Pharrell Williams broke records this year with his Oscar-nominated feel-good song "Happy," but just about this time last year, people were less than happy about "Blurred Lines," Robin Thicke's chart-smashing song of 2013 cowritten by, produced by and featuring Pharrell.
Last week, just over a year after the song stormed to the top of the charts and refused to budge despite widespread outrage with the song's message, Pharrell came to its defense. In an otherwise quite eloquent interview with the U.K.'s Channel 4, the Grammy-winning artist shrugged off criticisms about the song's "rapey lyrics" and objectifying video by saying, in case his album called G I R L wasn't proof enough, that he loves women.
Pharrell's defense was simple, and it said more about how big a role music plays in cultural sexism than it did about "Blurred Lines." He denied that the song had anything to do with sexual consent — "I don't know where a man forcing himself and a woman's right to say no was ever addressed in that song" — before likening the problematic lyric "I know you want it" to something totally innocent that a car salesperson might say.
Critics, however, tend to think it's the kind of thing a sexual predator might say — the sort of thinking that suggests that no doesn't really mean no, that if a woman refuses a man's sexual advances, it can only be because she's not succumbing to her real desires. That's why Pharrell thinks it's a good line, though: "If a good woman can have sexual thoughts, is it wrong for a man to have a correct guess that a woman might want something?"
Pharrell was almost onto something. There's something to be said for sexual liberation — the kind of feminism that emancipates women through sex, that allows women to behave how they like without branding them a slut. But an important part of that is a woman's ability to choose when and how she has sex: to say no and mean no. With a music video in which fully-clothed men lust after naked ladies and tell women that they don't really know what they want, it seems "Blurred Lines" really does suggest that no sometimes means yes. Maybe it's not Pharrell's fault, though: That's one of the most popular ideas in pop music, and some musicians are going so far as to claim that, somehow, it's what real feminism looks like.
Unfortunately, misogyny in music is nothing new, and much of it is far more explicit than this song's tacit contribution to rape culture. "Blurred Lines" wasn't even the worst song of 2013; on Rocko's "U.O.E.N.O.," Rick Ross rapped the lyrics, "Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain't even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain't even know it." And there were many others, too; songs that amounted to what Andrea Warner of CBC Music described as "a new kind of misogyny ... that's far more disturbing than the casual, inherent misogyny of generations past." Indeed, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who did the Channel 4 interview with Pharrell, said that the lyric "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two" is worse than "I know you want it," but that's arguably not the case.
Whereas other rappers — Kanye West and Ludacris spring immediately to mind — make no pretense about their position on women, the misogyny masquerading in "Blurred Lines" as female empowerment is more insidious and therefore more sinister. Last year, Thicke even went as far as to call the song "a feminist movement within itself," which is just about the most hypocritical, ironic and damaging defense of "Blurred Lines" there is.
That's how this goes unexamined. The wider music community is cracking down on the less desirable themes of rap music: "Gun and drug references are bleeped or turned into vague platitudes, when they appear at all," Brandon Soderberg wrote for Spin — even though these gun and drug references "often helped call attention to the epidemic of violence in urban areas" rather than condoning their use. On the other hand, the word "dick" might be bleeped out on the radio, but not the lyric that expands on what the rapper did with that dick — shove it in a woman's mouth to shut her up, for example.
"As a result of the 'cleaning up' of rap content, all that's left is objectifying women" and celebrating male privilege, Soderberg concludes. And in a song like "Blurred Lines," there's nothing specific to bleep out except the entire four and a half minutes of casual objectification and not-so-subtle sexism, because the misogyny transcends any specific word. That's what keeps it vague. That's what enables Pharrell to write "Blurred Lines" while claiming he's a feminist.
That would also explain how Pharrell could start the Channel 4 interview off on a good foot. Having recently predicted that Hillary Clinton will win the presidential election in 2016, he elaborated, "What would a world be like, if 75% of our leaders, our presidents and prime ministers, were female? What would that world be like? We don't know because we haven't given it a shot. We're too busy telling them what we can and can't do with their bodies. Or we're too busy not allowing them to make the same amount of money as a man makes."
That all sounds uplifting and progressive. Pharrell and socially conscious musicians like him can slam society as loudly as they like — but if those attitudes almost never translate to our music, they're effectively worthless. When Pharrell publicly supports equality and women's rights, when he launches an art exhibition exploring gender and celebrating "women who are above all free, liberated by artists and their boundless, unfettered imagination," he encourages a positive interpretation of a negative attitude; he suggests that "I know you want it" might be an acceptable thing to say.
Image credit: AP
Pharrell's real power lies in his music. How many people know the lyrics to "Blurred Lines" by heart, and how many people will visit the art show in Paris? The numbers are undoubtedly not comparable. Hiding behind the excuse of feminism is just a way to avoid accountability, kind of like when Jay Z promised to drop the word "bitch" from his songs after the birth of his daughter (claims that he later denied) and then continued to release songs full of sexism and even references to domestic abuse. Feminism should never be a shield.
Of course, none of these artists are solely accountable. "Blurred Lines" is a joint effort with Pharrell as producer, cowriter and performer; with Thicke and T.I., with video director Diane Martel, with record label Star Trak Entertainment and with the thousands of radio presenters, club DJs and music fans who played, danced to and bought the song. But Pharrell is arguably the most well-known, adored and visibly influential of the group, and he must take responsibility for the role he plays in perpetuating rape culture. It's one thing to play into sexist stereotypes with your music, but it's quite another to reach out to feminists with one hand while the other continues to keep women down.