Blurred Meaning

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams, has officially been crowned the song of the summer, with its catchy beat and breezy vocals wafting across FM radio dials from coast to coast.

Having been taken in by the tune’s easy charms myself, I was rather alarmed to realize—belatedly, I admit—that the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” would seem to apologize for, if not outright glorify, sexual assault.

The charge against the song in general—we’ll consider specifics in a moment—is that it amounts to a man declaring his intention to have his way with a woman without pausing to consider whether she is truly on board.  That this man views this woman as little more than the object of his uncommonly animalistic sexual faculties, of which he holds such a high opinion that, in his mind, no woman could possibly object to being given a closer look.  Even if she doesn’t ask for one.

In short, critics argue that “Blurred Lines” perpetuates the “rape culture” that has so frighteningly poisoned the American landscape for the last many years—a milieu that asserts (more or less) that men cannot be held responsible for the natural hormonal instincts that lead them to penetrate a woman without her permission.

Having now given “Blurred Lines” a more careful reading, I do not see why this must be so.

The basis of the outrage is the assumption that the woman in question has not given her consent.  That when the male narrator utters the stubborn refrain, “I know you want it,” the implication is that, in fact, she might not—rather, he is projecting his own desires unto her.  That she has implied “no,” but he has inferred “yes.”

But we don’t know that such a scenario has occurred in “Blurred Lines.”  To borrow an old SAT phrase, the meaning is not clear from the text.

We are told early on, “OK now he was close / tried to domesticate you / but you’re an animal / baby it’s in your nature.”  And later:  “The way you grab me / must wanna get nasty.”  To this, the narrator vows, “Just let me liberate you / you don’t need no papers / that man is not your maker.”  And:  “Nothing like your last guy / he too square for you / he don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.”

Now then.

Is it not possible that the reason for the man’s impression of this woman as “an animal” who “must wanna get nasty” is because, at some point during their courtship, she told him exactly that?  Might we entertain the notion that she ended her previous relationship precisely because her partner was “too square” for her and that she wants someone who will pull her hair and so forth?

In other words, rather than projecting things he doesn’t actually know, might the narrator of this song merely be reporting the facts and setting the scene?  Could it be that the woman is not only consenting, but insisting?

While my own experience on this front is regrettably limited, I have read my fair share of Dan Savage’s advice columns and have become sufficiently persuaded by the proposition that certain women, like certain men, are quite keen on rough sex.

What is more, that if 21st century feminism means anything, it means the freedom for women to assert and express their sexual selves as abundantly as their partners and the laws of physics allow.  Could not “Blurred Lines” be an endorsement of this modern, egalitarian sensibility from the viewpoint of a man who sees it as a win-win?

Against this admittedly optimistic interpretation, there are works such as “Project Unbreakable,” a chilling public awareness campaign, begun in 2011, featuring a collection of photographs of women who have been raped, each holding a sign with a direct quotation from the man who raped her.  In a blog post titled, “From the Mouths of Rapists,” novelist Sezin Koehler compiles a sampling of these images whose quotations are identical to (or nearly so) lines from Thicke’s song.

And so the point is made that, whether intended or accidental, “Blurred Lines” promulgates a strikingly casual attitude toward sex that, viewed through the prism of today’s rape culture, is careless at best and reprehensible at worst.

While I maintain that the precise nature of the song’s relationship is ambiguous, perhaps that is the strongest argument against it:  In real life scenarios, the nature of consent cannot be ambiguous under any circumstances, and a pop song has no business making light of this fact.

That such a song is the most commercially successful track of 2013 so far?  Well, the moral of that story is very ambiguous, indeed.

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