Culture | What rhymes with “hug me?”

"Blurred Lines" and the politics of liking things you should hate

Blurred Lines” has been called the “song of the summer,” and it”s a little…problematic, to use the collegiate term. Sung by R&B crooner (and some would say poor man’s Justin Timberlake) Robin Thicke, with some help from hip-hop polymath Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I., the track has been on heavy rotation on pop radio, in every public place one can imagine, and as a result, in many people’s heads. Over a spare, rumbling beat, Thicke breaks out his best falsetto to tell us that you’re an “animal,” contrary to your old boyfriend’s understanding. It’s in your nature. He begs for a chance to “liberate” you. He has always wanted a good girl. The phrase “I know you want it,” that classic signifier of imminent nonconsensual shenanigans, is prominently featured. The song is punctuated by Pharell’s Fat-Albert-as-dirty-old-man “Hey, hey, hey’s.” Are you turned on yet? Where are you going?

In a GQ interview earlier this year, Thicke offered invaluable insight into his writing process for the single: “[Pharell] and I would go back and forth where I’d sing a line and he’d be like, ‘Hey, hey, hey!’ We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!'”

Thicke’s made some noise about how the song was a parody of slobbering masculine behaviour, a “feminist movement within itself,” but that attempt at retroactive damage control sounds almost too silly to validate. Even if that was his intention in writing the song (somewhat doubtful, considering the above quote), few listeners were in on the joke. But you know, maybe we’ve got it wrong. Maybe this song is only being mistaken for a product of the rape culture it seeks to eradicate. Maybe its music video is a social statement. The clip features Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. frolicking with plastic-clad models against a trendily off-white background. At intervals, the figures become obscured by oppressively of-the-moment hashtags – “#THICKE” and “#BLURRED LINES” – in red. When the camera cuts to a balloon arrangement reading “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG D—,” it’s quite obviously a reference to his “Desire to dismantle the patriarchy.” We all had it wrong, man. Those nipples in the unrated version were standing up for women’s rights. Maybe. Probably not.

To make matters worse, “Lines” is an entirely unnecessary song. There’s nothing here you can’t get elsewhere. If you’re interested in an ass-shaking, cowbell-studded groove, listen to “Got to Give it Up” by Marvin Gaye, from which Robin Thicke drew his “inspiration” (there’s a lawsuit brewing, in fact). If you prefer your 1970s throwbacks with a guest spot from Pharrell, listen to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” You’ll get more of him.

I should hate this song. “Blurred Lines” has sleaze embedded in its DNA, an anthem for every creepy guy you’ve avoided eye contact with on public transportation or at a party. Most of its redeeming qualities were lifted wholesale from another, better track, adding another entry to that titanic ledger where they record instances of white people stealing work from black musicians. For the most part, I am not a fan of misogyny and cultural appropriation. Just not my thing. I should hate this song. Right?

But, well…I don’t. I listened to it frequently and on purpose throughout the summer, enough that I had T.I.’s gentleman-pervert guest spot (“One thing that I ask of you / Let me be the one you back that ass into”) memorized. I danced to it. My friends and I took great pleasure in blasting the song at top volume in my car, giddily awaiting the opportunity to bark “YOU THE HOTTEST BITCH IN THIS PLACE” into each other’s faces. We’re a pretty solidly feminist lot. The type that get called “killjoys” on the internet. What are we doing dancing as an overly-slick blue-eyed soul singer tries to holler at us from the passenger’s side of his best friend Pharrell’s ride? Shouldn’t we be running?

The truth of it is that music is not political. It doesn’t care about your deeply held personal convictions. Lyrics can be political, the people who make music certainly have their views, but the noise, the sounds that themselves compose beat and melody – the timbre of a singer’s voice, the thrum of a bassline, the crash of a snare drum – they don’t care about your feelings on the patriarchy. Noise is nature. And nature doesn’t care if you don’t like the words packaged with the vibrations. Nature wants you to shake what your evolutionary foremothers gave you. (This is all, of course, anecdotal. There’s plenty of actual, serious debate in the neurological field over whether musical taste is innate or acquired. This is not the place to find that.)

But we’re human beings. Most of us don’t live in nature. We live in society, because it’s in our nature to screw around with nature. And society has a bit of a problem with pushy, entitled men who know exactly what rhymes with “hug me,” mainly because they’ve grown up surrounded by endless books and movies and songs that argue that even as her lips say “no,” her eyes are saying “yes.” Nothing exists in a vacuum. Do I really want to give my YouTube views to one of these guys?

So how do we deal with this? There are plenty of folk out there who will probably just tell us to turn our brains off and dance. It’s just music. Don’t bring your “rape culture” into this. You’re depressing us. It’s hard to protest against that. Entertainment should be an escape for those who need it.

But maybe circle back around once you’ve had enough of escaping. Maybe look up the lyrics to your favorite songs. There’s no way to completely cleanse your cultural intake of material that doesn’t align with your politics unless you’re willing to take up residence in a cave and retreat completely from pop culture. Just know what you’re listening to, where it comes from. Talk about it. It’s not going to be easy. People will probably find you annoying, say that you’re making them “uncomfortable.” But if the patriarchy’s comfortable, it’ll never leave. Maybe it’s inevitable that we’re all beaten down by the inexorable, heaving waves of popular opinion. Maybe we will allow our pointy, angry edges to be sanded down. But that’s later. We’re young now, right? We’ve got energy. So sure, go dancing. But keep your brain turned on.