Misogyny in Pop: Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines'

Misogyny in Pop: Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’



This week, University College London’s student union became the latest to take the step of banning Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, due to the apparently offensive, misogynistic nature of its lyrics. No other song has prompted such an extreme reaction from student unions. Given that this was a modern R’n’B song, a genre not exactly renowned for the inclusive, feminist nature of its songs and videos, it must have been something especially offensive.

Now, I have to admit that I had never even heard of Robin Thicke until the recent controversy surrounding his grotesque appearance with Miley Cyrus at the MTV awards. And it wasn’t until I read about his latest blacklisting that I bothered to Google the lyrics, which are indeed pretty offensive, with lines about having “something big enough to tear your ass in two” and a repeated “I know you want it” leading some to call it a “rape song”. I also watched the video on Youtube. Turns out there are two versions, the first containing the usual parade of scantily clad woman gyrating against any person or object in the vicinity, including Thicke himself, and the omnipresent king of glossy, over-produced, mass –selling shite Pharrel Williams (and can we please not have any protestations about what a genius producer he supposedly is. He did a few good songs with N*E*R*D about a decade ago, and since then has been responsible for so many crimes against music he should be tried in some pop music equivalent of the Haig, Blurred Lines being just the latest such abomination) the second video being exactly the same, except that the women this time are actually topless. So yes, it is, without doubt, misogynistic, but even the unrated version of the video is no worse than we have all seen a thousand times before. Frankly, both song and video are pretty tame by the standards of what you can see on MTV at any given moment.

So why has Thicke, and his song in particular, been singled out for such criticism? It can’t just be the fact that one look at Thicke tells you he is an unbearably smug, smarmy twat. Is it just the straw that finally broke the camel’s back?

Few would argue against the record industry being labelled misogynistic. It has always been thus, but over the last ten years or so, pop music does seem to have regressed at a phenomenal rate regarding its treatment of women. With a tiny number of exceptions, success for female singers now seems to be dependent on how much flesh they are willing to display. Even those with already impressive sales figures inevitably reach the point where they claim to have “matured”, which is basically code for dressing like a prostitute, whilst regurgitating their label boss’ instructed mantra of how dressing and cavorting in this way makes them feel “strong and empowered”. The usual Spears/Aguilera trajectory that must be adhered to appears to be; sweet, alluring, innocent-yet-sexually available schoolgirl -> promiscuous, provocative, even-more-sexually-available-slut. Maybe at some point they will reinvent themselves as serious artists too, but I won’t hold my breath on that one.

The most recent example of this has of course been Miley Cyrus, whose transformation from sweet, all-American girl into semi naked Thicke twerker has left people variously stunned, saddened and furious. The peaks (or lows) of her new image have been her onstage twerkfest with Thicke, and the recent “Wrecking Ball” video, in which she only just stops short of having full penetrative sex with various pieces of heavy masonry tools, including an actual wrecking ball (the appearance of a wrecking ball in the video for a song called Wrecking Ball is presumably some sort of metaphor, perhaps for….erm…a wrecking ball). Personally, I find Cyrus’ current incarnation no more or less offensive than the pandering, nonce-friendly one with which she found fame. The magnitude of her image-shift, however, actually makes me consider her more of a victim than anything else, with her father Billy Ray of Achy Breaky Heart fame seemingly a controlling influence to some degree (and before anyone says it; no, this doesn’t mean I think women in music or anywhere else are incapable of making their own decisions, but consider the age from which she was part of the entertainment industry. This is all she has ever known, and so she probably has very little perspective, and who could be more responsible for that than her own parents? Especially when Billy Ray also appeared as her on-screen father in Hannah Montana), and the video itself is simply another example of how the modern pop video has become no more than wank-fodder for teen boys and dirty old men alike. The daft thing is, Wrecking Ball, is actually a pretty decent pop song.

So what is the solution? Is there ever going to be one when the music industry continues to make shit loads of money and MTV can attract massive viewing figures with their unexpurgated flesh shows? Are the artists likely to take a stand against the industry that made them, especially when there will always be a steady supply of vulnerable, wannabe starlets waiting to do whatever it takes to attain stardom? You can just imagine the reaction of a company exec when an up-and-coming singer questions whether she should indeed dress like a street hooker in her debut video; “Either strip off, or get the fuck back on the bus, coz I’ve got a dozen girls waiting outside who will do this and more”.

The industry is never likely to self-regulate, and nor is MTV. The only thing likely to change things would be some sort of regulation, or simply a more stringent application of the 9pm watershed. Spend an hour watching the various music channels in the middle of the afternoon, and half the videos you will see will be highly unsuitable for children. These videos of woman grinding and gyrating and simulating are not the exception, they are the norm. Even the most permissive parent would not be comfortable with their kids watching this. But they are all over the place, readily available for impressionable young minds to view.

I should emphasise that I am resolutely against censorship, and I despise Tipper Gore and the PMRC. I don’t think any new restrictions are either necessary or desirable. But if MTV were only able to show these videos after 9pm, then there would be less reason for them to be made. Even accounting for the fact that any video can be viewed online, the loss of viewers would hurt MTV, and have a huge knock-on effect on the industry. The only thing that would precipitate any change would be of loss of sales and advertising revenue. Until that happens, nothing is likely to change any time soon.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.