On March 26, 2013, R&B singer Robin Thicke released his newest single, ‘Blurred Lines.’ A collaboration with T.I. and Pharrell Williams, with the latter producing the single, the song immediately became a massive hit. It topped the charts of 25 countries and reached the top five of six others. It spent 12 consecutive weeks atop the US Billboard Hot 100, making it the longest-running single of 2013 in the United States. According to numbers, it sold more copies than ‘Gangnam Style’, ‘Bad Romance’, and ‘Shallow.’ The song and the album of the same name received Grammy nominations and pushed Thicke into the pop mainstream.
And then things took a turn.
It’s easy to overlook just how big a deal ‘Blurred Lines’ was, and how beloved it initially was, especially as we continue to crawl through the rubble of its unfortunate aftermath. What was first seen as a catchy retro-inspired sex jam became the lightning rod of the decade for pop music. Lawsuits were filed, think-pieces were written, protests were held, and eventually the tune cemented its status as the rape anthem of the 2010s. The impact of ‘Blurred Lines’ will linger long after everyone removed it from their playlists. Frankly, the music industry may never fully recover, which is both a good and bad thing.
‘Blurred Lines’ is a song too catchy to ignore but not catchy enough to help you overlook its evident problems. Lyrics like ‘I know you want it’ and ‘I hate these blurred lines’ read as extremely uncomfortable and demeaning to many. The word ‘rapey’ appeared in many reviews, although plenty of critics also liked the sultry earworm’s single-entendres. In the U.K., more than 20 universities banned the song from use at student events over policies related to rape culture. Music isn’t exactly short of weird creepy songs that are meant to be hot but mostly sound weird and pervy. ‘Blurred Lines’, however, still felt unusually discomfiting. Mostly because of the video.
I’m halfway convinced that ‘Blurred Lines’ would not have become the unavoidable topic it evolved into had it not been accompanied by that video. Diane Martel, a legend of directing music videos by the likes of Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, helmed the video for ‘Blurred Lines.’ There was nothing new about a music video featuring scantily clad models and fully clothed men enjoying the spectacle, but when ‘Blurred Lines’ came with an unrated version featuring fully naked women, it caused a scandal (and was quickly removed from YouTube.) It generated more than one million views in the days following its release on Vevo, with the memes flying thick and fast (Robin Thicke has a big…) Martel would state in an interview in June of that year that she wanted the video to deal with the ”misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men.’ It was also her idea to do the nude video, which featured Emily Ratajkowski, Elle Evans, and Jessi M’Bengue. All of the chatter that surrounded the song was amplified to deafening levels with the video. Slate called it ‘loathsome.’ The Cut lamented how ‘boring, uninventive, and slightly alienating’ it was to have yet another video with all naked women and clothed men. It’s hard to buy the idea Martel is selling of this video being some sort of reversed power play wherein the naked women are the ones in control. They’re decidedly positioned as decorative figures, playthings, unnamed extras for three married men to relive their youths through. It didn’t seem much fun, not to the women or the men who seemed more desperate than anything else.
For a brief period, however, Robin Thicke became a megastar. This was years in the making since the singer had spent over a decade in the industry making R&B and soul music that did well in its niche but seldom graced the top of the charts. He was a white guy in a Black field and doing pretty well, with producing credits on Usher records and guest appearances on his own songs by the likes of Lil Wayne, Faith Evans, and Nicki Minaj. There are a lot of sex jams in his back-catalog but also a lot of solid hits with their roots firmly in the ’60s and ’70s. He’s a connoisseur of the classics and it’s evident in songs like the bluntly titled ‘Sex Therapy.’
A key part of his image was his marriage to actress Paula Patton, a childhood sweetheart with whom he had a son. She’s a big part of the pre-‘Blurred Lines’ Thicke magic. She’s on his album covers, she’s the subject of many of those hot and heavy numbers, and it would later be revealed that she even co-wrote a few songs. Sure, he was a ladies’ man in his music, but in real life, he seemed happy to be the plus-one to his gorgeous and talented wife. Indeed, his ‘happy marriage’ to Patton was often cited as a defense for ‘Blurred Lines.’ He’s just a guy cutting loose then going back to his domestic bliss.
