Blurred Lines: the most controversial song of the decade (2023)

This week, University College London student union (UCLU) took the unusual step of banning a single song, Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines. It joins around 20 other UK student unions to do so. This is the latest development in the story of how the biggest song of theyear became the most controversial of the decade: an unprecedented achievement, though not one that fillsThicke with pride.

It seems impossible that anyone with the faintest interest in popular culture could have missed either the song or the controversy, but here is a recap. At the end of March, mid-table R&B singer Thicke, along with producer Pharrell Williams and rapper TI, released Blurred Lines, a libidinous R&B party jam about a woman in a nightclub who may or not be interested in him. In April, one blogger branded it a "rape song", and two months later Tricia Romano of the Daily Beast described it as "rapey", a word that caught fire in other media outlets. The song might have escaped censure if thevideo, in which the three male performers goof around with scantily clad (and, in one version, topless) models, had not generated its own separate yet overlapping controversy.

Throughout the summer, as the song eclipsed even Daft Punk's Get Lucky as the biggest hit of 2013, debate about its sexual politics heated up. In September, contributors to Project Unbreakable, a photographic project dedicated to rape survivors, held up placards comparing words spoken bytheir attackers to lines from the song. Also in September, Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA) became the first student bodyto ban Blurred Lines.

"It promotes a very worrying attitude towards sex and consent," explained Kirsty Haigh, EUSA's vice-president of services. "This is about ensuring that everyone is fully aware that you need enthusiastic consent before sex. The song says: 'You know you want it.' Well, you can't know theywant it unless they tell you they want it."

By that point, Thicke's hit was part of a bigger debate about the messages of pop lyrics and videos. Miley Cyrus's performance at the Video Music Awards in August, during which Thicke popped up like some kind of sex-pest Zelig, ignited another firestorm of indignation on several fronts. Recently, Netmums published a survey claiming that 80% of parents had found their children copying explicit lyrics or dance movies from music videos, while Annie Lennox called for videos to be regulated in the same way as movies. "I'm all for freedom of expression," she began ominously, "but this is clearly one step beyond, and it's clearly into the realm of porn. How do you stop your kids being exposed to it?"

(Video) Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines ft. T.I., Pharrell (Official Music Video)

This week, a tipping point has been reached. Lily Allen launched the video to her comeback single, Hard Out Here, which takes aim at music industry sexism with specific reference to theBlurred Lines video. And three women's organisations launched the Rewind&Reframe campaign, with a four-pronged strategy: to enable young women to air their grievances about music videos, to campaign for age ratings on videos, to encourage compulsory sex and relationship education in schools, and to pressure the music industry to get its house in order.

"In music videos across the board there's widespread racism and sexism, specifically the sexualisation of black and ethnic minority women," says Lia Latchford of Rewind&Reframe. "Young women have told us that it has a real impact on their day-to-day lives. They're tired of messages that depict women as highly sexualised passive sex objects. Getting rid of one song won't solve the problem. It's a culture of racism and sexism that we need tochange."

Blurred Lines: the most controversial song of the decade (1)

The last time pop music inspired such snowballing outrage was during the rise of the Parents' Music Resource Centre (PMRC). Established in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Al, after she found her daughter listening to Prince's sexually graphic Darling Nikki, the PMRC successfully campaigned to slap stickers reading Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics on offending albums. The ensuing climate of censorship reached a peak in 1992, when rapper Ice-T's rock band Body Count buckled to huge political pressure and deleted their song Cop Killer. They pointedly replaced it on the album with a new song called Freedom of Speech.

That moral panic was driven by older, more conservative campaigners, but much of the current opposition topop's excesses stems from young feminists. If the MTV generation was the first to be exposed to the power of music videos, then the YouTube generation is the first to understand those videos in the context of social media and online discourse. Cultural consumers have never been more attuned to the messages, both explicit and implicit, embedded in popular artforms. Arguments about racism, misogyny and cultural appropriation that used to thrive primarily in academia are now mainstream. Sometimes these concerns about "problematic" art go to comical extremes – the Tumblr Your Fave Is Problematic leaves you wondering if there is anything out there that isn't problematic – but at least young consumers are asking the right questions, in the spirit of playwright August Wilson's axiom: "All art is political in the sense that it serves someone's politics."

