pop mechanics

Blurring the Lines: How to Enjoy Maybe-Sexist Music

I listened to “Blurred Lines,” the Robin Thicke and Pharrell song that’s topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the past five weeks, dozens of times — dozens — without recognizing its rapey nature. How did I miss telltale signs — phrases like “good girl” and “I know you want it” uttered in rapid succession? They managed to not even register with me as I jogged through the park near my house or killed time at the airport. XXL magazine called the song “Curtis Mayfield for the molly generation,” and while I don’t identify as a molly-lennial, the song is catchy.

Of course, this is a massive oversight (or whatever the aural equivalent is) for someone who writes regularly about women. Because lately the song’s video, which also features an unrated version with extra nudity, has come under fire for being, well, kinda sexist. You know, because of all the naked young women saying “yes but no but yes.” A new Justin Timberlake video also features a fully clothed male star just hanging out while nude models prance and twist about. Justin really upped the ante by following it with a request that his fans “take back the night.” (Do you not have Google, buddy? Yikes.) And yet, I’ve also been listening to his album. Guilty again. (Lest you think this is only a pop and hip-hop problem, look no further than the Pixies comeback video.) “Ahhh,” lamented Jezebel’s Lindy West, “the pains of loving pop culture while female.”

In order to circumvent this particular pain, I compartmentalize. My ears perk up when I hear lyrics that are empowering (thank you, Janelle Monae), but there is a huge swath of music that I enjoy by actively disengaging with its lyrics and their political ramifications. I don’t skip the Chris Brown–Rihanna collaboration if it comes on shuffle. I drink beer while listening to old country songs about men shooting their wives. I dance to R. Kelly. And while all of this is rather cringe-inducing to admit, I know I’m not alone. The music or movies or art that fully comport with our political views and aesthetic preferences are few and far between, so women (and many men, too) are forced to set aside our beliefs at least momentarily in order to enjoy pop culture.

Given that three different friends asked me this week if I still liked “Blurred Lines” after watching the video, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate my time-tested strategy of compartmentalization. As the critic Ann Powers writes at NPR, “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.” Can she see into my soul? I have no idea where to draw the line as a music lover who also thinks women are intelligent, fully realized humans who deserve to be treated as such. So I asked some critics how they manage to overthink this stuff and keep loving music.

Turns out that professionals do the compartmentalization thing, too. “I did this segment on WNYC Soundcheck a few months ago where I picked my favorite music videos of the year, and of course I picked ‘Blurred Lines,’ because it’s great,” Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz told me in an e-mail. “And the host of the show asked how I could overlook the video’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-misogyny, and my response was something along the lines of, ‘slakjflkasflkdjaskd.’” She continued, “it’s so hard to talk about this with people, because there’s this assumption that you can’t simultaneously be critical of something on a political level but also enjoy it on a more aesthetic level. And sometimes I believe that! But sometimes I don’t! I think it’s generally something I end up taking on a case-by-case basis.”

Apparently a case-by-case judgment is what Thicke was hoping for when making two versions of his video. “I said, ‘let’s make sure we shoot two versions, because I don’t want it to be sleazy,’” he said in response to his critics. “I’ve always been a gentleman, I’ve been in love with the same woman since I was a teenager. I don’t want to do anything that’s inappropriate.”

My issue with the video isn’t that naked women are inappropriate. It’s that featuring naked models and clothed men in party mode is … boring. Uninventive. Slightly alienating. But when I also considered the lyrics, which are about a woman who doesn’t want to admit she really wants it, I started to feel icky about this song’s presence on my summer playlist. Culture writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd tweeted, “i predict ‘Blurred Lines’ will be huge among the drunk-dads-at-weddings set for years to come.” Channeling that apologetic-drunk-married-guy vibe, Thicke explained, “it was actually the director’s idea, Diane Martel,” as if it’s impossible for anything directed by a woman to be sexist. “I had mentioned to her that I wanted to do a very funny and silly video. … And she said, ‘well, what if we have the girls take their clothes off?’”

Funny! Silly! Except if you’re a woman who is not really offended, per se, but certainly kind of annoyed at the lazy trope of prancing, naked female bodies. This, as Anupa Mistry said in a roundtable of women critics discussing Kanye West’s Yeezus, “is the kind of tiresome racist, sexist shit that really dumbs down otherwise good songs.” I want to like popular music. I want to participate in it. But paradoxically, in order to consume and enjoy it, I often have to disengage from lyrics or accompanying videos. Or, at the very least, think about them separately. Compartmentalize.

“I have never been really interested in separating art from its creator, excising parts of content to make it somehow more agreeable from a moral or aesthetic standpoint, ignoring a part of it so I can enjoy it,” says music critic and author Jessica Hopper. “I loved R. Kelly because he’s an R&B genius, but when I saw middle school girls talking on the news one night about how, yes, in fact he has been hanging around the parking lot on and off for years — well, you know, that was that. To paraphrase the man himself, I really like his freaky style, but how can I get down with him?”

But, I pressed her, most objectionable music and videos aren’t produced by R.Kelly types. The lines are, well, blurred. I worry that I wouldn’t enjoy practically any art if I rejected everything created by people who had some sexist or at least douchey tendencies. “Lindsey Buckingham throttled girlfriends (and a producer), but it did not temper my ability to play the shit out of Rumours, obviously,” Hopper replied. “My lines are things like, does this person make art that is degrading to women, does this person use women as props, are they doing some really iffy cultural appropriation, is how they talk about women’s bodies/sex beyond just some power play freaking, and promoting an idea that women are objects.” My brain agrees with her. But, to quote Erykah Badu in her collaboration with the aforementioned Monae, the booty don’t lie. I still listen and dance to an awful lot of music produced by people who fit Hopper’s description.

With the knowledge that I can’t or maybe don’t want to stop listening, I turned to the words of OG feminist music critic Ellen Willis for some advice. Willis, who became The New Yorker’s first rock critic in 1968, used the casual sexism of pop culture to fuel her own activism. “Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock ’n’ roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense anti­human, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation,” she wrote. I’ll probably continue to compartmentalize — alternating between thinking critically and participating in absent-minded enjoyment. But, like Willis, I like to think that the the joy I get from music infuses my more serious critical efforts. After all, I wrote most of this article while dancing in my chair to the sounds of the “Blurred Lines” video open in another browser window.

Blurring the Lines: Enjoying Maybe-Sexist Music