Once upon a time, a pop song was released. The pop song told us that sexual consent is a grey area. It suggested that women were “bitches” and “animals”, and something a man could “take”. It had a popular music video featuring three slim, topless female models, dancing playfully around two suited men, who sing “I know you want it” as the models wink, giggle and toss their hair. It was number one in the UK for five weeks in a row.
That pop song was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, and the time was 2013. The backlash was widespread: it was banned from being played on several UK university campuses, YouTube removed the explicit version of the video, and the Guardian dubbed it “the most controversial song of the decade”. The song featured the rapper T.I. – who pledged to “give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” – and rapper and producer Pharrell Williams, who this week stated in a GQ cover interview that he now realises that the song “catered to” the “chauvinist culture in our country”, and that he felt embarrassed by his past work. The writer of “Blurred Lines” has, six years later, denounced it.
Of course, at the time, Pharrell and many others claimed not to understand why the song caused such controversy. In a 2013 interview with the same magazine, Thicke said, “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.’” Pharell himself told Pitchfork that critics of the video “just want to be mad”.
The damaging potential of the song’s lyrics have finally dawned on Pharrell, he explains. “I realised that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn’t matter that that’s not my behaviour or the way I think about things,” he told GQ. “It just matters how it affects women.” It feels significant that although Pharrell says his volte-face was triggered by the “Blurred Lines” discourse, it took until now for him to publically change his mind – after several years of feminist discourse breaking mainstream ground (most significantly during 2017’s #MeToo movement). It puts welcome space between us and the song. But as Dorian Lynskey wrote for the Guardian in 2013, “If pop music has created a problem, then only pop music can solve it.” So what is pop’s problem – and does Pharrell’s revelation indicate that it has been solved?
“Blurred Lines” was a watershed moment in 2013 precisely because its lyrical content didn’t seem that different from other pop music. Sex is a constant in pop lyrics, and before #MeToo pop music was rife with references to troublesome dynamics that we are now more willing – and able – to name. Some lyrics feel particularly icky in hindsight because of allegations against the artists singing them: R Kelly’s “Bump n Grind” (“I know just what you want / And I know just what you need, girl”) takes on more sinister connotations following the widely publicised sexual abuse allegations made against him in 2018. Some lyrics were established romantic tropes. In the classic Christmas duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, for example, a man repeatedly asks a woman to stay with him despite her insistence that “the answer is no” (at one point she even asks, worryingly, “Say, what’s in this drink?”). And some lyrics exemplify male entitlement, such as Enrique Iglesias’s “Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You)” (or “Lovin’ You”, for the radio edit), in the chorus of which he simply repeats that statement over and over again.
It can be difficult to articulate why these songs are more offensive than other sexually arrogant pop songs. For me, it comes down to a lack of female agency. The woman’s desires are assumed, her consent expected. Of course, pop can still be grossly misogynistic without doing this. In David Guetta’s “Sexy Bitch”, he “[tries] to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful” – and fails miserably. But while his lyrics are objectifying, the songs feels less offensive to me – free, at least, of a controlling, manipulative tone.
Of course, women sing about sex, too. But rather than objectifying their love interests, the focus is often on themselves. Ariana Grande’s songs frequently broach the topic but she makes herself the subject: in “Greedy”, a song about her high sex drive, she sings “You give me feelings, never felt before … You got lucky, cos you’re rocking with the best / and I’m greedy”. Similarly, any loss of control in the chorus of Little Mix’s “Touch” is the singers’ own: “Just a touch of your love is enough / To take control of my whole body”.
The musical contexts in which lyrics are couched can alter a song’s tone, for better or worse. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, for example, is a jazz shuffle with Christmas bells and crooning vocals, saccharine enough to disguise its underlying menace. But a song like DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts”, another duet sung by Rihanna and Bryson Tiller, uses subtle musical devices that help to pit the two singers as equals. Though Tiller presumes “You looking like there’s nothing that you won’t do” and “I heard that pussy’s for the taking”, Rihanna similarly assumes “I know you wanna see me naked” and has confirms “I hope you know I’m for the taking”. Musically, the low register in which Rihanna sings this song is also a nod to her power in the dynamic: her voice is at the same pitch as Tiller. “Blurred Lines” itself almost got away with its unsavoury message thanks to its light-hearted musical character. Robin Thicke’s defences at the time that it was all a hilarious joke were backed up by the musical humour in the song: bouncing bassline, tongue-in-cheek background yelps, the comically low pitch of the refrain “I know you want it” and the laughter that follows the lyric “What rhymes with ‘hug me’?”
It is tricky to pinpoint if and when the mood changed in pop music. But “Blurred Lines” certainly played its part. It’s now much more difficult to think of examples of songs that clumsily handle consent in the ways they have historically. Pharrell’s denouncement of “Blurred Lines” is encouraging. A cynic might suggest it signifies little more than good PR, a shift in line with that of in popular opinion. Whether things have changed, or Pharrell’s denouncement will encourage further reflection, it seems a positive moment, regardless. Pop music will always be about sex. But as we work towards a culture in which sex is not synonymous with abuses of power, it should both reflect and propel those changes.