Note: This is the second part of a three-part discussion on the role that artist biography plays in our consumption of art. Find Part 1, ‘Art and the Artist,’ here.
Robin Thicke may be the most unpopular “pop musician” making music right now, a somewhat surprising career development since we couldn’t escape his “Blurred Lines” one year ago.
It’s been interesting to watch. I first heard “Blurred Lines” on a girl-power radio morning show on Cosmo Radio. The hosts loved the song and used it as bumper-music in and out of breaks for months.
The song used its catchy riffs and publicity from a very NSFW music video to rocket up the charts to give Thicke his most successful single ever. Initial reviews, including this one from Billboard’s Chris Payne, were mostly positive.
It wasn’t long, though, before “Blurred Lines” came up against controversy. In fact, controversy started coming at Thicke from every direction. First, Lisa Huyne of Feminist in L.A. called it “Robin Thicke’s new rape song.” Tricia Romano of The Daily Beast accused the lyrics of being “rapey,” and went on to point out that Thicke’s refrain of “Good girl, I know you want it” shows that the song is about “how a girl really wants crazy wild sex but doesn’t say it—positing that age-old problem where men think no means yes into a catchy, hummable song.”
Then came the Marvin Gaye lawsuit that accused the producer of Thicke’s song, Pharrell, of ripping the riff for “Blurred Lines” from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” And we all remember the time that Thicke dressed up like Beetlejuice and grinded with Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards while she DJ Scribbled herself with a foam finger, which set off a crazy shit storm of negative publicity for all parties involved. Miley Cyrus seems to have ridden that wave to a successful album launch, but the popularity of foam fingers has yet to recover.
And even then, it wasn’t over for Thicke. His wife, Paula Patton, would eventually decide to call it quits with him, which would trigger his writing and releasing of Paula, an album-length apologia designed to win her back. But people were not impressed. The album has performed terribly in its first weeks, selling only 25,000 copies in the states (but only 530 in Britain and less than 54 in Australia).
It’s really popular to hate Robin Thicke the person right now. He wrote a rapey song, he cheated on his wife, and wrote a creepy and desperate album and named it after her. What is there to like?
Critics point out that Paula is something of a return to form for Thicke, throwing back to his early days as a more traditional R&B crooner on tracks like “Lost without U.” If that’s the case, then why is the record not doing a bit better?
The simple and probable answer is that we know too much about Robin Thicke to like his music. We know too much about him to listen to the songs on Paula and just hear songs. We listen, and all we hear is creepy desperation. This article from Time points out that Thicke’s new record is “perfectly pleasant — as long as you don’t read the news.” It also draws comparisons between the record and other similarly pathetic and desperate albums from Marvin Gaye and Usher–two artists that we definitely do not hate for their songs about love gone wrong.
We are experiencing Robin Thicke Overload as a culture. He is definitely not helping, but neither is the culture that he is trying to navigate. We are not a people that can consume art blindly. We have to know about the people making it.
But what if the songs on Paula are really really good? Would we even know it? If, like we said last week, the meaning and beauty of art is not something that comes from who the Author is, but it is something that is made in the Reader and comes from how he or she reads the art, shouldn’t we give Thicke’s music the benefit of this treatment? How does our experience change? Is it even possible?
I’ve listened, and I’ve tried to separate the man from the art, but it’s tough. I think some of the songs are perfectly fine R&B songs (see “Forever Love”). I also think some of the songs are thin and were used to fill out an album that had to be about one person.
I think what is particularly interesting about all of this is that most criticisms of “Blurred Lines” were textual (the words are rapey; the video is misogynistic), but the criticisms of Paula are all biographical (he’s too desperate; he’s just reaching).
So this is less of a defense of the man, and more of a plea. Robin Thicke is definitely an artist that benefits from a bit more anonymity, so stop paying attention to him.
How do you feel about his music?
Does Robin Thicke make the case that too much knowledge of the artist can hurt our enjoyment of their art?
Can you think of other artists who would benefit from a less-public persona?