When Pop Stars Flirt With Bad Taste
Three minutes and forty five seconds into the explicit version of the video for Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines," the camera lingers on the frowning face of 21-year-old model Emily Ratajkowski. Its gaze then slips down her nearly nude, supine form toward her backside, revealing a tiny STOP sign perched on its rounded peak. (The relatively safe-for-work version posted here does not include these shots, but you can easily find the explicit version online.)
This symbolic "no" gets only a few seconds of screen time. The frame quickly cuts to Pharrell Williams, who produced the track and co-wrote it along with the rapper T.I. Williams makes a prune face and sings, "I hate these blurred lines!"
That's the only clearly negative exchange in a video that should be full of them: After all, it shows three fully-clad, powerful men cajoling and harassing three highly exposed women. But in this blank fantasyland where weird props point to provocation without fully articulating it (a black model plucks at a banjo, but is it minstrelsy?) and risky physical exchanges never lead to outright violence (Thicke pulls Ratajkowski's hair; a bare foot gently kicks him when he tries to suckle it), the locus of power is so unstable that no confrontation can really play itself out.
That red sign of refusal is important, though, and not only because it's been amplified by many outraged women and male allies who've called out Thicke and the video's director, Diane Martel, for objectifying women and, because the song's vocal hook is the phrase "I know you want it," even condoning rape. Within the language of the video, that STOP is a way out — an acknowledgment that in another narrative, the line between good and bad, pleasure and transgression, would be clear.
But let's pay attention to the title of the song. This story (and, as it turns out, much of the pop music of the summer of 2013) is about blurred lines: those junctures within the pursuit of pleasure where clear, simple fun turns confusing and potentially dangerous. This summer's Top 40 abounds with good time songs about getting wild and finding love, or at least some sensual fulfillment, on the party scene. Yet trouble lurks within these good times. Flirtation might become harassment. Role-playing pushes into stereotypes. There's a sense, intentional or not, that the mindless fun of the past few years might be doing some damage.
This is evident in the other much-debated video of the moment, for Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop," also directed by Martel. Late in that clip, after the former tween star has popped on her grillz and fully inhabited a character that's half stoned Justin Bieber and half newly employed stripper, Cyrus turns to the camera mid-spank, raises her eyebrows and covers her scarlet-rimmed mouth. Her pose isn't apologetic, but it allows for some distance, reminding us of the younger Cyrus — the Disney star whose split identity anchored the plot line of the Hannah Montana television show. Now, "twerk queen" Miley has replaced rock star Hannah as the persona that both liberates and confines its creator.
"We Can't Stop" has caused as much of a ruckus as did "Blurred Lines," but for its racial appropriations, not sexual objectification. The song, originally intended for Rihanna, reportedly appealed to Cyrus because she was seeking a "black" sound. Her new image accommodates her shift away from peppy rock-based songs toward the beats-oriented sound of the world beyond Disney: Claiming to have more black friends than white ones, she's emerged as an expert at the rump-shaking style known as "twerking," which has roots in African dance but more recently emerged in neighborhood clubs in New Orleans. (Here's a good overview of her twerking escapades and the responses to it.) Many critiques of Cyrus rightly question why this privileged young woman has chosen to adopt an "urban" style grounded in the most abject aspects of African-American culture, as it's been filtered through a "hipster-racist" subculture that reduces black masculinity to thug primitivism and femininity to door-knocker earrings and big, juicy butts.
These outraged objections contain much truth, just as the feminist reading of Thicke's song reminds us of how crucial it is for women to decide the fate of their own bodies. Yet the first question raised by both of these Top 40 controversies is: Do they mean it? Is Thicke (or the character he inhabits in the song and video) just playing, or would he force his conquest on his prey? Does Cyrus genuinely like and participate in the cultural expressions she's now taken on, or is this just another case of artistic theft in the name of love?
In turn, when we listeners — feminist or not, white or of color — find ourselves taking pleasure in these familiar but enticingly refreshed acts of transgression (echoing the Michael Jackson-style whoops that Pharrell makes in "Blurred Lines," or nodding along to the stoned, melancholy chorus of Cyrus's arrestingly sad party anthem) are we compromising ourselves? Or is it okay, because after all, it's just pretend?
This is a perennial question in entertainment. As Freddie Mercury put it, is this the real life, or is it just fantasy? But in this strange summer of too much heat and so many precariously excessive songs about partying, it's become a matter of obsession. So many songs and videos now play on that line between healthy catharsis and chaos. The childlike goofiness of Katy Perry expressed with "California Gurlz" in 2010, or the sweet hope of Carly Rae Jepsen's smash of last year, "Call Me Maybe," have intensified into something more unsettling.
