Is it ok that I (still) like ‘Blurred Lines’? Not the concept—the pseudo-controversial, over-played pop toon, released by Robin Thicke and his pals T. I. and Pharrell and upbraided almost univocally by the media for being misogynist, creepy and even a ‘rape anthem.’ Apart from the fact that my addiction is now lasting an unfashionable length of time – coinciding with that inevitable flattening of the track into a sort of compact 2D jingle as a result of radio overplay – I wonder if I have been committing some kind of morally reprehensible, anti-feminist act by shimmying to it at every opportunity with such élan.
Lyrically, the root of the ‘rapey’ concern is in the line “I know you want it” and in the implications of blurred lines as a ‘no-means-yes’ presumption. In fact, it would be worth pointing out that at no point in the song does Thicke report the girl saying ‘no’ or ‘yes.’ To get technical, lines like “the way you grab me” and “I feel so lucky…you wanna hug me” imply reciprocated agency on the girl’s part, but at the very least the song depicts a swaggering attempt at seduction, not necessarily a success.
I like the tune and I don’t feel guilty about this on account of the lyrics. In the context of contemporary pop music they are pretty uneventful—or the video: you only have to enter one of the UK’s three hundred strip clubs or open a copy of The Sun to know the phenomenon of nude women among clothed men is not much of a phenomenon at all. What I think is weird about it is weird for the very fact that it isn’t very controversial or unheard of, namely that odd, recurrent animal trope:
“[he] Tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal
Baby it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you”
In the context of the song, Thicke wants to release a woman from the constraints of acting ‘tame,’ so she can go ‘wild’ and have T. I. “smack that ass and pull your hair like that,” which she is presumed to want, since she is “the hottest bitch in this place.”
Ah, the word ‘bitch’: just one of a catalogue of feminine derogatory terms: cunt, motherfucker, son-of-a-bitch. Even bastard is rooted in the fact of being born to an unwed mother. It’s not just female dogs that get the flack: girls are ‘catty,’ their definitively female cruelty eliciting “miaow”’s and “a saucer of milk for Miss Thomas”’s. Of course cats have been worshipped, specifically as matriarchal animals, and have a degree of female self-containment antithetical to a dog’s friendly promiscuity. This seems to analogise the complex: pop music sees girls as either cold ‘cats’ or wanton ‘dogs’ (would you look at that—another one!) When Akon immortalized his etymological struggle “tryna find the words to describe this girl / Without being disrespectful” and alighted on “sexy bitch,” it’s fair to say, by many standards, he failed. But again the song is sexually charged and seems to aim, in some respect, at seeming liberating. “She’s nothing like a girl you’ve ever seen before / Nothing you can compare to your neighbourhood whore.” She’s not a whore, she’s a bitch.
The same semantic distinction recurs in the Ying Yang Twins’ track ‘Badd Bitch’: “Aw no she ain’t no hoe, she just a badd bitch.” A bitch is synonymous with “a girl who know what she want and like…a schoolgirl by day and a stripper by night.” Bitches say one thing and do another and they seem to get what they want. It’s the same with Jet: “Cold hard bitch / Just a kiss on the lips / And I was on my knees / I’m waiting give me” and Bowie’s Queen of bitches: “Now she’s leading him on / And she’ll lay him right down / But it could have been me.” Self-proclaimed bitch Meredith Brooks finds men “look at me like maybe I’m an angel underneath / Innocent and sweet” when, in fact, coping with her will require “a stronger man.”
The animal paradox being invoked in these songs is one of duality, or more accurately duplicity, seeming to be what you are not. Then, concurrent with the ‘wild’, unpredictable bitch, there is also the beast who acts ‘tame’. The Pixies’ song puts that epithet firmly in its place, in terms of its reflections on femininity:
“Got hips like Cinderella
Must have been having a good shame
Talking sweet about nothing
Cookie I think you’re tame.”
This host of sinisterly lisped invectives suggests – like the Ying Yang Twins’ schoolgirl/stripper – that a tame woman will most likely end up in the paradoxical hitch of being sexualised by her very disdain. Aha. So if the irony is that women who try to appear innocent preclude their sexual disinterest by their very behaviour, we appear to be in an upside-down flowchart whereby any female behaviour ultimately leads to the box at the bottom marked SEX. And as usual, in their inimitable way, the Pixies are making quite a genuine socio-cultural point here (rehashing the eternally rehashed virgin/whore dichotomy).
So, what’s new? If you’re ‘tame’ you are just a time bomb of smoothed over sexual frenzy, like a tame circus animal that attacks, and if you show wildness to a level of autonomy, it’s a sort of double negative; you don’t not want it. As so frequently, I think, the problem here really rests within the very notion of paradox: the trap of choosing ‘not not’ over the real freedom of ‘yes, but.’ Disembodied child-friendly paragon of purity and subjugation though she may be, Cinderella must still have hips. And with hips comes the potential (fulfilled or not) for childbearing and with childbearing comes having sex. There is no such thing as Robin Thicke’s “good girl.” The belief in the paradox is what creates the lie: in reality men and women are neither ‘good’ and tame but undermined by their sexuality, nor are they hungry animals trying to stay on the straight and narrow. The eternal upside-down flowchart of social and intellectual life does seem to lead back to those three letters, regardless of gender. Sex is a ‘yes, but’; it’s never a not. Daniel Bergner seems to be pointing out something similar in his new ‘myth-buster’ book, What Do Women Want?
Possibly the issue with talking about sexuality in animal terms is less that it’s disrespectful or ‘rapey’ but more that it’s simply inaccurate. By turning sex into a tame/wild paradox you prevent people from respectably and legitimately being both, not in the schoolgirl/stripper antithesis but in a genuinely complex and meaningful way. Moreover, conceptualising sex as a dichotomy or choice means it can be taken from or imposed upon a person. Whether or not you agree with their point or think they are perpetuating the stereotype of irresponsibility, this was the concern of anti-rape porn campaigners who claimed that women in porn have fewer rights than animals.
The whole debate reminds me of a novel that I actually loved, despite its slightly dour logic. David Garnett’s 1922 Lady into Fox is about country wife Sylvia, who transforms into a fox to the upset and confusion of her husband, who struggles to cope with her new ‘foxey ways,’ finding her ‘wilful and cunning.’ In reality she has simply divested herself of ‘the ridiculous conceptions of a man.’ Symbolically in Garnett’s book liberation means death, at the hands of an unpleasantly allegorical ‘male’ foxhunt. Nowadays female artists like Shakira can approach issues like ‘lycanthropy’ with a more unbridled, if slightly bizarre, freedom of expression.
Regarding my moral conundrum about the shimmyworthiness of ‘Blurred Lines,’ I refer you to the wisdom of pop-critic and feminist activist Ellen Willis, who underwent a similar struggle back in 1977 when she wrote, “On November 7, I admitted I was turned on by the Sex Pistols.” She puts it, brilliantly, like this:
“Listening to the Sex Pistols, trying to figure out if ‘Bodies’ was really an antiabortion song, I discovered that it was something even worse. It was an outburst of loathing for human physicality, a loathing projected onto women because they have babies and abortions and are “a fucking bloody mess,” but finally recoiling against the singer himself: “I’m not an animal!” he bellowed in useless protest, his own animal sounds giving him the lie. It was an outrageous song, yet I could not simply dismiss it with outrage. The extremity of its disgust forced me to admit that I was no stranger to such feelings—though unlike Johnny Rotten I recognized that the disgust, not the body, was the enemy.”