Day 139: We Are All Robin Thicke
by Tom Noonan
What happened to Robin Thicke? Just a few months ago this dude was the freshest thing around. And I should know. I’m in college. For months after “Blurred Lines” dropped, every pre-game was “Play that Robin Thicke song”. People loved that shit. They sang that shit, ate that shit up. So when did he get this Daniel Tosh-sized target on his back?
I mean I get it. I’m not trying to be obtuse here. I’m definitely not trying to defend the song’s artistic merit, because I recognize that it has little to none. I’m just wondering how we got here. How a supremely popular song is taking such a critical beating right now, and why people are coming out of the woodwork explicitly to “take Robin Thicke down”. People like Elizabeth Plank and the Chicago Tribune’s Timothy Villareal who called it “a catchy tune with grotesque, misogynist lyrics” like it was breaking news. I guess I’m just wondering if this is all such a good thing, and if we’re going about these conversations the right way.
Let’s start from the beginning. Robin Thicke releases “Blurred Lines” on March 26th and the accompanying video is absurd, sexual, and casually nude. We all kinda got the joke then, right? I mean, we didn’t think this was just a home video of Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and T.I. hanging out, did we? And those balloons that spelled out “Robin Thicke has a big dick”, that kind of gave it all away, didn’t it? I mean we don’t need to be spoon-fed the implications here; the video was misogynistic in a self-aware but mostly self-defeating way. It was satire made by people who aren’t exactly sure what satire is. It was The Lonely Island without the punchlines.
This was fine, though, at least for a while. “Blurred Lines” was huge, with its Neptunes-schooled beat and quotable lyrics (“What rhymes with hug me?”). Didn’t we all know then that the song wasn’t exactly empowering, back when it was becoming the song of the summer? How many times do we have to hear the lyric, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”, before realizing this song might not be feminist slogan material anyway? And did we really expect T.I. to carry that banner? Him of the whole Azelia Banks, “that is what I consider bitch shit” feud. Did we really expect anything reflective to come from that guy’s guest verse?
Maybe it’s because we feel so dumb that we’re lashing out at Robin Thicke. I mean he did just make us look pretty fucking stupid in that GQ interview, saying about the “Blurred Lines” lyrics, “We were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this. People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’” Quotes like this make it clear that he’s not worth protecting, and I want to make it clear that that’s not what I’m doing here, but quotes like this one also prove he’s not exactly worth fighting, either. Or, more pointedly, they prove Mr. Thicke isn’t the problem; he’s a product of it.
Back on June 28th, two weeks after Yeezus’s release, Spin’s Brandon Soderberg wrote an opinion piece titled, “Is ‘Yeezus’ the Tipping Point for Rap Misogyny?” in which he argues, “rap feels like it is reverting. Most notably, it has been shoved back into the strip club, and with that has come a woozy, dark, too-many-drugs vibe that producers have cribbed from eccentric Internet rap and R&B groups like the Weeknd.” What bothers me is not so much his bullet points as it is the premise of the article; the premise that there is a difference between regular misogyny and “Rap Misogyny”. It’s right there in the title, but it also permeates his language and presentation. In order to write an article that’s attempting to take down “Rap Misogyny”, Mr. Soderberg must believe that rap artists traffic in a different type of misogyny than, say, the Dr. Pepper marketing team telling us their diet soda is “not for women” during the NCAA Tournament. It’s this type of thinking that confuses the discussion about misogyny in America.
To explain further, let’s go back to the Daniel Tosh joke. When the off-color comedian made a characteristically tasteless joke about rape, one that had significantly less taste than anything he’d ever said before in public, a debate erupted about rape culture and misogyny in our national culture. Mr. Tosh’s remarks ended up playing like a mirror to our own shortcomings, and we didn’t shy away from the reflection. We recognized it as something we’d had a hand in creating, but we also didn’t really try to change it either. We kind of just talked about what we saw.
So why is it then that we’re going after Kanye West and Robin Thicke with such a passion? After all, art will always be unsuccessful if it’s unable to find an audience, and these two men are in no danger of failing to do that. Shouldn’t we be turning these think pieces on ourselves, on our own culture, and wondering how these men got to be so extremely successful? Aren’t they doing less to create an environment of misogyny than simply channeling one that’s already in existence, that’s been in existence since well before they were born? And why do we see what they’re doing as so different from what Daniel Tosh did? Is it because we all knew right away that what Tosh did was wrong but needed a little longer to realize “Blurred Lines” and “I’m In It” weren’t exactly right? It’s probably because what Tosh did was in a small comedy club, and what these artists are doing has the capacity to dominate the radio, but in our viral age, is there really such a big difference? From where we’re sitting now, with Tosh’s joke being one of the major talking points of 2013, it starting to seem like there isn’t.
I guess I’m just trying to wrap my head around this myth of multiple misogynies, a myth that makes us to try and silence certain music genres and artists like we’re sealing off flooded sections of the Titanic. It lets us believe that “Rap Misogyny” is something that can be solved without having to dig into our country’s ugly history. It passes the blame. When will we realize that we’re still going sink?
We keep forgetting that art doesn’t just create culture; it has to do so by reflecting what’s already there and then interpreting it. That’s why blaming Robin Thicke for being misogynistic is like getting angry with Quentin Tarantino for enjoying cinematic violence; both of these men are just repackaging the culture they grew up in. They’re certainly not blameless, but blaming them exclusively also won’t get us anywhere. When we crusade against Robin Thicke, or Kanye, or the amorphous “hip-hop”, we’re actively ignoring our own role in the process, and this omission makes these conversations not even worth having. Until we’re all willing to admit to our own misogyny, we have no place to tear down Robin Thicke.