Even the most prominent model inthe Blurred Lines video, Emily Ratajkowski, has said: "I'm glad that people are criticising pop lyrics, because I think that's an important thing to do." It has tangible effects, too. When popular MC Rick Ross rapped, on Rocko's single UOENO, about spiking someone's drink in order to have sex with her, public outcry forced him to apologise.

(Video) How Robin Thicke Destroyed His Career

Many people who follow pop music closely, however, are surprised that Blurred Lines has become such a lightning rod. "It really did boggle my mind when people started freaking out about it," says US music critic Maura Johnston. "This is just a cheesy pickup line song and everyone was like: 'No, it's about forcing a woman against her will.' There are so many songs out there that are worse about demeaning women. Maybe it's an easy target because Robin Thicke is kind of slimy. Right now there's a lot of tension between women and men online so this was a way of women taking a piece of pop culture and saying: 'No, we're against this.' But it's weird to me because I didn't see it and I still don't."

Blurred Lines is not about rape in the same way that Cop Killer is about the fantasy of killing cops, so it is a question of interpretation. If you don't think the song's narrator is willing to have sex without consent, then the song seems at worst sleazy, and the reaction overblown. If, however, you think that the concept of "blurred lines" sends a dangerous message to listeners, then it's explosive.

Thicke himself has been a woeful defender of the song in interviews, recalling Spinal Tap's response to being called sexist: "What's wrong with being sexy?" That could be because, unlike Body Count or Eminem, he didn't intend to be outrageous. In R&B, such lyrics are par for the course. But itis revealing that TI's verse, which features the inflammatory line: "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two," has been replaced in televised performances with milder verses from rappers such as Iggy Azalea and the Roots' Black Thought.

The video is another matter. It was conceived and directed by Diane Martel, who told US website Grantland: "It forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera. This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. Idon't think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck."

Blurred Lines: the most controversial song of the decade (2)

Martel's thoughts have received little attention, but then one flaw in the current debate is an unwillingness to credit female artists with ideas of their own. When Miley Cyrus appeared naked in the Wrecking Ball video, critics assumed director Terry Richardson was calling the shots, yet in the case of Blurred Lines the blame for the video falls on Thicke. "People have been discounting almost everything Martel says, even though she was in charge," says Johnston.

(Video) Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines ft. T.I. & Pharrell (Unrated Version)

This is just one of the ways in which the battle lines are themselves blurred. Feminists were divided in their response to Sinéad O'Connor's open letters to Miley Cyrus. Was O'Connor making a valid feminist critique of misogyny in the music industry, or wasshe indulging in priggish "slut-shaming"?

Even more (here's that word again) problematic is the intersection of gender and race. While the members of the PMRC were affronted by heavy metal as well as hip-hop – their original "Filthy Fifteen" blacklist featured only three black artists – the current focus is overwhelmingly on urban music. Lily Allen's new video exclusively parodies black music and reduces black women's bodies to lurid props, however satirical her intent might be. One critic, who asked to be quoted anonymously, says: "The lyrics talk about the absurdity of the industry and the media but the main visual reference is black music. What about Katy Perry or Gaga or Miley? What about rock music?"

"Lily Allen's using the sexualisation of black women to challenge the sexualisation of black women so it doesn't really work," says Latchford. "It's a good concept but poorly executed. For us it's not a problem with black music specifically, but the music industry as a whole."

The complexity inherent in debating pop, where lyrics and videos are often elliptical, ambiguous and even contradictory, isn't well served by the kind ofdirect condemnations that tend to generate attention. In the case of Blurred Lines, many listeners came to the song via the controversy and therefore had an opinion before they had a reaction. "Once you have an opinion that can be summed up by asingle word – rapey, which I think is aterrible word – it's something that people can run with in an intense and far-reaching way, even if they haven't listened to the song," says Johnston. "You have this culture of commentary online where people are pressured to constantly come up with controversial angles to stick out. They don't have to do their homework to get the desired effect, which is traffic."

