Ellie Sandy remembers the watershed cultural moment of ‘Blurred Lines’, and why the conversation it sparked around female agency is still relevant years later. For Issue #20 ‘Legacy’.
In 2013 I was 15 years old. My main concerns in life were probably doing homework on time and getting home before curfew. But, at that age, I had gained a level of bodily awareness that I’m sure many girls know all too well. An awareness that you are being seen; being watched. That year, I enjoyed hearing Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines for the first time, which graced the pop world with its fizzing, syncopated snares, rumbling bassline and fluid melody. But I remember my opinion changing when I caught a glimpse of the music video and when I comprehended the lyrics. Suddenly, it all made me feel a bit… uncomfortable.
The song’s controversial lyrics caused widespread backlash, the most infamous being: ‘I know you want it’. Many felt that the lyrics and title itself made light of a dangerous grey area that accompanies sexual provocation void of consent. To undermine this by framing it within the bars of a funky pop tune served to minimise the severity of rape culture. It caused huge backlash for Thicke, who was named ‘Sexist of the Year’ by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and the song was banned from being played on university campuses across the UK.
So why, 7 years on, is it worth mentioning? It is telling that Pharrell Williams, who helped produce the song, said as of last October that he is now ‘embarrassed’ to have worked on it. The legacy of this song proves to us that pop and politics aren’t as inseparable as we would always like them to be. In the last 7 years, there has been a cultural shift in pop music that has accompanied the political, with more female artists coming to the forefront who are outspoken about their feminism and politics. Examples of such women include FKA Twigs, Grimes, and Cardi B – who was incredibly outspoken in her support for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 US Presidential Election and her own personal #MeToo incident. Looking at the cultural impact of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ it almost seems to be a key turning point for the trajectory of twenty-first century feminism – now, it’s as present as pop-culture itself.
Emily Ratajkowski, who was propelled into stardom after featuring in the music video at the age of 22, has documented her difficulties in establishing her individual agency as a result of being so closely associated with Thicke’s song. Writing for The Cut in September 2020, she recalls dismissive photographers who saw her as nothing more than an object on the other side of the camera lens. She also details a lawsuit that was filed against her by paparazzi after she posted a paparazzi photo of herself walking in the street on her Instagram story. Ratajowski poses the question: why is she not allowed to own her own image? Does she not belong to herself? If not, she is in some ways, stripped of her selfhood.
Without feminism, women do not belong to themselves. They are made to be less than, to be objects, to be used. This sentiment may be the experience of the rhetorical woman who features in Thicke’s lyrics, which resonated with listeners who have experienced feeling objectified. Whether we dance to the rhythm or sing along or even nod our head to the beat, songs are there to express meaning. Whether profound or superficial, whether we like them or not. But what they express is only as meaningful as the person who listens to it feels it to be. So when it comes to Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, there were simply too many people who felt it meant something dangerous and damaging to women – myself included.
That being said, I would probably still sing along if I heard the song playing (which definitely isn’t very often at all). It is, after all, a very catchy pop song. ‘Blurred Lines’ and its legacy proves that pop culture isn’t apolitical. With such a provocative song, it is sometimes necessary to work out what it really means to those singing, those performing, and those listening, because ‘pop culture’ reflects popular values. And what does a woman value if not herself?
Artwork by Sophia Cooke.