All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. All these bad books have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. (Robert Harris: The Ghost)
The same can be said, probably more so, for pop songs.
For months now I’ve been resisting the temptation to write about Robin Thicke’s international nerve-toucher, Blurred Lines. And for the past week, that temptation has doubled, since Miley Cyrus' bizarre VMA Awards performance alongside Thicke. Yesterday’s accounts that YouTube pulled the plug on a Blurred Lines parody video was the last straw. I can no longer resist the temptation to write about the same damned thing everyone else on the interthewebz is writing about.
I’ll try to keep it brief.
My interest in Blurred Lines springs from a fascination for those songs that tap into the dark ambiguities at the heart of sex. My own research concerns the sometimes cooperative, often conflict-ridden tensions that thrum between mates, and between sexes in humans and other animals.
To misquote Robert Harris, bad love songs all have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. Torch songs and saccharine ballads seek to paper over the darker and more delectable aspects of sex. Which is why songs imbued with the sinister or ambiguous make much more fascinating listening.
Thinking about my younger years, the music that lasted was definitely not the stuff about being young and wild and free. Yes, for my dear friends, the best days of our lives had a Bryan Adams soundtrack. But for me, R.E.M. (think I Took Your Name), the Violent Femmes' (Prove My Love), and The Cure (Lullaby) sang about rejection, insecurity and unrequited love in far more fascinating ways.
And I was not an especially melancholy youth.
At its best, and I use the term “best” with some hesitation, Blurred Lines threatens to explore the space between two people orbiting one another. Orbiting with mutual, if not explicit, intention to get it on. In the end, however, it merely prods at the hellz-tricky issue of how a “good girl” can want it too.
What starts out as a rather catchy lament of the ambiguous line between Madonna and whore descends into a nasty description of what Robin Thicke is offering to do to the nasty-good girl. I’ll leave you to decipher the lyrics or read them yourself, but one isn’t left wondering why Thicke is considered by some to personify misogyny and “rape culture”.
Listening to his lyrics is a bit like watching a Connery-era Bond film. It’s vaguely enjoyable until the bit where you recognise you’re witnessing a sexual assault.
The enormous traction of Blurred Lines comes not only from the dubious lyric, but also from the not-safe-for-work version of the video featuring several women, topless and wearing the scantiest flesh-coloured briefs, writhing for Thicke and, we are led to believe, whatever rhymes with Thicke.
But the impression I’m left with is that it’s fine for the good girls to get nasty if they’re under tight masculine control. It’s as sexless as Robert Palmer’s contrived video for Addicted to Love. I’ve never fathomed why some people find that video sexy. I think the lipsticked droid-like automata float some people’s boats because they don’t threaten to talk.
In my opinion, Blurred Lines ultimately fails because the balance is all wrong. And as a result the song, like Addicted to Love, fails to ring true. Thicke man-splains a feminine dilemma with the transparent say-anything cynicism of the desperate would-be seducer. The clean lines of the music and the spotless video serve to make a rather sordid story more clinical. A story ripe for parody.
Apparently this parody by a group of Auckland University law students was blocked by YouTube, but it is up and running today. Nonetheless, accounts of it’s banning certainly created a teachable moment about sexism and double standards. And granted it the kind of notoriety necessary for viral success. First objective achieved, I imagine. If UNSW Law Revues were consistently like this, I might even consider going.
But what about Miley Cyrus?
If you have been living on a remote planet for the last ten days, then you’d better find a way to avoid watching this:
Yes, it was a bizarre performance. But not bizarre enough to be considered avant-garde. There’s been a lot of talk about the performance. Maybe, maybe too much talk. Mostly in faux-concern for Ms Cyrus, general uproar about sexualising children (Miley, it turns out, was once a child), or flat-out misogyny. I won’t add to these lines of considered analysis.
But what I loved was the way in which Miley broke Blurred Lines.
A 20-year-old former child star, who the public is simply unready to see as a sexual being, had a whole lot of fun sending up Thicke and his plodding, misogynist lyrics. She’s the good girl who ain’t too worried about the fallout from getting nasty. She made sex, and the ambiguity of lines that sometimes do blur, very very messy again. She dragged Thicke away from his tightly-controlled video romp with picture-perfect topless models and into a messier world where women talk, and sing, and “twerk”.
Look at his face around four minutes into the video and you know he knows it. Hannah Montana has dragged him, dick first, far off-brand.
What was Miley thinking? I couldn’t tell you. And that’s the interesting bit. I know rather too much about the content of Robin Thicke’s controlled and sterile fantasy. And I’d rather not.