The rise and fall of Robin Thicke
The best reaction to a man who courts controversy is total apathy.
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Robin Thicke has been pushing his brand of creepy patriarchal entitlement in the form of R&B music for a while now. In 2006, his album The Evolution of Robin Thicke included the song “Teach U a Lesson”, detailing a teacher/student role-playing fantasy. “You were late to school,” he slimes. “I’m gonna have to see you after class. You’ve been a bad girl.” He seems to be the sort of man who gets off on feeling powerful.
It was the year 2013 that threw his flagging career into the spotlight. The song “Blurred Lines” overtook Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as the most played song of the summer, quickly turning into the most played song of the year. Reaching the top of the charts in fourteen countries, it was everywhere – the sort of song that you didn’t need to seek out, because it would find you.
It wasn’t so much the lyrics that initially sparked outrage – it was the song’s video. Scantily clad women danced around Thicke, Pharrell Williams and rapper TI. In an often censored version of the video, the women were mostly naked. They epitomised Eurocentric beauty ideals – tall, lean limbed and slim, with long hair and white or light skin. The men in the video remain fully clothed. “I hate these blurred lines,” sang Thicke. “I know you want it,” he crooned into the ear of one of the silent, dancing women.
After the song’s success, a coalition of women’s charities began lobbying the music industry to stop making music videos that objectified women. Online writers called “Blurred Lines” a rape song, insisting that it legitimised sexual assault. The Guardian dubbed it the most controversial song of the decade. Twenty university feminist societies moved to have the song banned from playing in their student nightclubs. Bewildered music journalists wondered what on earth all the fuss was about. The name of the song inspired a BBC documentary on sexism, a sharp feminist play performed at London’s South Bank and a viral feminist parody on YouTube. The parody’s lyrics included “gotta resist all the gender roles, time to put misogyny on parole”. It’s currently had over 4 million views.
Thicke’s flagrant disregard for boundaries and consent seems to have leaked into his latest album. In February, his wife Paula Patton confirmed publicly that they had separated after nine years of marriage. His latest album is called Paula. In an interview with Hot 97 radio, Thicke said that every song on the album is inspired by the breakdown of his 20-year-long relationship. It seems the aim of all performances and promotion for the album so far is to pressure her back into loving him.
Before a performance of his new single at New York’s Madison Square Garden in March, he spoke of the importance of “forgiving family members, no matter what the cause”. There was another public apology from him onstage at the Black Entertainment Television awards. “I’d like to dedicate this song to my wife,” he said, before the opening bars of his song “Forever Love”. “I miss you, and I’m sorry.”
The name of the first single on his new album is “Get Her Back”. The video stars a Paula Patton lookalike, and includes a stream of text messages that seem to have been sent between the two of them. “I wrote a whole album about you,” one reads. Only he and Paula know why they split, insists Thicke in radio interviews. But he wants the whole world to know that he’s sorry, that it was his fault and, to quote track seven of the new album, “Love Can Grow Back”.
At best, it’s a terrible promotional strategy that even Marvin Gaye would struggle to pull off. At worst, it’s borderline abusive behaviour. It’s hard to grasp whether this is legitimate, or a desperate publicity stunt. If it’s the former, Paula is forced into the uncomfortable position of having to publicly acknowledge and respond to his pleas. She has yet to do so. There’s that power play and entitlement again. Whatever went on in their relationship – and Thicke’s marketing tactic is that we, the public, are never to know – it’s clear that he wants us on side.
Thicke presents a male-centred narrative, where women’s agency is written out of the picture. We are supposed to sympathise with him, but the reality is that no one really cares. The album’s sales have been abysmal, with 530 copies sold in the UK in its first week, and fewer than 54 sold in Australia.
It seems the best reaction to a man who courts controversy is total apathy. We’re probably just fatigued by pop culture’s repeated attempts to shock us. In any case, it hasn’t worked this time.