"We Can't Stop," the hit lead single to Cyrus' forthcoming fourth studio album, might become the song of the summer, a title it will have to win over Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" (featuring Pharrell and T.I.), which has thus far spent two weeks in the top spot of the Hot 100 chart. Both songs will be inescapable in the coming months, and, curiously for the year 2013, both songs are tied intrinsically to their official music videos, which currently reside in the top two spots in VEVO's "Top Videos" section on its homepage (the family-friendly "Blurred Lines" video has 62 million views on the site in three months, while "We Can't Stop" has 31 million clicks in a little less than a week) and were both directed by Diane Martel. Thicke and Cyrus have gotten pop fans to watch and re-watch their latest visuals by presenting images that are sexually provocative -- until you look closer, and realize that they're part of an all-encompassing joke. Interestingly, each video's individual successes and failings are largely determined by how hard the average viewer has to squint.
On March 31, Paula Patton, veteran actress and Thicke's wife, wrote a tweet that began with the phrase "Nudity is Beautiful!!!" That day, her husband's music video for "Blurred Lines" was officially banned by YouTube. You know the video (which you can watch in its uncensored glory here) -- it's the one with three topless women, played by Elle Evansm Emily Ratajkowski and Jessi M'Bengue, toting live sheep, banjos and seductive glares alongside Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell Williams. It's the video with "#THICKE" gouging your eyes out and subsequently clogging your Twitter feed. It's the video that has magnified the greatness of a sparse funk single and made it the biggest song in the country, while also drawing heat for its unwitting contribution to rape culture and the queasiness involved with watching unclothed women turn into objects for clothed men.
In an interview with GQ, Thicke cited Patton's tweet as part of the reason why the "Blurred Lines" video -- which now exists in a YouTube-friendly censored form and a YouTube-restricted explicit version that can be found on VEVO -- cannot and should not be taken at face value; that is, as a showcase of exposed females and the suave-looking males that gaze upon them while repeating phrases like "I know you want it." Thicke describes the song as an ode to "two old men on a porch hollering at girls," and says that he wanted to create a video complete with "old men dances" that help amplify the ridiculousness of three men trying to master the art of catcalling.
"Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, 'We're the perfect guys to make fun of this,'" said Thicke. "We just wanted [the music video] to be as silly as possible. That way, the nudity isn't taken seriously."
Of course, nudity in music videos is usually taken seriously, especially when it's gratuitous (albeit non-pornographic in this instance) and exclusively on the female side of the coin. Surely Thicke and Martel knew that people would not be shrugging off the bare breasts that fill so many frames of the nearly five-minute clip as obvious satire, or yawn when seeing silver balloons spell out "Robin Thicke Has A Big Dick" two-thirds of the way into the video. The "Blurred Lines" clip can be viewed as a pointedly provocative piece of pop-art or a shameless marketing stunt; either way, it was carefully orchestrated to inspire chatter both positive and negative.
It was also a flashy move that Thicke sorely needed to make, after years of being pigeonholed as a blue-eyed, mostly harmless soul singer with diminishing sales (his last album, 2011's "Love After War," has sold 202,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan, a far cry from the 1.6 million copies moved by his 2006 LP "The Evolution of Robin Thicke"). As a career shake-up, it has succeeded stupendously. "Blurred Lines" has traded in its "viral sensation" tag over the past month and a half and upgraded to a radio hit, giving Thicke his first No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart and selling 1.6 million downloads through June 16, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Meanwhile, the music video continues to inspire thoughtful analyses from pop culture surveyors debating the coded messages within its exalted innocence. Most of the negative criticism is lobbed at the way the song's lyrics -- ostensibly, about a man trying to convince a "good girl" to ditch her current beau and indulge in the wild sexual appetite he sees within her -- are represented in the explicit visual. "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," writes Tricia Romano in her post "'Blurred Lines,' Robin Thicke's Summer Anthem, Is Kind of Rapey." "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."
Indeed, the lynchpin line "I know you want it" and the way it is breathlessly repeated in the song can be construed as downright creepy when paired with images of a fully dressed Thicke delivering the line to a silent, topless female as she twirls around him. "Call me a cynic, but that phrase does not exactly encompass the notion of consent in sexual activity," says Lisa Huyne in a post on her Feminist in L.A. blog.
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Without the music video -- which launched concurrently with the song in March -- "Blurred Lines" would likely be viewed as a slightly problematic, but ultimately inoffensive, single, if only (sadly) due to its proximity to other, more derogatory artifacts from recent pop culture. When compared to the rampant misogyny on Kanye West's "Yeezus," Rick Ross' recent half-apology for his terrifying "U.O.E.N.O." couplet and this Action Bronson album artwork, Thicke cooing "Just let me liberate you" seems poorly phrased but largely forgivable, especially if you buy the "old men" schtick that he's trying to sell.
