As far as catchy songs depicting date rape go, Robin Thicke’s current hit Blurred Lines doesn’t hold a candle to a classic Notorious B.I.G. track from almost 20 years ago. If you’ve somehow missed the former, congratulations. I tried to avoid it myself, but the song, its video (in which Mr. Thicke manhandles naked women while assuring them that despite their coy “good girl” protestations, he knows they “want it”) and the accompanying controversy have been irritatingly inescapable this summer.
You probably did miss the B.I.G. (nee Christopher Wallace) song mentioned above, whose title, Fucking You Tonight, was only the beginning of its controversy. In it, the lyricist informs the lady in question that after all the wining and dining she’s enjoyed, tonight it’s about “eight tracks and six packs while I hit that.” Both tracks are slinky, their basslines sexy: Mr. Thicke has produced an infectious club hit, while Mr. Wallace created a lazy, swaggering slow song to get sweaty to. Both could be accused of sending rapey signals: They suggest that if a woman dances sensually, or accepts being paid for on a date, then the man she’s with is entitled to sex. The problem is that despite their gross messages, both songs are “good,” if good means aurally pleasing over repeated listens. But while Mr. Thicke has spit out an easy-listening date-rape anthem, Mr. Wallace’s narrative was an enduring examination of sexual politics.
It all comes down to context. In the context of the albums themselves, Mr. Thicke’s latest is the standout song on a 42-minute, B+ album that one choice review described as “feverish… and compulsive… about the ins and outs of doing it.” The B.I.G. song appears on Life After Death, a moody, gritty semi-autobiography of almost two hours that’s essentially a spoken-word novel about late 20th-century urban American culture. Biographically and demographically, Mr. Thicke is the white son of wealthy Canadian C-list celebrity, while Mr. Wallace was a black Brooklyn native raised by a single mother, who was dealing drugs by age 12 and died in a drive-by shooting in 1997.
Emma Teitel seemed to miss this type of context last week in her Maclean’s column on Blurred Lines. She opines, rather ludicrously, that Mr. Thicke is being picked on because he’s white, when almost nobody mentions an “entire genre of music... rife with misogyny and free of criticism. I’m talking about hip hop.” It’s hard to know where to start with this silly claim. Rap music is a huge body of work – to slap the label “misogynist” on all of it is dated, uninformed, square and wrong. It’s also selectively convenient to ignore the musicians in other genres who go hard on the woman hate (here’s a list of offenders for those who need a refresher).
More importantly, it’s insulting to the female fans who have been sharply calling out what sexism does exist in rap since its inception. In 1994 (a.k.a A Long Time Ago), the critic Bell Hooks noted in one of her many insightful essays on race and pop culture that “feminist critiques of the sexism and misogyny in gangsta rap… must continue to be bold and fierce. Black females must not be duped into supporting shit that hurts us under the guise of standing beside our men.” Seems pretty critical to me. As Ms. Hooks (and others, including a bunch of smart female critics who recently dissected Kanye West’s latest album) points out repeatedly, context matters. Ms. Teitel believes that Mr. Thicke is being targeted because his music doesn’t “come with a side of social commentary on gun violence,” but let’s look at the context. Mr. Thicke has so far failed to place any of his treacly ballads on the charts, while Mr. Wallace’s work is a pinnacle of musical innovation that helped usher rap further into the mainstream. Like it or not, Mr. Wallace was keeping it pretty real, and grappling with the sexism (and racism and poverty) within that reality is part of overcoming it.
Mr. Thicke’s defense of his song is that he’s a loving, long-married family man, but that means he’s knowingly employing the threat of sexual violence to manufacture a hit. As prejudice goes, that’s far more distasteful.
There’s nothing to dissect in the lyrically stunted, painfully obvious Blurred Lines, which might be the song of the summer, but will hardly hold up for almost two decades. An entire evening’s musical debate could revolve around how R. Kelly’s insistent, icky chorus on FYT juxtaposes with Biggie’s complicated storyline (he specifically says “if it’s alright with you,” which to a forgiving listener might render the date rape bit moot). It’s important to listen to untold narratives that come from real experiences, whether it’s the haunting Appalachian meth movie Winter’s Bone or the Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia song Hard Out Here For a Pimp cited by Ms. Teitel. They’re simply more nuanced, and more important, than another flash-in-the-pan booty jam.