For five weeks in a row, Robin Thicke's playful, button-pushing song "Blurred Lines" has been the No. 1 song in the country. It's a catchy piece of summertime pop, but much of the attention came after the premiere of the song's video, which features Thicke and his male collaborators — the rapper T.I. and the producer Pharrell Williams — strutting for the camera alongside a trio of models. The men are fully dressed. The women, in an "unrated" version of the video, are nearly nude (you can watch the relatively safe-for-work version here). It set off a wave of criticism, and focused attention on the song's lyrics, which feature the line "You know you want it."
Is the song misogynistic? Or simply a provocation of the sort that's been familiar since Edouard Manet painted a nude woman picnicking alongside fully dressed men in 1863? "The controversy comes really from the video, which does involve nakedness, and a lot of playful touching, and weird props and strange stuff," NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. "And it's funny, it's fun, but some people think that it's pushing the line toward even violence against women — at least symbolic violence against women."
This may be Thicke's first chart-topping hit, but he's been working in a female-friendly soul and R&B mode for years. When he first came out, Powers says, "he looked kind of like a member of the cast of Rent or something; he had longer hair, and he looked a little grungy. But [he] quickly realized he would do better with this smoother and kind of retro image."
That worked for him, to a point. "His usual sound is a much more sort of smooth, sexy variety of R&B that's often about true love and faithfulness," Powers says. His songs started showing up on the R&B charts in 2007, but Thicke had big plans for his new album, which comes out at the end of the month. "My last album didn't sell very well — in fact, not at all," he told Radio.com last month. So he hired hitmakers to "try to make some music everybody can enjoy instead of just my small fan base. It's less of a crossover hit than a dive into pop's deep end, Powers says. " 'Blurred Lines,' though not his first up-tempo song by far, definitely jumps over into the brighter and more confrontational world of Top 40."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Singer-songwriter Robin Thicke's new song "Blurred Lines" has spent weeks at number one on the Billboard charts. The song features hip hop producer Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
ROBIN THICKE: (singing) I hate these blurred lines. I know you want it. Yeah. I know you want it...
MONTAGNE: The music video for this single has got people talking, mainly because nearly naked supermodels prance back and forth while the men, who are fully clothed, sing I know you want it. And that's our cue to hear from NPR's music critic Ann Powers. Good morning.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Hi. So let's start with a little bit of controversy around this.
POWERS: Well, it definitely rides the fine line between seduction and assault, some think. It's very playful. The music takes from Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up" and it has that party feel. The controversy comes, really, from the video which does involve nakedness and it's funny, it's fun, but some people think that it's pushing the line toward even violence against women, at least symbolic violence against women.
MONTAGNE: This sort of controversy with several clothed men and some unclothed women, I mean, this dates back 150 years to Manet: "The Picnic on the Grass," which was very controversial in its time. I mean, isn't this a provocative sort of imagery that is, well, at this point old fashioned almost?
POWERS: You know, you're really right. When Robin Thicke has talked about this video he talks about it as, we are three old men cat calling to beautiful women on the street; we have no power. But, obviously, when women are exposed we think of them as vulnerable. So the blurred lines, in a sense, are the blurred lines of perception around issues of sexuality and power in the 21st century, and forever, as you say.
MONTAGNE: And talk to us about Robin Thicke. He is not new to the music scene.
POWERS: No, Robin Thicke has been around for a while. His usual sound is a much more kind of smooth, sexy variety of R&B that's often about true love and faithfulness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE")
THICKE: (singing) I knew when I laid my eyes on you, the lights from above seemed to shine on only you...
POWERS: And that was from the album "Blurred Lines" which is coming out at the end of the month.
MONTAGNE: Well, very different than "Blurred Lines."
POWERS: So Thicke is best known for that kind of sound and also for a public image that centers around his marriage to the actress Paula Patton. So "Blurred Lines," though not his first up tempo song, by far, definitely jumps over into the brighter and confrontational world of Top 40.
MONTAGNE: We have to say part of his appeal is his Rat Pack image.
POWERS: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. I mean, when Thicke first came out he looked kind of like a member of the cast of "Rent" or something. He had longer hair and he looked a little grungy, but quickly realized that he would do better with this smoother and kind of retro image. So he usually wears suits. He has kind of a pompadour-ish hairstyle. That's his standard MO, and you see it on other performers now, notably Justin Timberlake.
I think Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke might be in a quiet competition at the moment. In fact, Justin Timberlake's new video for the song "Tunnel Vision" happens to feature models wearing nearly nothing.
MONTAGNE: Well. All right.
POWERS: Call it the summer of sunscreen, if nothing else.
MONTAGNE: Ann, thanks very much.
POWERS: Thank you so much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Ann Powers is NPR's music critic. This is NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.