Some of the rhetoric may be blunt, but nothing is blunter than a ban. Haigh defends EUSA's decision on multiple grounds. "The executive made the decision that it wasn't a song we should be promoting and endorsing in our venues. It's also about protecting [rape] victims and making them feel safe so they don't have to listen to asong that reminds them of horrific experiences. And it starts a public discussion. Nothing changes overnight, but it's about slowly and surely changing the culture." But she says that Blurred Lines was banned because it was unusually well known and widely discussed rather than because it was exceptionally offensive, which makes for a shaky precedent.

"You're supposed to have as much freedom of expression in student unions as possible," says Eve Barlow, deputy editor of NME. "How is that precedent going to be set going forward, not just for music but other forms of media and speech? I think they're getting into muddy waters."

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"In principle, I'm against bans," says Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship. "Blanket bans on certain songs are contrary to what universities and life as a student should be about, which is becoming an adult and finding out about the world, and making your own decisions. It's worrying that young people seem to see censorship as a solution to complex societal issues."

He also has doubts about the efficacy of age-rating music videos. "First, ratings make these things moreattractive: I remember the cred bestowed on any hip-hop record with an explicit-lyrics sticker back in the 90s. Second, I'm not sure that ratings really address the core issues of racism and sexism."

Yet however imperfect the debate triggered by Blurred Lines may be, many women are justifiably unsettled by pop's inability to outgrow its crassest tropes. New US chart rules, which count YouTube views as well as sales, provide an enhanced incentive to produce attention-grabbing videos, creating a kind of outrage arms race. "I'm a feminist, so certain things about pop music I find pretty frustrating," the New Zealand singer Lorde told Q recently. "I think pop is scarily powerful. What you do and say with it has a lot of weight. There are a lot of shock tactics these days: people trying to outdo each other, which will probably culminate in two people fucking on stage at the Grammys."

The question is whether or not the music industry has any reason to change when controversy has done nothing to blunt the sales of Thicke or Cyrus, and has probably been beneficial. "What [the campaigners] are trying to do is make some music executive alert to the fact that people are upset," says Barlow. "That's music to their ears. It seems like a domino effect: response after response after response, and that's helping the song do well and make even more people aware of it. I don't think it will change anything. If anything, it will make the actions more outrageous so more people talk about them."

Latchford is more optimistic. "Young women are tired of seeing this kind of video and they want to see achange. We hope that because it's coming from young women who are supposed to be consumers of this stuff, that will drive change."

It's more likely, and more desirable, that tangible change will be driven organically by formidable artists rather than chastened executives. Black women such as Angel Haze and Janelle Monáe don't so much resist hypersexualised imagery as behave as if it is not even a consideration. They have so much charisma and dynamism that they are riveting without having to strip down. Admittedly, they aren't yethousehold names, but it is only amatter of time before a truly unorthodox star emerges. If pop music has created a problem, then only pop music can solve it.

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FAQs

Why is the song Blurred Lines controversial? ›

Thicke told the Daily Star in 2013 that the lyrics were “mostly throwaway fun,” adding that the song was about “the blurred line between a good girl and bad girl, people who want to get naughty.” Many listeners have argued that the single's catchy refrain — “I know you want it” — promotes rape culture by disregarding ...

What song did Blurred Lines plagiarize? ›

Pharrell Williams has spoken out against a federal jury's ruling that his hit song “Blurred Lines” illegally copied from Marvin Gaye's “Got to Give it Up”. In 2018, a federal appeals court upheld a controversial copyright infringement verdict against singer Robin Thicke and Williams over the 2013 chart-topper.

What is the message behind the song Blurred Lines? ›

In an interview with Pitchfork in 2014, he said: "When you pull back and look at the entire song, the point is she's a good girl, and even good girls want to do things, and that's where you have the blurred lines. "She expresses it in dancing because she's a good girl.

