Standing on the Fence About Robin Thicke’s Rape Song

The furor over Rick Ross’s rape-supportive lyrics on a track called “U.O.E.N.O” has now subsided but some anti-violence activists have now turned their attention to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”  You can read one review of the controversy here but critics have primarily focused on lyrics wherein Thicke calls a woman an “animal” that others have tried to domesticate or lyrics wherein Thicke repeatedly states “I know you want it.” The questionable nature of the song is aided by a dubious title and a music video where a bunch of men are standing around ogling and whispering in the ears of passive women who perform for them.  All in all, it’s yet another entry in the litany of songs where a male artist professes that he knows what a woman wants regardless of what her actions or reputation may outwardly communicate.  It certainly exudes some degree of entitlement to female bodies.

Thicke’s lyrics haven’t garnered nearly the level of backlash that was directed at Ross.  In Ross’s case, the criticism was so severe that it yielded numerous apologies from Ross, the loss of a lucrative endorsement deal, and responses of some sort from pretty much every artist in Ross’s camp.  It also seems that the some in the media have developed a tacit understanding not to play his song.  I primarily listen to hip hop music on XM radio these days where DJ’s pretty much say whatever they feel like saying and I have only heard alternate versions of “U.O.E.N.O.” played on the radio.  Thicke has made it out relatively unscathed to this point and I suspect that not much will come of the criticism.

The energy of “Blurred Lines” is completely different than that in “U.O.E.N.O.”  It’s less about wanton bravado and more about fun and celebration of passion.  It’s allusions to rape are far more subtle.  Most listeners would probably not even associate the lyrics with rape whereas Ross pretty much did everything short of saying the word “rape.”  Thicke’s public image is also more unassailable as he is widely envisioned as a dedicated husband who reportedly asked for his wife’s permission to shoot the music video for “Blurred Lines” in the first place.

I understand why audiences would spare Thicke from the same criticism that they heaped on Ross but there is another logical side to me that doesn’t get it.  Either music affects attitudes and behaviors about rape or they don’t.  If they do, then a stand should be taken here as well.  It shouldn’t matter that the lyrics in question are put to a casual beat, that they are sung by a “good” guy, or that they are not explicitly about violence.  If anything, this brand of lyrics better conforms to the experiences of the majority of rape survivors as most perpetrators are acquaintances who are considered “normal” guys, do not employ overt physical force, and do not express any explicit intent to rape.  Many perpetrators do not view their acts as rapes even after they have committed them.  They genuinely do not see how their actions could constitute violence if they are not holding down a screaming victim – a victim that has given off conventional signals of “wanting it.”  Considering this, one could make the argument that Thicke’s softer rendition of male pursuit of female sexuality might be more harmful than that championed by Ross.

Thus, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a logical argument that keeps me from taking a stand against “Blurred Lines.”  It’s more likely that in attacking a song set to a fun tone, I am just afraid of further becoming that guy who takes everything too seriously.  In attacking a song whose linkages to violence are so understated, I am concerned about alienating even more friends who think that I overanalyze everything.   In criticizing a man who has a largely positive reputation, I feel somewhat guilty of being a hypocrite who sets insanely high standards for others.  There are indeed many blurred lines concerning how to best respond to a song like this, but I am aware that some of this confusion is due to my own fear and discomfort.  To take a stand before it’s fashionable to do so requires much courage.  This much is clear.

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