Is It Still Possible To Enjoy Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines'?

Courtesy
Robin Thicke in the video for Blurred Lines in 2013.

One writer bravely listens to the biggest song of last summer following the latest piece of controversy, and jots down his many thoughts.



(The song starts. Pharrell Williams hollers ‘E’erybody get up!’ after four beats, and the rest of the percussion kicks in at 0:03.)

Oh, hey, I know this song! I know that beat. It’s so fussy and magnetic, a chattering that somehow comes across as buttery. Those backing “Waooo’s!” sure sound similar to the ones on “Got To Give It Up,” don’t they? Maybe not ripped-off similar, but certainly heavily-influenced similar. As if Thicke wasn’t cheating off of Marvin Gaye’s paper during a test, but happened to glance at one of the answers and checked it against one of his own. Who hasn’t done that in their lifetime? That’s not wrong, is it? I guess we’ll find out how similar our legal system believes the rhythms are when the case goes to trial next February, huh.

(Robin Thicke is now falsetto-ing in the first verse. He puts on his best soul-man jacket to stretch out the last word of “Maybe I’m out of my mind” into four syllables at 0:32.)

Thicke has always had an under-appreciated set of pipes — early singles like “Lost Without U” and “When I Get You Alone” would have fallen apart if his vocals weren’t beguiling. He’s cheesing it up here, and while the lyrics are still short of misogyny, the feminist backlash against the “kind of rapey” song was completely understandable. Oh, yikes, I forgot that he actually sang the word “domesticated” here. Is this the part in the uncensored video where the topless woman stares dreamily into the camera and mouths the word “meow”?

I still have no idea why, if Thicke and co. just wanted the music video “to be as silly as possible,” only the women were parading around unclothed. But then again, that video was grossly successful, right? It caused outrage and ogling, to the tune of 340 million YouTube views. Thicke needed to grab everyone’s attention after middling sales, and for better or worse (probably worse), he did just that.

(The chorus kicks in at the 0:50 mark. A dead-eyed Thicke is now chanting, “I know you want it.”)

After all, how mad can we get at Robin Thicke for some of these lines if he didn’t write any of the song? “The reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song,” was Thicke’s admission in his deposition. So, right now he’s singing about how the woman he’s seducing is “far from plastic,” but Thicke had no input into those words.

That makes “Blurred Lines” inauthentic, but then again, a ton of great songs are similarly disingenuous when it comes to artist input (for more on the murky world of pop songwriting, read Jillian Mapes’ great new piece at Flavorwire). We didn't get mad at Britney Spears for not writing any part of “Till The World Ends,” and I’m not sure what makes “Blurred Lines” any different from that. If anything, it demonstrates how messed-up Thicke — a talented R&B songwriter — must have been on alcohol and Vicodin last year, if he showed up at the studio too high to contribute even a little bit to the writing of “Blurred Lines.” What an ugly personal detail to have made public… oh wait, the first chorus is wrapping up, Thicke’s falsetto is about to come back.

(Verse two begins innocently enough, and then Thicke bellows at 1:28, “You the hottest bitch in this place!” The ever-gracious Pharrell is still rattling off “Hey hey hey’s” like a deflated Fat Albert.)

This whole song is about Robin Thicke trying to convince a “good girl” to shed her plain-ass boyfriend and give in to the outlandish sexual temptations that he knows rumble deep within her (with Thicke as the tour guide in this naked exploration, natch). He sounds euphorically loose delivering lines like “Just let me liberate you” at this point, and it’s strange to hear the verse and remember that this dance of seduction was followed less than a year later with a misguided attempt to save Thicke’s marriage: an album full of whimpered apologies, with the unsubtle title Paula.

Check that: a disastrously unsuccessful album full of whimpered apologies. One year after “Blurred Lines,” why were music fans so eager to knock Thicke off of his unsteady pedestal and cite minuscule sales numbers from around the globe? Perhaps it had to do with the perceived smugness that went along with the “Blurred Lines” rise, the sight of Thicke shimmying in questionable suits and having pop stars bend over in front of him at awards shows. Maybe it was the uncomfortable sight of watching Thicke warble a single called “Get Her Back” when, if he had been a little less wolfish inside and outside of “Blurred Lines,” he presumably wouldn’t have needed to get her back in the first place. So what does that make “Blurred Lines” now — a damning personal oversight in the form of a hit pop track? I suspect that Thicke knows damn well what rhymes with “hug me,” and that he’s been uttering it often in 2014.

(Thicke’s voice spins downward and splashes back into the chorus at the 1:54 mark.)

That hook is undeniable, but truth be told, I’m getting a little sick of it. Being the song of the summer can be a blessing and a curse: you rule an entire season, but by the time the weather starts turning, nobody wants to hear you any more. “Blurred Lines” sat atop the Hot 100 chart for 12 weeks starting in June 2013 — that’s a full month longer than Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” ruled the chart this year, and one of the longest Hot 100 runs of the past half-decade. By late September, however, “Blurred Lines” was the sonic equivalent of the tank top that you wore a few too many times during the summer and now had a mustard stain on its lower third — you didn’t want anything to do with it, or needed a break from it, at the very least. The “Blurred Lines” chorus is comfortable and familiar, but we still needed to shove it into the bowels of our closets last fall.

(T.I. swaggers into views with a “Hustle gang, homey!” at 2:21, and the wily veteran proceeds to act as Thicke’s predicate with the opening line, “One thing I ask of you/Let me be the one you back that ass to.”)

T.I.’s verse has always made me think of other, better T.I. guest verses, particularly on Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt (Remix),” his charisma flowing forward without quite as many clumsy come-ons. That’s sort of the problem with “Blurred Lines” as a whole: the single was the poster child of last summer’s disco-funk revival, but with so much baggage attached to it now, it’s often easier to simply digest one of its many facsimiles instead. Fed up with the problematic lyrics of “Blurred Lines”? Try Pharrell’s “Happy” on for size, it will likely fit just fine. Sick of that inescapable chorus? Indulge in Justin Timberlake’s underperforming groove “Take Back the Night.” Want to dance to a song by true artistes, and not someone who cops to having no writing input? Revisit Daft Punk’s record of the year Grammy winner, “Get Lucky.” Any of those will give you at least 70 percent of the “Blurred Lines” effect, and none of them include T.I. promising, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

(The rap verse ends abruptly at 2:58, and Thicke has returned, his voice lingering with the momentary absence of the bass line. He implores you, as Pharrell does at the beginning of the song, to “get up”.)

This is probably the strongest part of the song, with the percussion shoved up front and Thicke nailing the funk-lord schtick, and my feet are tapping along with the beat. Should I be feeling guilty for still enjoying this song? Everything about the context in which it exists makes me queasy, but the essence of the song remains hard to resist on a tactile level. I even like the “Baby can you breathe? I got this from Jamaica” part, the drums swapped out for the bass and Thicke cooing without one eyebrow raised for once. And then the momentum is regained and I brace myself for one more chorus.

(“I always wanted a GOOD GIIIIIIRL…”)

Sigh. “Blurred Lines” is in that awkward zone of smash singles that I want to stop dancing to based on moral principles, but can’t. It’s the “Forever” of this decade. It’s a song that my parents know and love, and that my kids will hear and enjoy, and that I’ll probably have on my wedding playlist, where it will be played so loud that no one in attendance will be able to ponder the increasingly troublesome circumstances surrounding its place in pop music. I used to pleasantly bounce along with “Blurred Lines,” and while those days are done, I can still let it steamroll me into a smile.

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