With pop music, the personal is always relevant. Not just as gossip or trivia, but for context: In an art form that’s all about feelings, it matters where the feelings came from. You don’t need to know that Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way is about the ex-girlfriend who’s singing backup, but it heightens the impact, especially if your first exposure to the tune was through National Car Rental ads.
Sometimes the emotional context completes the work: Consider the breakup album. Fleetwood Mac wrote Rumours as the two couples at the band’s fore disintegrated (drummer Mick Fleetwood’s marriage was on the rocks as well). Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear began as a term of his divorce with Anna Gordy – she was to receive the advance for, and a portion of the profits from, his next album – and became an account thereof. Richard and Linda Thompson recorded Shoot Out the Lights as their marriage imploded; it’s widely regarded as their best release. The brilliant songwriter Tim Hardin, who died of a heroin overdose at age 39, made Suite for Susan Moore and Damion: We Are One, One, All in One for the wife and child he adored from the distant shore of his addiction. (Not strictly a breakup album, it sounds like a dream of the relationship he couldn’t keep.)
Now there’s Robin Thicke’s Paula, dedicated to Paula Patton, his wife of nearly a decade. The couple began dating as teenagers and separated in February. Since then, Thicke has been telling live audiences about his plans to win her back; this album, with songs like You’re My Fantasy, Get Her Back and Love Can Grow Back, is the crux of that campaign. Unlike Here, My Dear, to which it’s been compared, Paula’s emotional conditions don’t enrich the music; they do, however, help explain why the album is so mediocre.
A record’s backstory is part of its packaging, and the most effective pop stars treat self-mythology as a creative endeavour as well as a marketing imperative. Taylor Swift drops hints about the subjects of her love songs, which, as a 2011 New Yorker profile pointed out, fosters a sense of intimacy between her and her fans. A 2013 GQ story noted that Beyoncé has recorded and archived most of her waking life since 2005, a weird detail that still reinforces her aura. We’re supposed to witness, and marvel at, the process by which Beyoncé makes her private life public; part of her aspirational appeal, as well as her superhuman wonderfulness, is how harmoniously she balances work and living.
But while Swift and Beyoncé are the heroes of their stories, Thicke is the villain, which he doesn’t seem to understand. His respect for Patton and their young son made him look half decent when his song Blurred Lines provoked accusations of misogyny last summer. But the Miley Cyrus kerfuffle at the VMAs (phonetically, “kerfuffle” sort of expresses what Miley did to his crotch), followed by a backstage snapshot showing him grabbing a 20-year-old woman’s ass, made the family-man shuffle seem dubious. When the couple announced their separation, anyone paying attention could guess the reasons. Of course, it was nobody’s business until Thicke made an instant spectacle out of his grief.
While Thicke has taken full responsibility for his breakup with Patton, alluding to affairs and drug use in lyrics and interviews, it hasn’t made him any more likeable. The video for Get Her Back, the album’s lead single, makes a shtick out of remorse, featuring close-ups of Thicke’s teary face, smeared with fake blood, and a running SMS dialogue between him and his ex. It’s supposed to demonstrate humility, but it’s humiliating instead – for Patton, one presumes, and for Thicke, whose gesture smacks hard of Kirk Van Houten’s Can I Borrow a Feeling. It’s not the rawness that stings, but the tactlessness. And it drums up sympathy, but only for Paula.
It’s not that Thicke seems insincere – sloppy, if anything – he just seems to overestimate the power of sincerity, both as a character trait and a creative device. “My music is my therapy,” he said in an interview this week with radio station Hot 97. “When I make these songs and I listen back to them, they make me feel good about myself because at least I’m admitting my faults, I’m trying to become a better man, better person, better father.” How nice for him. The greatest breakup albums work by universalizing a specific pain, but Thicke’s album feels deeply selfish, toward its subject and its audience. Paula is mostly watery R&B, low on hooks (though, honestly, Get Her Back is great without the video) and lyrically pat; thematically, it feels undigested and crass, about as moving as a sobbing phone call from a friend who only calls you when he’s down.
Lester Bangs wrote that “the ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience.” In confessional work, the form this often takes is the use of an audience as a means to an end: to air grievances, to stroke pet thoughts, to win back a wife. (“Breakup songs are one thing,” wrote Andrew Romano, in an excellent essay for The Daily Beast; “breakup songs with such a relentless real-life agenda are another.”) Art can make something meaningful out of your failures, but this remarkable deal is easily abused. If everything is material, then however badly you screw up, you can always escape down the back stairs of your “work.” Some artists are good enough to get away with it; others end up breaching the feedback loop between life and art, to the detriment of both. Paula doesn’t convey much beyond the literal, and it’s a poor tribute to what seemed, until the end, like a beautiful relationship.
It feels ungenerous to review personal work by critiquing its maker’s character, but moral disposition has a lot to do with whether a personal work succeeds or fails. I don’t mean that a good artist should be a good person; just that moral consideration, however it runs, usually leads to interesting ideas. What makes an album like Here, My Dear, or Rumours, or Suite for Susan Moore and Damion fascinating is genuine ambivalence – between love and hate, anger and remorse, resolve and fatalism – and the torment, not only of loss but of self-reckoning. You have to sit inside your shame before you can use it.