The song "Blurred Lines" and its videos (as well as Sunday's VMA performance) expose two very strong undercurrents in the American psyche today: shame and vulnerability. As Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, we are often ashamed of who we are. The path to healing is through vulnerability, the courage to face "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." When we look at the "Blurred Lines" videos or watch the VMAs and think, "What just happened?" here's an answer.
As my friend Sarah says, Thick traded courage for assurance. He could have been vulnerable and open-hearted by facing "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure" of putting a song out there. Instead, he decided to make a video with topless, mute/meowing girls and assure that the video, and thereby the song, would get plenty of attention. Robin Thicke here reminds me of Nixon, who spied on the Democrats all the while not realizing that he had the election in the bag. Nixon thought he needed to do it. Nixon was afraid. And so was Thicke. On the Breakfast Club radio show, Robin admits that he is afraid that every album is his last. He is afraid of being a failure, of "being at the end of [his] career." He doesn't realize his song is so hot, it doesn't need topless girls to sell it. Just as Thicke decries that no R&B singer shows any vulnerability in his or her songs, he copies the act. Where is vulnerability in the "Blurred Lines" videos?
Brown writes about our shame-based fear of being ordinary. In the last song on Blurred Lines album, Robin sings about a father who wonders when his son is going to make it. Could this be the words of Robin's famous father? One can easily picture Robin, dismayed that his last album was a commercial flop, deciding to do something radical that will surely cause a stir. Maybe my outrageous, scandalous video will prove I am not ordinary. And make me some money. Brown highlights that we live in a culture of scarcity, of feeling like we are never enough, never successful enough, never rich enough. In his eyes, Thicke is not rich or successful enough, so he makes a Faustian bargain. He sells himself and makes a pornographic albeit playful video so that he can get money and thereby power. Hey, someone has to put Julian Fuego through college.
And Robin's not alone at the bargaining table. The video's director, the skilled Diane Martel (who has made countless videos, such as the ones for Luther's "Dance with My Father" and Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You") openly shares that her one career mission right now is to move units, to sell the song. She wants to make videos that are popular and make money. She describes the fiscal environment for video directors as pretty dire. One can imagine her thinking If I can show them that videos can really propel a song to the top of the charts, than I am securing my raison d'être I am showing that I am not ordinary, that what I do matters.
The models are selling their bodies for the viewer's pleasure. They may be looking right at the camera, trying to look confident and powerful, but the viewer is not just looking at their eyes. I think the models are beautiful. But what they are doing is not.
And are we not making a bargain as well? I will watch and re-watch this video. I will turn up the song even as it calls back those images. I will pretend that watching girls hopping around half-naked while the men have a grand ole' time is okay. It's just fun! It's funny (no, the parody in the movie Love Actually with those ridiculous women in Santa Hats strumming instruments, that is satire). And it's art! Would I have said Gauguin or Manet were making a Faustian bargain as well?
The difference here is in the way you feel while watching the video, while looking at the "art." We women are pretty intuitive creatures, we know things in our gut. Women, when you watched the videos, did you feel empowered, strengthened, liberated? Or a little inadequate and afraid that this is the new normal (even Robin's gorgeous wife admits to feeling jealous while watching it)? Brown writes that this is the usual female reaction to pornography. Teenage girls, you feel it, too. Watch the reaction of teens on the YouTube video of Teens React to Robin Thicke. You can see in the girls faces how their hearts drop as the video goes on, and especially when the directors talk about the topless version. Women, do you think, "Is this what I'm supposed to expect now?"
Robin Thicke's shame, his fear that he and his creation wasn't enough, bred shame in many women watching the videos. It made women feel like they were not enough. Shame begs shame, as Brown writes.
The irony here is that Robin Thicke seems to really love and respect women. You can hear it in the way he talks about his wife, in the way he is totally committed to her. You can see it in the beautiful, simple, and authentic videos they made together for his previous releases. You can hear it in his lyrics of previous albums. Song after song is about how much he adores his sweetheart. He is so glad she gave him a chance. He feels lost without her love. Even in the most recent album, he wonders if his woman will stay with him if he reveals how much he loves her. He wonders if it feels good for her, too. What about the company he keeps? He toured with India.Arie, and one is hard pressed to find someone more authentic and encouraging, calming even. In terms of female empowerment, one thinks of Beyoncé, with whom he also happened to tour. Or Jennifer Hudson. With whom he toured. Or Alicia Keyes, with whom he... (one gets the picture). Thicke says that his music is about love, and romance, and connection, and hope and that it has a real heart and a soul and feeling. But on this album, Robin Thicke, a new dad, wanted to have fun. Any parent can sympathize with this desire. And "Blurred Lines," the song is fun. The first time I heard it, I thought, "What's that?" It really was in a brilliant league of its own (minus the T.I.'s aggressive part, and "Do it like it hurts"). Only God knows if it would have been a major hit all by itself. By trading vulnerability for a Faustian bargain, Thicke assured that we will never know.
We may be watching the devolution of Robin Thicke. Which is sad. Because the authentic Robin Thicke is more than enough. Talented and caring, he is exactly who we want to see.