What year was Blurred Lines popular? ›

"Blurred Lines" topped the Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks, making it the longest running single of 2013. Billboard named "Blurred Lines" the song of the summer in September 2013.

How similar are Blurred Lines and Got to Give It Up? ›

"Blurred Lines and Got to Give It Up are not objectively similar. They differ in melody, harmony, and rhythm. "Yet by refusing to compare the two works, the majority establishes a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere."

What Marvin Gaye song is Blurred Lines? ›

The long copyright lawsuit over Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines,” and whether it ripped off Marvin Gaye's “Got to Give It Up,” reared its head again after supposedly concluding in 2018.

What did Robin Thicke plagiarize? ›

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams created a #1 Smash hit with "Blurred Lines." After the pair was found copying Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit, “Got to Give It Up,” the court made the pair pay more than $5 million.

Who wrote Blurred Lines? ›

Blurred Lines

What does blur the line mean? ›

to make the difference between two things less clear, or to make it difficult to see the exact truth about something: This film blurs the line/distinction/boundary between reality and fantasy. SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases. Indistinct & invisible.

Are Robin Thicke and Pharrell friends? ›

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams 'good friends again after Blurred Lines falling out' Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke have kissed and made up following their public spat over who wrote their hit Blurred Lines – and now they're working on new music together.

How do you use Blurred Lines in a sentence? ›

There are blurred lines. Trademark law in the age of the Internet has blurred lines. Super blurred lines". The star has blurred lines in its hydrogen spectrum due to its rotation.

How many records did Blurred Lines sell? ›

The album debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, with first-week sales of 177,000 copies in the United States. The album sold 65,000 copies in its second week, coming in at number 3. In its third week, the album was at number 4, selling 48,000 copies.

Who is the girl in the Blurred Lines video? ›

Just over one month since Emily Ratajkowski accused Robin Thicke of groping her bare breasts on the set of the "Blurred Lines" music video shoot, the model is sharing that she didn't even recall the interaction until years later.

What year did got to give it up come out? ›

"Got to Give It Up" is a song by American music artist Marvin Gaye. Written by the singer and produced by Art Stewart as a response to a request from Gaye's record label that he perform disco music, it was released in March 1977.

Who did Robin Thicke steal from? ›

Robin Thicke noticeably ripped off Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” when he wrote the smash hit “Blurred Lines” with Pharrell Williams and T.I., a Los Angeles jury has decided. He and co-songwriter Pharrell Williams must pay Gaye's family $7.3 million as part of the ruling, according to Variety.

Who wrote Marvin Gaye give it up? ›

Got to Give It Up, Part 1

Who is Robin Thickes dad? ›

Alan Thicke (born Alan Willis Jeffrey; March 1, 1947 – December 13, 2016) was a Canadian actor, songwriter, and game and talk show host. He is the father of singer Robin Thicke. In 2013, Thicke was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. Thicke was best known for playing Dr.

Did Robin Thicke Sue Marvin Gaye? ›

The Gaye family sued Williams and Robin Thicke, saying the duo stole from "Got To Give It Up" when they wrote and recorded the smash hit "Blurred Lines." A jury sided with the Gaye family, which won $5.3 million in damages. Williams denied the claims at the time.

How much money did Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams have to pay for plagiarizing a song by Marvin Gaye? ›

Jury Finds Robin Thicke and Pharrell Plagiarized Marvin Gaye On “Blurred Lines” [UPDATED] Duo got to give it—$7.3 million—up to the Gaye estate.

What's another way to say blur the lines? ›

What is another word for blurred?
indistinctfuzzy
hazyfaint
unclearblurry
foggymisty
vaguenebulous
148 more rows

What can blur the lines between what's real and what's not? ›

To add on, Acting, imagination, and myths can also blur the line between what is real and what is not.

What is the synonym of blurred? ›

verbbecome foggy or obscured. adumbrate. becloud. befog. blur.

