What a difference a year can make. Especially if your name is Robin Thicke. Twelve months ago the singer couldn’t sell a record outside North America if his life or cheesy haircut depended on it. Most of us wouldn’t even have known how to pronounce his ridiculous surname.
Then came a moment of clarity for the 36-year-old: he confessed on a US radio show he’d been taking things a little too seriously of late and had had enough of trying to be John Lennon. Thicke wanted to have fun, and fun he gave us: a four-and-a-half minute, insanely catchy RnB pop masterpiece about a bloke struggling to keep his raging libido inside his trousers as he tries to pick up a girl in a club.
That song is of course Blurred Lines, and even if you’d been stuck under a rock you’d still have been unable to escape its ear-worming charms. Globally it was the soundtrack of 2013 – number one in 40 countries, including the UK, where it was by far the biggest single of the year, shifting more than 1.3 million copies.
It’s also had the more dubious title of “most controversial song of the decade” bestowed on it by the Guardian newspaper, been banned from 20 student unions across the country and described as “rapey” by a whole raft of influential bloggers. And now it's propelled Thicke into NME's line of fire, where he's being pitched as their infamous Villain of The Year.
According to old Thicke, it’s all actually just an ode to how much he loves his wife. The girl in the song, he told the BBC, is his beloved Paula. “She’s my good girl,” he said. “And she knows she wants it because we’ve been together 20 years.”
All sweet and reasonable, until you reach the bit where guest rapper TI promises to give the same girl “something big enough to tear [her] ass in two” – no one wants TI to do that to their wife, whether they’ve been together two decades or not.
It’s the references to anal rupture and the chorus, with the lyrics, “I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it” that have led the likes of Edinburgh University Students’ Association to ban it from their venues, claiming the song “promotes an unhealthy attitude towards sex and consent”.
So which is it? A supremely dodgy ditty about sleazing on women or an awesome pop anthem? The answer is probably both.
While the lyrics, and Thicke’s creepy uncle schtick, might rub you up the wrong way, it creates a dangerous precedent for student unions to censor any music that happens to offend them. For starters, that’s plenty of Beatles off the playlist: the first line, on the first track, of their first album: “She was just 17, you know what I mean?” The work of demented perverts, naturally. The Rolling Stones, Rihanna and about 95% of hip hop can all go, eventually leaving just the sound of Steps in sweaty uni bars.
Blurred Lines is not about rape and neither is it about Thicke’s wife (come on mate, we were never going to buy that). It’s a cheesy pick-up song with a strong whiff of the unpleasant side of chest-bumping American frat-boy culture, where no one bats an eyelid at a woman being called a “bitch” and the language of sex is coarse. It really should make any decent bloke feel queasy.
Luckily most of us who listen to pop music don’t take the lyrics seriously. Most of us don’t even notice them. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in the majority of countries where Blurred Lines was a hit, the population had a limited grasp of the English language.
As a result, they’re unlikely to have their attitudes to sexual politics warped – let alone be able to help Thicke out with something that rhymes with “hug me”. What doesn’t need a translator, though, is the other part of the controversy double whammy that has made the track not just a hit but a global phenomenon: the video.
Chances are you’re one of the quarter of a billion who’ve watched it on YouTube or Vevo, but while the clicks might be ground-breaking, the content isn’t. Since MTV first flicked on in 1981, pop stars have been consistently courting controversy to drive sales. What Thicke did differently is doing it really bloody well. Critics have lambasted the video for having fully clothed blokes dry-humping with naked models, but little attention has been given to the woman who conceived and directed it, Diane Martel.
Martel, who’s been at the helm of a whole host of booty-shaking hip-hop videos (as well as Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You) has defended Blurred Lines, yet been largely ignored by campaigners. She told a US website that the video “forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera. This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck”.
Silly Thicke may be, but stupid he ain’t (even if his name might suggest so). Blurred Lines is a masterclass in pop on every level. It took him from flop to chart-topper and will have added a fair few zeros to his bank balance in the process. The controversy wasn’t by accident (although the furore around sexual consent surely wasn’t intended). The idea, claims his manager, was to “approach the market in an interesting way”, which Thicke had repeatedly failed to do with his previous five albums. “I knew the Blurred Lines video would get banned quickly. Getting something banned helps you,” he’s admitted.
And helped Thicke it has – to stratospheric album sales, magazine covers and global fame. Campaigners will hope that the outrage will still prompt the music industry to examine and maybe clean up its game but, if anything, it’s just reinforced the power of the oldest marketing gimmick in the book.
Sex and controversy sell records, and it doesn’t even matter how shit your hair is.
Words by Joe Barnes. Follow him on Twitter here.
Awesome illustration by Sam Taylor. Have a gander at his brilliant website.