for example — as they are reclaiming the word for their own purposes. But, I’m a white man. I needn’t tell a woman that she’s the same status as my dog (however much I adore my dog). I don’t care if I’m calling a woman a “bad bitch,” it still sounds like I’m saying she’s good for birthing puppies and the like.

And Robin Thicke shouldn’t do it, either.

“Domesticate” — like the woman is a wolf or a feral cat or livestock — is used early in the song, right before the woman in the song is called “an animal.” The song’s title itself is a play on the yes/no dynamic. T.I. raps “Not many women can refuse this pimpin'” in the song. The video uses women — naked, beautiful women while the men are fully clothed in dapper suits — as artwork, not people.

The line “I know you want it” is sung 18 times in the song.

Has anyone read the lyrics to this fucking song? Jesus Christ, the fucking thing reads like it came from a handbook on how to devalue other people. Tell them what they think (“I know you want it”), compare them to animals and tell adults — presumably, in the hopes that Robin Thicke isn’t a pedophile — that they are children (“You’re a gooood giiirl” is the type of thing one says to a child or a pet).

I wrote the above on a Facebook post of an article about rape. The piece was on a project asking survivors of rape to write what his or her rapist said to them during the crime (“They are from Project Unbreakable, an online photo essay exhibit, and feature images of women and men holding signs with sentences that their rapist said before, during, or after their assault.”). It speaks to the very nature of the way we talk about sex in song, but, more importantly, it nullifies more arguments that people bring to me when I say the song is, at best, “very rape-y.” Two images from the project:

Song doesn’t seem so great anymore, does it?

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