#1027 – Blurred Lines

During the Summer of 2013, I was living in an apartment along the subway tracks. I really have no bad memories of that time. I had just graduated from college, I took the packed (and hot) train to my first real 9-5 job downtown, parked myself in front of the room air conditioner when I was home, and drank more red, silver and blue flavored Red Bull than I care to think about now. I lived around the corner from a bunch of my college friends who were staying around for the summer after graduation, so while the days were long and filled with concrete disillusionment, the nights made up for it. The end of the summer would find me moving in with strangers to a new part of the City, but for those 8-12 weeks from May through July, everything felt pretty good. Those few weeks ended up being pivotal to the trajectory of my life and career, so, I remember the music of that summer pretty well. While I was jamming out to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and beginning to dig into ephemeral and breezy dream-pop via Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, everyone else on this god forsaken planet was listening to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”

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From L to R: Thicke, T.I, and Pharrell Williams in the more SFW version of the “Blurred Lines” music video.

You know else who had a great Summer 2013? Fucking Pharrell. Not only did he assist on the production and feature prominently on “Blurred Lines,” which was undoubtedly the song of that summer by way of that it was #1 for 12 consecutive weeks, from June 22 through the week of September 7, but he also sang lead vocals on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” the constant #2 song of the summer. Now we can look back and laugh and say “oh yeah, ‘Blurred Lines’ – that song was fucking everywhere!” and bless our lucky stars that its time on pop radio was (relatively) brief. I look back and say “what a shame,” mainly because it not only blocked “Get Lucky” from hitting the top of the charts (a fact that I care about an unreasonable amount), but also because, honestly, it’s fucking “Blurred Lines.” We don’t get that time back. We’ll never get that summer back. You know how they say that people spend a whole day of their entire lives waiting at red lights? Maybe one day they’ll say that people spent about that long hearing “Blurred Lines” at every bar and restaurant, on every car radio, at every sporting event, on every pre-concert PA system that entire summer (of course, the real question then becomes: ‘how long did you listen to “Blurred Lines” while waiting at red lights?’, but I digress).

At the time, people loved “Blurred Lines.” They sang along to the “Hey! Hey! Heys!,” imitated the low “I know you want it” – without disgust –  and danced to the weird bell-driven salsa-funk shuffle. Everyone drank the Thicke kool-aid, unaware that we had all been bamboozled. The sudden popularity of Thicke and “Blurred Lines” was all according to plan; from the beginning, “Blurred Lines” was meant to be a lightning bolt for controversy. Thicke, and his manager Jordan Feldstein determined that regular radio play would not bring enough attention to the song for it to be a certified hit, so they decided that the music video would be controversial in order to drive listeners towards Thicke, who had never scored a radio hit previously. The video, which featured topless models, and flashing hashtags, was a cheap ploy for attention. It subsequently got banned from YouTube for nudity, only for it to be reinstated later in the summer. Despite its temporary ban, the video worked because a) sex sells and b) no press is bad press. As Feldstein would say later that summer: “I knew it would get it banned quickly…Getting something banned actually helps you.”

While the video was controversial, the lyrics to “Blurred Lines” also attracted attention because of their misogynistic qualities. The lyrics of “I know you want it” were especially scandalous because to some they directly promoted “rape culture.” Both Pharrell and Thicke were quick to defend their choice of words:

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“‘You don’t need no papers,’ meaning, ‘You are not a possession.’ ‘That man is not your maker,’ meaning he is not God—nor can he produce children or women, for that matter. He’s a man, so he definitely did not make you…What I was trying to say was: ‘That man is trying to domesticate you, but you don’t need no papers—let me liberate you.’ But it was misconstrued.” – Pharrell Williams

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“For them to take that lyric [‘I know you want it’] and not take the lyrics ‘that man is not your maker, you’re an animal,’ and we’re equals, and all of the other lyrics that are in the song and only to take ‘I know you want it’ from a guy like Ron Burgundy who’s standing there going, [does impression of Ron Burgundy] ‘I know you want it, baby’. It’s a joke. If they can’t get the joke, I feel bad for them, but I’m not going to change the joke.” – Robin Thicke
Whatever your interpretation of the lyrics is, and whether or not you believe the songwriters that any lyrical suggestions about not getting consent was a joke, this issue of lyrical interpretation became a huge reason why “Blurred Lines” fell off of radio so quickly. In combination with the song’s cultural saturation via constant rotation for an entire summer, people were now actively associating the song with negative items (namely, rape), instead of boobs and catchy choruses. People were ready to move on.

But, that’s not where the story of “Blurred Lines” ends. Towards the end of the song’s run, a bitter and high profile copyright suit was filed by Thicke and Pharrell for an absolute judgment by the courts that their song did not plagiarise Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Gaye’s family claimed that they were owed royalties because of the similarities between the two songs, as well as Thicke’s own proclamation earlier in the summer that “we should make something like that [“Got to Give it Up”], something with that groove.” After a long back and forth (including an admission by Thicke that he was high on Vicodin and alcohol during the session, giving the majority of songwriting credit to Pharrell), a federal jury found in favor of Gaye’s estate that he should be credited as a songwriter on “Blurred Lines,” despite insistence from the musical community that the two songs shared nothing more than common instrumentation in the percussion section, and that they didn’t share chord progressions, lyrics, or exact tempo. This wasn’t a “My Sweet Lord” situation. My take on this issue is that no copyright credits should have been awarded to Gaye’s estate, but, listen to both songs here and make your own opinion.

After a controversial video, date-rape inspired lyrics, and a lawsuit with the family of one of the greatest musicians of all time, “Blurred Lines” finally fell off the Billboard 100 chart after 48 weeks. It was around this time that Thicke returned with his next studio effort, Paula, whose lyrical themes revolved around trying to get his estranged wife, Paula Patton to return to him, and it made everyone really uncomfortable. Its lead single, the dull and aptly-titled “Get Her Back” struggled to find success because of the lingering controversy surrounding Thicke, and the personal nature of the song, peaking only at #82. The album itself received mixed reviews and sold in meager amounts around the world – only selling a few hundred copies in its debut week in the UK, Canada, and Australia. It was official – less than a year after the overwhelming success of “Blurred Lines,” Thicke’s time at the top was played out, forever leaving him as two things: the son of Alan Thicke, and the guy who sang inappropriate lyrics around topless models and joked about date rape.

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