Allan Mott dives into the controversy and defends the joyous nudity in Robin Thicke’s video for “Blurred Lines”.
Summer has arrived, and with it comes another sonic earworm destined to burrow its way into our brains and make us drool happily—swaying back and forth every time it enters our head holes. It’s a fact of life that predates Spotify and Top 40 radio and goes all the way back to when people had to buy sheet music and cook up their own version of the tune when they got home.
And with it invariably comes the inevitable analysis anything popular naturally engenders. Some years this analysis is more merited than others (as catchy as it was, there really wasn’t much to say about last year’s “Call Me Maybe”) and based on the number of online articles Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has generated (including this one) it would appear this might be one of them.
The question at the heart of the majority of these articles is this: As catchy as it is, isn’t the song just a little…y’know…kinda rapey? What with it featuring a chorus in which handsome Son of Alan sings “You know you want it” repeatedly like a guy who knows the person he’s singing to really wants to have the sex with him.
But for my money, the most accurate analysis comes courtesy of Slate’s Jennifer Lai, who argues:
Someone who says “I know you want it” is probably overly cocky and presumptuous as hell by assuming you/she wants “it,” but nothing about “I know you want it” is saying “I know you want it, and I’m going to force you to have it” or “I had sex with you and you didn’t consent, but I know you wanted it.” Yes, “I know you want it” could be said by a rapist—but so could “Do you want to go to a movie tonight?”
This sums up my feelings on this aspect of the controversy so accurately, quoting it saves me exploring the subject any further, which is good because I didn’t pitch this article because I wanted to write about the song. No, I’m far more interested in the video. More specifically the NSFW unavailable-on-YouTube version that has boobies in it. A lot of boobies. More than you could shake a stick at, if you were the sort of person primed to shake a stick at boobies as a means to defend yourself against them.
This has caused less controversy, since the majority reaction has been to simply shrug ones shoulders and say, “Dudes are clothed, women are naked, so of course it’s objectifying and sexist. Now, lets get back to how rapey the lyrics are or aren’t, shall we?” Little debate is being waged, because the video is so overt it seems to be undebatable.
And here’s where I come in, wearing my debating gloves and ready to start trouble.
In 1981, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were hired by Duran Duran to direct the video for their third single, “Girls on Film”. MTV was weeks away from launching as the camera rolled, but even if the duo had been aware of the channel’s impending existence, they would’ve known the video they were creating had zero chance of ever appearing on it.
The plan was to send it to trendy discos and maybe the Playboy Channel, where the sight of young models kissing and pillow fighting in translucent lingerie while straddling a candy-striped pole would have still seemed outrageous, but passable. Add to that another model in a sheer top and sumo wrestler loincloth, and other memorable instances of highly conceptual nakedness and the total package was the definition of 80s porno-chic.
If you remember the video, but don’t quite recall it being that graphic, that’s because the version that did eventually hit MTV had all of the really graphic stuff cut out—but the mere existence of the uncensored version (available on Beta, but NOT VHS—proving once again that the wrong format won) caused enough controversy to get the band noticed in a way they never had before.
Pre-Internet, people didn’t actually have to enjoy access to a video to form an opinion about the band that created it. The mere knowledge of such a work existing was enough to excite the imagination of fans and critics alike. It defined Duran Duran as a sexy, stylish and slightly dangerous band—an image they played up through the other videos they made until people stopped caring.
And the rest of the music industry noticed. If you wanted to brand yourself as “sexy, stylish and slightly dangerous” then the “Girls on Film” move was a perfect tool in your arsenal. Eclipsing Duran Duran as the master of the form was Madonna, who knew perfectly well MTV would never air a video like “Justify My Love”, but understood that the fact she made it meant more than people actually seeing it.
Now, this is the crucial thing to remember about the art form known as the music video—it’s largely considered a creative field because it combines the arts of music and filmmaking, but the reality is this: Music videos are commercials. They are advertisements designed to get us to buy three things—the artist, their song and (admittedly less so these days) the album that song appears on.
Which is why the charges of objectification that have so often been aimed at them over the decades have always struck me as redundant. Of course, they objectify—their only purpose for existing is to sell a product that just happens to be a human being (or whatever Prince is. Ha! I kid Prince, but he sure is weird, isn’t he?).
It explains a lot to me that Lisa Huyne, a blogger Jessica Lai notes was one of the first to make the “rapey” accusation, appears to take the video for “Blurred Lines” at complete face value. “Is this some Big Brother brainwashing technique?” she asks about the hashtags that dominates the screen in big bold letters throughout the video, before adding, “Makes one wonder if he’s overcompensating….” in reference to a sign in the video—spelled out in large inflated letters—that reads, “Robin Thicke has a big dick.”
Where she sees mind control and aggressively obvious posturing, I see something completely different. In my view, Diane Martel, the director of “Blurred Lines” has deliberately created a video that embraces the commercial roots of the format’s existence to the point of self-aware absurdity. She has created a clip that accepts the fact it is purely an advertisement for a catchy summer jingle and turns that acceptance in on itself to form a bubbly self-parody guaranteed to get attention.
The whole point of these videos, Martel suggests, is to subliminally advertise the length of their subject’s penises, so why not just flat out say so with a big huge sign? The ultimate goal of these videos is that they go viral, so let’s make a social media hashtag a primary aspect of the image. What’s the point of being subtle about these things? Go hard or go home!
Like “Girls on Film” and all those that followed it, “Blurred Lines” is daring you to take it seriously, even while it gives you countless reasons not to.
When viewed with this mindset, the bare breasts actually become a crucial part of the experience. By removing them, the “safe-for-YouTube” version plays as just another video with hot models and—in my opinion—becomes a lot less fun and exploitative for it. It’s a case where less is less—the video only really works when it holds nothing back and fully accepts itself as a transparent plea for notoriety and attention.
But what really makes the unrated version work for me is the decision Martel made to allow the three models, Elle Evans, Jessi M’Bengue and Emily Ratajkowski, to eschew the typical vacancy of the music video hot girl role and acknowledge its inherent goofiness. Ratajkowski (the brunette) in particular appears to delight in playing against her sexiness by moving and dancing with a joyful dorkiness that would make Steven Quincy Urkel proud.
Works like this remind me that the English language needs a good word for instances when people defy their exploitation and flourish instead. Evans, M’Bengue and Ratajkowski could have allowed themselves to be presented as mere body parts, but—with their director’s encouragement—they transcend that role and dominate the spectacle. We look initially because they’re naked, but we pay attention because they’re easily the most entertaining and important part of the video.
The first thing I did after I watched “Blurred Lines” was Google the models’ names. As catchy as the song is, it’s not one that lingers in my memory. In preparation for this piece, I’ve watched the two different videos over a dozen times, and still couldn’t accurately hum or sing any part of it. What I remember instead is the sight of Ratajkowski shimmying with the abandon of someone alone in their room, listening to their favourite song.
It’s not sexy. It’s not cool. It’s just right, and by being right becomes sexy and cool in a way actually trying to be sexy and cool could never replicate.
That’s not to say those who object to the video are wrong. This is not an either/or situation. Commercials live and die on the way they make consumers feel and if you watch “Blurred Lines” and feel sincerely creeped out about it, then it’s fair to call it a failure. But I don’t see that creepiness. Instead, I see the giddiness of going too far, of people having fun and not giving a fuck.
I see a beautiful woman in a flesh-coloured thong making an ass out of herself with a genuine smile on her face and it makes me happy, because she’s happy and happiness is contagious. And that feeling of happiness makes me want to watch the whole thing all over again.