On August 25, at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, Thicke performed ‘Blurred Lines’ with Miley Cyrus, who was, at the time, going through her fake Black girl period of all-grown-up child-star provocations. While Thicke dressed like Beetlejuice and mostly seemed bemused by the experience, Cyrus went to town and twerked all over him. It was weird. At the time, Cyrus received most of the outrage, reducing the ‘Blurred Lines’ discourse to a footnote on the evening. That didn’t last.
Rumors soon started swirling that all was not well in the Thicke-Patton household. Pictures surfaced of Thicke groping another woman’s backside. Thicke continued to insist that he and Patton were ‘the most functional dysfunctional marriage in Hollywood.’ He and Patton separated in February 2014. Eight months later, Patton officially filed for divorce, citing infidelity, drug use, and abuse. In between this period, Thicke released his new album, Paula, which he freely admitted was an attempt to win back his estranged wife. There’s even a song on it called ‘Get Her Back.’ Some critics cite the album as being raw and revealing but the overall impression by audiences was that of a very desperate man. It felt gross, a heightened version of a public wedding proposal involving a flash mob. If you were a fan of Thicke before ‘Blurred Lines’ then this felt like a tragic downfall. If you were a fan after ‘Blurred Lines’ then there wasn’t much to grab onto. For everyone else, the schadenfreude was fierce, especially after it was revealed that Paula only sold 24,000 copies in its first week in the U.S. In its opening weekend in the U.K., it sold 530. Australia, it sold 158.
It kept getting worse. Thicke, T.I., and Williams were taken to court by the estate of Marvin Gaye, who alleged that ‘Blurred Lines’ directly plagiarised his song ‘Got to Give it Up.’ On March 10, 2015, a jury found Thicke and Williams, but not T.I., liable for copyright infringement. The unanimous jury awarded Gaye’s family US$7.4 million in damages for copyright infringement and credited Marvin Gaye as a songwriter for ‘Blurred Lines.’ It’s a bad judgment that continues to screw up music copyright to this day, but at the time, it felt like yet another excuse to laugh at Thicke. At the time, he claimed he was too high on coke to remember actually writing the song, which made it all the sadder. This is one of the lesser discussed legacies of the song but arguably the one with the most brutal impact on the industry. You can trace a line from this case to Olivia Rodrigo having to basically list all of her musical inspirations as direct collaborators on Sour in the hopes of avoiding the courtroom.
This week, Emily Ratajkowski spoke about how Thicke groped her on the set of the ‘Blurred Lines’ video. In an excerpt from her upcoming book, My Body, she noted how she initially enjoyed working on the music video, which featured an all-female crew, until she and Thicke were alone and ‘out of nowhere, I felt the coolness and foreignness of a stranger’s hands cupping my bare breasts from behind.’ Martel chastised Thicke and threatened to shut down production until Thicke ‘sheepishly apologized.’ It was a startling reminder of how rape culture works. ‘Blurred Lines’ may not have directly encouraged misogyny and abuse, but it certainly helped to foster an environment where such things were written off as ‘fun and games’. Patriarchal celebrations seem primed to turn women into decorations or toys. Of course the guy singing about how he hates these blurred lines doesn’t seem to care that the workplace isn’t his personal sandbox.
It was never just about ‘Blurred Lines’, of course. Sometimes, it takes the worst pop culture to allow us to examine our societal faults, an inverse of the ways that great art can show us the best of ourselves. The Telegraph described it as ‘#MeToo the music video’, which feels reductive of both the wider discourse and Ratajkowski’s experience. 2013 feels like an age ago in terms of how abuse and entertainment-wide harassment was discussed. R. Kelly was still making hits back then. ‘Blurred Lines’ felt like a canary in the coalmine, a musical sign of change on the horizon but a sharp reminder that the fight would be long-fought. After all, plenty of people bought that song.
Robin Thicke seems somewhat regretful about the song and its video, and he’s never reached the heights of fame of 2013 since. He’s now engaged to April Love Geary, with whom he has three children. He released a new album this year, a return to R&B that barely made a blip in the discourse. The pick-up artist sleaze has been swapped out for sincerity and bossa nova grooves. He’ll never be that famous again, but he’ll never go away either. The chances are he won’t face repercussions for groping Ratajkowski or any of the allegations made against him by his ex-wife. Such is the crushing reality of entertainment and capitalism. He will, however, be forever defined by ‘Blurred Lines’ and the fallout, eternally described as a skeeze, a creep, the guy behind that rapey song you couldn’t escape about a decade ago. Justice? No, but it’s something.
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