Swallowing that premise is also the key to viewing the "Blurred Lines" video without throwing up your arms. Sure, the men are lasciviously staring at shimmying, barely-clothed women in a way that's far less progressive than, say, Ciara's sultry "Body Party" video. Thicke is in bed with one of the girls in one shot, and in another, his face is bookended by a pair of feet. But for the most part, the "Blurred Lines" video underlines its sillier details (the lamb, the larger-than-life needle, the fantastically weird T.I. dance moves), as well as highlights the females' participation in and seeming enjoyment of the concept, just enough that makes its easier to muster an uneasy sigh by what's going on than a full-throated shriek. Off-color content will always be open to interpretation and varying degrees of sensitivity, but Thicke's history as a congenial R&B singer is also important to understanding that the "Blurred Lines" video is a spoof and not his worldview. In an era in which every big-budget hip-hop video treats females like hood ornaments, the "Blurred Lines" video unfolds as a disarmed joke with no truly bad intentions other than creating a buzz (and an all-caps trending topic).
The video's real problem? It's not executed well enough to capture the "old men" idea and completely close the door on its detractors. If the "Blurred Lines" clip is really a send-up of old men hollering at pretty girls, why not just have Thicke, T.I. and Williams dress up in old-man attire instead of club-ready suits, and further emphasize the central joke? Or, if Thicke doesn't have "any problem with nudity," as he told Billboard last month, then why aren't the men in their skivvies, too? The solutions could have gone beyond the clothing as well -- if the women were interacting with the wacky props in a more open setting than a closed-off, colorless studio, perhaps their consent wouldn't seem so ambiguous. Popular, semi-recent music videos like Matt & Kim's "Lessons Learned" and the BPA's "Toe Jam" have featured women walking around Times Square and dancing at a unisex party without clothes on, and while neither song existed in the public eye as "Blurred Lines" now does, their use of nudity was more explicitly comical and, thus, bulletproof. Thicke and Martel can make the video for "Blurred Lines" any way they want, and should be allowed to do so without being censored -- but maybe if they had delivered their idea with a few tweaks and a bit more foresight, their innocuous clip may have been accruing VEVO hits without the side of biting criticism.
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"We Can't Stop" has also received its fair share of concerned cries, mostly for the drug references laced within its lyrics (although the 20-year-old claims that the line "Dancing with Miley" is being misheard as "Dancing with molly," the song also contains a shout-out to "Everyone in line in the bathroom/Trying to get a line in the bathroom"). But whereas Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video doubles down on its eyebrow-raising lyrical passages with gleeful pride, Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" clip avoids the overt drug references of the song's bridge and second verse. Instead, the bonkers video presents a world in which french fry skulls, massive teddy bear backpacks, and twerkin' alphabet soup are all commonplace at a Cyrus hoedown. There's no nudity in the "We Can't Stop" video, but there is a 20-year-old Cyrus writhing around in a bathtub, cuddling up to and kissing an anonymous male torso, and grabbing a female friend's butt cheek with no abandon. For those who remember the Disney princess from her "Hannah Montana" days, the image of Cyrus feverishly wrestling another girl on her living room floor should effectively immolate that tween idol.
"I want to start as a new artist. I consider my upcoming album my first, really," Cyrus declared in her recent Billboard cover story. The "We Can't Stop" video is a major piece in the rebranding puzzle for Cyrus, and is comparable to the moment Britney Spears bluntly finished her "not a girl, not yet a woman" phase as a 19-year-old in the "I'm a Slave 4 U" video 12 years ago. Actually, "We Can't Stop" already looks like it will be a bigger hit than "I'm a Slave 4 U," debuting at No. 11 on the Hot 100 ("Slave" only got to No. 27). Miley Cyrus 2.0 has arrived -- and with a music video that's a gloriously off-kilter representation of her newfound adulthood.
While Thicke is busy trying to liberate a trio of half-naked models in the "Blurred Lines" video, Cyrus is already liberated: three years after being trapped in a cage in the clumsy "Can't Be Tamed" video, the pop singer is completely in control in the "We Can't Stop" video, from the opening shot of giant scissors snipping away a tracking device to the way she dominates that faceless friend in an impromptu wrestling match. Like the "Blurred Lines" video, the "We Can't Stop" visual presents images with sexual undertones, but the comedic sequences are more pronounced here and deflate any hint of objectification. The only person Cyrus makes out with is a doll version of herself, and when she finds that male torso, she uses it as a pillow.
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"I think the indirect message is to be free," Martel says of Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" video in a recent interview with Celebuzz. "We spoke at first about intimacy between friends, but I think the video is more about her intimacy with her audience. She’s very playful and silly in the video. She's not self serious and boorish like so many singers."
Any shred of self-seriousness certainly flies out the window when the "We Can't Stop" video reaches the "big butts" line and presents the most GIF-able moment in a video designed to be meme-ified. Months after igniting her comeback by posting a video of herself twerking to J. Dash's "WOP" in a unicorn costume, Cyrus finds herself repeating the move, this time in full view and with three female friends surrounding her. Twerking is a dance deemed sexual enough to get kids suspended from high school, but here, Cyrus uses it as a prop at a party, shaking her backside like she's closing out the hokey-pokey in an extremely dedicated fashion while she twerk-happy friends offer encouragement.
Female artists should obviously be able to be silly about their sexuality without becoming sexualized themselves, but that note can be frustratingly hard to strike. The "Blurred Lines" video doesn't quite do enough to let its female models in on the joke, but Cyrus makes herself the joke in the "We Can't Stop" clip, and radiates joy all the while.