Here’s a sure-fire way to get the No. 1 record in the country: engineer a fake controversy by making an unrated version of your video featuring strutting, mostly naked supermodels. That’s the route blue-eyed crooner Robin Thicke took with his single “Blurred Lines,” which sits atop the Billboard charts this week, ending Macklemore’s long reign.
The video, which was banned from YouTube at the end of March, continues to live on in its full naked glory on Vevo—coincidentally, a partner of YouTube—where salacious viewers can view three models, Emily Ratajkowski, Jessi M’Bengue, and Elle Evans, wearing nothing but shoes and nude-hued thongs, as they cavort and dance and flirt with Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I., who are all fully clothed. The group play with weird, nonsensical props—a needle, a lamb—and in between the screen intermittently flashes hashtags (i.e., #Thicke).
At one point, the sentence, “Robin Thicke has a big dick,” is displayed in large Mylar balloons.
So far, so … sexy? Depends on who you ask.
The nudity might be fine if the song was called, “Let’s All Have Some Fun,” but it’s called “Blurred Lines,” and the subject itself is enough to make some female music fans uncomfortable. The song is about how a girl really wants crazy wild sex but doesn’t say it—positing that age-old problem where men think no means yes into a catchy, hummable song.
“Good girl, I know you want it,” sings Thicke, who has all of his clothes on, as one of the near-naked models dances and pouts next to him. “Talk about getting blasted, I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it, but you’re a good girl, the way you grab me, must want to get nasty.”
Not surprisingly the combination of the lyrics and the video’s nudity has irked some female music fans.
“Has anyone heard Robin Thicke’s new rape song?” Lisa Huyne wrote in a post on her blog, Feminist in L.A. “Basically, the majority of the song (creepily named ‘Blurred Lines’) has the R&B singer murmuring ‘I know you want it’ over and over into a girl’s ear. Call me a cynic, but that phrase does not exactly encompass the notion of consent in sexual activity … Seriously, this song is disgusting—though admittedly very catchy.”
Canadian model Amy Davison also took issue with the clip. In a YouTube video titled “Robin Thicke is a dick,” she explained why the women showing so much skin got under her skin.
“The women are clearly being used as objects to reinforce the status of the men in the video. The men have all the control and status because they are not vulnerable—they are completely covered. Whereas the women have no status and are totally open to be exploited ogled and used,” she said. “It doesn’t jibe with me.”
Oddly, though, top feminist sites like Jezebel, The Hairpin, and XO Jane haven’t yet weighed in. Perhaps, like music critic Maura Johnston, the editor and founder of Maura Magazine, and Frannie Kelley, an editor at NPR Music, they don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Certainly, the video is less offensive than another recently banned-from-YouTube video, “Pussy” by the Dream, which is not about little kittens, and features closeups of a woman’s nether regions being covered in oil. And Thicke’s video would barely register on the outrage meter when compared to most garden-variety hip-hop videos featuring bling and babes.
“Lyrically, it’s problematic, but I feel like so many pop songs right now are problematic,” said Johnston of the song itself.
Kelley also shrugged off the controversy: “I think it’s really fun,” she said. Though there are two versions, Kelley prefers the NSFW version for the very reasons that other women were uncomfortable: “We feel a certain type of way about seeing men completely clothed next to almost completely naked women and that’s what gives it the frisson. When they’re clothed it feels like he’s walking up to a line and agreeing to obey it. And when they’re not clothed, he’s like acknowledging the line and he’s stepping right over it.”
And Kelley bristled at the notion that women were supposed to be offended by the video. “I feel more like, more violated by people trying to tell me that that song and video is problematic than I do by that song and video. Honestly.”
Both Johnston and Kinney are less ruffled by the song’s content and video in part because of the origin. The message isn’t so bad when you like (and trust) the messenger.
Kelley pointed out that director Diane Martel was responsible, via her videos, for shepherding Mariah Carey’s image from girl-next-door to the more sexually suggestive diva we know today.
And, it helps that Thicke doesn’t have a womanizing, sexist image, said Johnston. “I really like Robin Thicke—I’ve been a big fan of his since he just went by Thicke and was a bike messenger running around New York City,” she said, referring to his early video, “When I Get You Alone,” which featured him in a scruffier, more hipster guise. She conceded: “It’s a fine line and I feel like my like for Robin Thicke is making me a little more apologetic.”
Since he first appeared on the scene, Thicke, who is son of TV dad Alan Thicke, has transformed into a quasi Justin Timberlake. And with the appearance of T.I., said Johnston, he’s drawing a clear parallel to Timberlake’s “My Love.” (“It’s funny how he stole Justin Timberlake’s thunder,” said Johnston.)
“I don’t know if it’s context. I don’t know if an up-and-coming artist had tried this, I don’t know how I would feel about it,” she said.
Thicke told VH1 that it was Martel’s idea to do a “Terry Richardson kind of video.” At first he might have been skeptical, but he said, “'Hey, you know, let’s go for it.’ ‘Cause for me, nudity is the least offensive thing in the whole world. Guns, violence, war? That’s offensive. A woman’s body has been painted and sculpted and talked about since the beginning of man. What I enjoy about the video is that we’re not ogling and degrading them, we’re laughing and being silly with them.”
But first, he had to ask his wife, Paula Patton, for permission. (Perhaps that should have been the first inkling that this might not be a totally kosher idea.)
Thicke has insisted, a bit guilelessly, that by having the women naked, he was pushing the boundaries. “We pretty much wanted to take all the taboos of what you’re not supposed to do—bestiality, you know, injecting a girl in her bum with a five-foot syringe—I just wanted to break every rule of things you’re not supposed to do and make people realize how silly some of these rules are.”
But Johnston says she thinks this is more a calculated ploy for publicity than a groundbreaking move. “Look, I’ve been music blogging since 2006 and the rise of the NSFW video as an attention-getter has been a proven way of getting people interested,” she said. “Even in this era of the porn aesthetic being so prominent, that shit still works. The old ways of generating controversy and attention still work.”
“It would be actually transgressive if the men were naked, too. It’s still such a taboo,” she said. “Then again, if the men were actually naked, would you be able to spell out ‘Robin Thicke has a big dick’ in Mylar balloons?”