I’d assumed that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was a celebration of uncertainty. No is synonymous with no – but, I thought the song said, maybe it isn’t? Maybe it could be tentative, or maybe it could get garbled, or maybe one could feign disability: “Maybe I’m going deaf / Maybe I’m going blind / Maybe I’m out of my mind.” Maybe no means maybe.
Then I looked at the lyrics. The song’s speaker, it turns out, is uncomfortable with uncertainty: “I hate these blurred lines,” he whines. The binary that bothers him is not precisely the no/yes thing, it’s “the good-girl/bad-girl thing.” Because how is he to know which kind of girl he’s addressing?
The speaker solves this problem not by asking his addressee if she wants to have sex with him but by collapsing the good-girl/bad-girl binary; the song proposes that good girls are synonymous with bad girls. Thus the addressee is a “good girl” who “Must wanna get nasty,” and thus, again and again, the speaker can aver with certainty “I know you want it.”
The speaker effaces the line between good girls and bad girls by reinscribing the line that separates men from women and other animals: “Okay now he was close / Tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal / Baby it’s in your nature.” The speaker and his rival are fully human – they transcend animality – but the addressee is synonymous with her physiology, and consent is built into her body. There’s no way out, which makes the next line of the song especially cynical: “Just let me liberate you.”
The speaker’s humanity is signaled in part by his speaking. His addressee isn’t entirely silent, but she certainly doesn’t speak: between “Baby it’s in your nature” and “Just let me liberate you,” low in the mix, she meows.
In sum: the category “animal” underpins the speaker’s logic.
A corollary: an adequate challenge to the speaker’s logic will encompass a critique of the category “animal.”
The speaker’s logic has been understood and underscored – but left unchallenged – by virtually everyone who has adapted the song, beginning with Diane Martel. Hence the “barnyard pizazz” in her music video(s): the bales of hay, the sausage links, the fully human and thus fully clothed performers and their naked chattel: Elle Evans, Emily Ratajkowski, Jessi M’Bengue, a “nasty dog,” and a little lamb.
Nikki and Sara propose to star in a companion video, “for the ladies.” The duo end up cowering and screaming, upset by their (literal) proximity to “#LIVESTOCK” and threatened by the naked male bodies they’ve recruited; their inversion fails.
The Law Revue Girls preface their “feminist parody” with an adaptation of the American Humane Association’s empty promise: “NO MEN WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS VIDEO.” The Girls maintain control over their unharmed male chattel, in part by putting one on a leash; their inversion is successful insofar as they flip the original’s gender roles. But the speaker’s logic is perpetuated, the category “animal” persists. Likewise in Melinda Hughes’ “Lame Lines”: the roles are reversed, the nonhumans remain. (One commenter asks, “Seriously – is there some special store that rents out goats for music videos?”) Moreover, Hughes follows Thicke in using disability as metaphorical material: “Your dance is spastic…I hate your lame lines.”
In Postmodern Jukebox’s bluegrass cover, “You the hottest bitch in this place” becomes “You the hottest gal in this barn”; in Vampire Weekend’s version, it’s “You the hottest fish in this place.” The species isn’t important; the category “animal” is indispensable.
The original’s “bitch” prompts Jayme Karales to joke that “What ‘Blurred Lines’ is really about is a man…trying to train his adopted dog.” (See also “Furred Lines” by The Pet Collective: “Give you a treat if you’re a good girl / Stay if you want it / Sit if you want it / Beg if you want it.”) (See also “Furred Lines” by the University of Sydney Vet Revue: “I’m gonna be a good vet / I know they want me / I love them furry / I’m trained don’t worry.”) (See also Rob Sheffield’s reading: “He sings ‘good girl’ like he’s cheering up a depressed shih tzu.”) The reading that results is often inadvertently insightful: “the dog’s past owner had failed at taming the animal, but Thicke refuses to give in…we confirm that he’s speaking to an animal, and he proceeds to excuse its [sic] behavior due to its [sic] species.” At least one commenter is convinced: “Very interesting to draw a parallel between treatment of women with treatment of domesticated animals. It points out general dehumanization of women when it comes to their sexuality in media.”
Dehumanization happens when a particular morphology is uniquely valued. Bodies that fit this form – humans – can give consent or be coerced. Others – animals – lack agency; the concepts “consent” and “coercion” cannot apply to them.
The speaker aligns his addressee with animality in order to argue away her agency; “Blurred Lines” is the most controversial song of the decade because so many listeners are compelled to recuperate her humanity, as in Rosalind Peters’ straightforward “Reply”: “Okay now he was close / Tried to domesticate you / That’s what they do to animals / Baby it’s not your nature!” If the addressee is human, then she can give consent or be coerced, and Thicke’s song is a “rape song” that celebrates coercion, that says no means maybe, no means yes.
This response does not go far enough: it leaves a line between humans and animals unchallenged and merely moves the speaker to the valued side. As a result, dehumanization remains a live option. Rather than recuperate the addressee’s humanity, I want to argue for trans-species agency: I want dehumanization dead. This entails rejecting the category “animal” altogether, and asking after all of the video’s performers, including the little lamb. Evans, Ratajkowski, and M’Bengue are, in the world of the song, animal, chattel, but in the world proper, their status is ambiguous. The lamb, on the other hand, is always already available to be used by humans: for meat, for wool, for leather, for milk, for science, for entertainment, for anything; the concepts “consent” and “coercion” cannot apply to the lamb. The status of women in our culture continues to be contested – the movement between dehumanization and rehumanization is constant – in part because the lamb’s status is static: he has no agency anywhere, and so is a ready referent for rape song singers.
An anecdote from Evans makes the lamb’s status clear: Pharell “tried to hold it [sic]. The lamb must not have liked him very much, because he kept kicking and violently thrashing, trying to escape…At one point, the lamb actually got loose on set for a minute – he was trotting around, making his little bleat noises, you know – ‘ba-aaa’!’ It [sic] was such a cute thing, he really made everyone smile.” In the speaker’s world, “liberate” means little; in Evans’ anecdote, “escape” and “got loose” are similarly circumscribed.
Evans observes that “In my life, I’ve been in two music videos, and in the first one I was holding a baby goat and in the second one I was holding a baby lamb.” The logic of dehumanization lives as long as these bodies are available to be used; “no” remains subject to interpretation in part because lambs cannot be recognized as subject to coercion. Absent a critique of the category “animal” and the biological determinism it assumes, attempts to assert the addressee’s agency are inadequate.
Regarding Robin Thicke’s surname, Diane Martel says it “is strong and I suppose it has subconscious connotations.” Elizabeth Day declares it is “surely one of the best examples of nominative determinism since Rich Ricci became the head of investment banking at Barclays.” In sum it suggests its bearer has a big dick or a small intellect or both.
Thicke’s given name, however, promises that the logic of “Blurred Lines” cannot hold. “Robin” blurs the line that separates men and women as well as the line that separates humans and animals. In 1977, the year that Thicke was born, it was the 408th most popular boy’s name and the 84th most popular girl’s name in the United States. And it was, of course, the 1st most popular name for Thicke’s fellow singers Turdus migratorius.
Every oppressive logic – androcentric, anthropocentric, carnophallogocentric – is fuzzy. Every line we scrawl is blurry. A man and a woman are one. A man and a woman and a robin are one.
No is synonymous with no – this logic has to hold. But Homo sapiens is not synonymous with humanity, and Ovis aries is irreducible to animality. I love these blurred lines, and I think that celebrating them is the only adequate response to haters like Thicke’s speaker.