I bet Pharrell Williams is feeling slightly bemused right now. His past videos have featured lap-dancing strippers, girl-on-girl action, hypnotised women shaking their breasts on his command. Any complaints? Not a peep. No accusations of misogyny or sexism. Now his latest video is getting flack – even though it’s obviously a bit of what Robin Thicke called ‘Benny Hill-type’ fun. (And don’t we all want a bit of that?) But given Blurred Lines is still no. 1 after seven weeks, I wager Pharrell is mostly feeling relieved. It’s a long-awaited return from the wilderness, made even more triumphant by the fact he’s also sitting at no. 2 with Get Lucky. If he had to bare a few breasts or sing with two nerdy Frenchmen to do so, well that’s collateral. It doesn’t take away from the fact he’s just sung on two of the catchiest tunes of the summer. And it’s impossible not to sing along:
‘Shake the vibe, get down, get up
Do it like it hurt, like it hurt
What you don’t like work?’
Those lyrics probably cover exactly why Blurred Lines might considered be a bit ‘rapey’. Not to mention the clothed men in the foreground and naked girls in the background. If you still don’t get it, there’s been some fine indignant writing in the media these past seven weeks. Faced with criticism, Robin Thicke’s unconvincing defence didn’t help matters. First he feebly pointed out that the director is a woman (oh, and I bet he’s friends with women too). Then he pleaded irony. But saying something is ironic doesn’t make it less offensive, simply more insidious. The same charge could be levelled at Pharrell’s regular interviews with artists, architects, sportsmen on his YouTube channel Artst Tlk. He surprises his guests with a naked woman who walks in nonchalantly and serves them water. A naked woman? Hilarious.
What’s really interesting is the extent of outrage over a simple case of misogyny – something that’s pretty endemic in in R’n’B and hip hop. Of course, it’s in part because Blurred Lines has been so successful. Kanye West’s Monster, which features made-up models hanging from ceilings by chains around their necks, as well as limp women with dislocated limbs, is just as sexist. But it only got to no. 18, so if nobody really watched the video or listened to the song, who was going to complain about it? Even though the imperious advisory warning practically begged for controversy: ‘The following Content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and it shall be taken as such.’
Blurred Lines is different because it feels so white. Obviously, Robin Thicke is Caucasian and the girls are too (except for Jessi M’Bengue, who’s French with Arab and West African roots and looks like she’s stepped out of Vogue Italia – the black issue). Even the font feels white – the bright sans serif reminiscent of Katherine Hamnett’s logos or the title sequence for Girls. It’s hipster and high fashion in a way that The Weeknd’s Kiss Land (Cause the only thing you’re takin’ is your clothes off / Go ‘head girl, strip it down, close your mouth / I just wanna hear your body talk) or any 50 Cent video is not. That means mainstream media feel they can voice their disapproval and can criticise without being labelled racist. It all seems a little phony.
The best takedowns of Blurred Lines have subverted the playfulness of the original. Mod Carousel, the ‘Boylesque’ troupe from Seattle, swapped the genders – the women sing and the boys parade – to make something more joyful and less weird. And in an effort to show how creepy some of those Blurred Lines lyrics are, Barachdubs (who usually makes montages of Obama singing Carly Rae Jepsen et al) put the words in the mouth of the most sleazy, most powerful guy of them all, Bill Clinton.
Now that’s funny. Unless you’re Monica.