Why is Robin Thicke famous? ›

Robin Alan Thicke (born March 10, 1977) is an American singer, songwriter and record producer. He is best known for his 2013 single "Blurred Lines", which is one of the best-selling singles of all time. At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, he received nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.

How do you use blurred? ›

How to use Blurry in a sentence
  1. His face had been blurry, his dress different. ...
  2. Sofia's heart fluttered as she tried to take in the world of blinding lights and blurry colors. ...
  3. She blew her nose loudly and looked at him through blurry eyes. ...
  4. From there, the night was a blurry fever dream.

What was the approximate profit made by the song Blurred Lines? ›

“Blurred Lines” made $16,675,690 in profits, according to an accounting statement both sides of the lawsuit agree with. Of that, $5,658,214 went to Thicke — a lot of money for someone who testified that he was drunk and high on Vicodin in the studio and didn't really help write the song.

What album is Blurred Lines on? ›

What record label is Robin Thicke signed to? ›

Robin Thicke

Who played Marvin Gaye saxophone? ›

And Trevor Lawrence is a saxophonist and music producer. He worked with Marvin Gaye on the "Trouble Man" project. The 40th anniversary expanded edition of the "Trouble Man" album is available now.

What songs did Marvin Gaye sing? ›

Marvin Gaye

Who played drums on got to give it up? ›

“Marvin and his drummer Bugsy Wilcox had been fooling around on this groove at Marvin's studio – just keyboard and drums,” Stewart told Harry Weinger, who supervised the reissued, upgraded version of the double album in 1999. “The groove was so bad. I knew we had a number one record from jump street.

Who really wrote Blurred Lines? ›

Blurred Lines

How do you use Blurred Lines in a sentence? ›

There are blurred lines. Trademark law in the age of the Internet has blurred lines. Super blurred lines". The star has blurred lines in its hydrogen spectrum due to its rotation.

Are Robin Thicke and Pharrell friends? ›

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams 'good friends again after Blurred Lines falling out' Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke have kissed and made up following their public spat over who wrote their hit Blurred Lines – and now they're working on new music together.

Who is Blurred Lines brunette? ›

Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski alleges in her coming book that singer-songwriter Robin Thicke groped her in 2013 while filming the video for "Blurred Lines."

What is the synonym of blurred? ›

verbbecome foggy or obscured. adumbrate. becloud. befog. blur.

How do you use blurred? ›

How to use Blurry in a sentence
  1. His face had been blurry, his dress different. ...
  2. Sofia's heart fluttered as she tried to take in the world of blinding lights and blurry colors. ...
  3. She blew her nose loudly and looked at him through blurry eyes. ...
  4. From there, the night was a blurry fever dream.

Why did Paula and Robin break up? ›

After 21 years together and almost nine years of marriage, Patton filed for divorce in 2014. The actress alleged infidelity, physical abuse and drug abuse was the cause for their split as they battled in court over their son.

How many children does Robin Thicke have with his fiance? ›

Thicke and Geary got engaged in December 2018 after dating for four years. “YES YES 1000x YES,” she wrote on Instagram as she announced his Christmas Eve proposal at the time. The couple share three children together: Mia Love, 4, Lola Alain, 3, and Luca Patrick, 1.

How much money did Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams have to pay for plagiarizing a song by Marvin Gaye? ›

Jury Finds Robin Thicke and Pharrell Plagiarized Marvin Gaye On “Blurred Lines” [UPDATED] Duo got to give it—$7.3 million—up to the Gaye estate.

Who is suing Robin Thicke? ›

The Gaye family sued Williams and Robin Thicke, saying the duo stole from "Got To Give It Up" when they wrote and recorded the smash hit "Blurred Lines." A jury sided with the Gaye family, which won $5.3 million in damages. Williams denied the claims at the time.

Why is Robin Thicke famous? ›

Robin Alan Thicke (born March 10, 1977) is an American singer, songwriter and record producer. He is best known for his 2013 single "Blurred Lines", which is one of the best-selling singles of all time. At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, he received nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.

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