The mood began to shift this way with Bruno Mars's feel-good song of compulsive lust, "Locked Out of Heaven," which shares percussive body sounds with "Blurred Lines." It took a quiet turn with Ciara's "Body Party" and a debauched one with Miguel's "How Many Drinks." There are more innocent varieties: Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" is the wholesome-ish country version, gaining interracial frisson from its remix featuring Nelly, while Arianna Grande and Mac Miller's "The Way" sets the mood for tweens, limiting its excesses to a room full of balloons. Selena Gomez, who like both Cyrus and Grande is struggling to effectively shed the corporatized innocence of a Disney past, flat-out imitates pop's queen transgressor, Rihanna, on her current single, "Come and Get It." And Kesha, a pro at controlled chaos, points Cyrus toward her goal with the similarly blinged-and-bummed out anthem of sleazy liberation, "Crazy Kids."
The blurry work that set the tone for all of these songs is Harmony Korine's film, Spring Breakers, originally released in March and available next week on Blu-Ray and DVD. That film, which starred Gomez and her fellow Mouse House graduate Vanessa Hudgens, is an endless loop of broken taboos, a long blurred line between sensual fulfillment and fatal overdose over which its young female characters dance, trip and crawl. Flattening the hierarchies that separate trash from art, porn from erotica, and moral justice from exploitation by any means necessary, Spring Breakers horrifies and entices in equal measure because it embraces and elaborates upon the prevalent suspicion that nobody lives on the stable side of reality any more.
"Pretend you're in a videogame," says one of the film's female anti-heroines as they begin their spree of rampant self-abuse and crime. That's what Miley does, trying on new aspects of performance and sexual self-expression in her new persona; it's also how the vulnerable models that Thicke ogles make it through the gauntlet that the video's scene creates. It's interesting to realize that women, too, have adopted the phrase "I know you want it" in recent songs: Rihanna in "Birthday Cake," Iggy Azalea in "Backseat," Beyonce in "Check On It," Nicki Minaj in "High School." Self-objectification is part of today's ritual of romance.
One way to understand this pop moment is as the decadent end of the latest pop era. As one era gives way to another, the sins of the last one come to the fore, along with all of its strong points. We're living through the last gasp of blockbuster crossover pop, grounded in the ingénue pop of Britney Spears and the blockbuster rap of Eminem. In Spring Breakers, Spears's music serves as a catalyst that binds the film's girl criminals to their newly adopted libertine lifestyle — Spears's vapid beauty, equating hedonism and self-help (to paraphrase the film critic Steven Shaviro), makes every selfish move feel right. For Cyrus, hip-hop is a corporate legacy, not a lived one; like virtually every privileged kid her age, it was sold to her like sneakers and soda.
The blurred messages Thicke, Cyrus and others are now sending fit a time when people think of themselves as products, more than ever before.
"It's like a giant, f'd up selfie," Martel has said of the "We Can't Stop" video. But at this point, when the self become a selfie — when people start approaching themselves and others as things, to be posed, bartered or possessed, rather than as beings with rich and infinitely various inner lives --morality becomes destabilized, making it difficult to determine the difference between a playful risk and real one, or even between violation and fun.
The other crucial insight that's lost when the self becomes a selfie — when the blur of culture glosses over history and bodily experience — is that inequality is an indisputable fact. In her critique of "We Can't Stop," Racialicious blogger Sesali Bowen powerfully reminds us that the cute dances and turns of phrase that come into parlance through pop culture originated in other people's lived experiences, and that the hard stuff is what drops away when they're borrowed — poverty, racism, and other forms of marginalization. Similarly, when the connection between the language of coercion and violence against women is buried and blurred, it's possible to forget that flirtation can damage unless both parties are equally willing and vocal. In the party scenes currently filling the Top 40, identities temporarily drop away — even the country tailgating fest in the original Florida Georgia Line video for "Cruise" dissolves into a chalk-throwing fest that masks and transforms its willing participants. We need these topsy-turvy moments. They expand our own possibilities and, at their best, create real connections across lines of identity and privilege. But they're so fragile and hard to control.
"We run things, things don't run we," Cyrus drawls in "We Can't Stop'"s chorus. That's a hopeful statement, but very often, it doesn't feel true. Party music creates a space where the things that do run us — whether they're good things, like ethical codes or laws protecting the vulnerable, or painfully restrictive ones, like the grind of money-making and the trap of consumerism — seem to give way, and a space opens up for exploring desire, sensuality, and the unexpected. Blurred lines can lead to exciting new places. But sometimes we need to draw them, for ourselves, again.