Robin Thicke: Blurred Lines

Robin Thicke delves into '70s funk and controversy.

Robin Thicke

Blurred Lines

Label: Star Trek/ Universal
US Release Date: 2013-07-30

Despite the fact that R&B singer Robin Thicke has sold well in the past and even topped the R&B charts, he’s never made the difficult jump from genre success to pop ubiquity, until now. For his newest album, Blurred Lines, Thicke decided that the yearning ballads and light bossa nova he’s been making since 2003 aren’t doing the trick. So he brought in some of the biggest pop producers of the last decade, including Pharrell and Dr. Luke, to make music he has described in interviews as “escapist". And he also studied some of musical escapism’s best proponents: Michael Jackson, Chic, and Quincy Jones. As Jackson once sang in “Off the Wall", “when the world is on your shoulders...boogie down.” Thicke took note and boogied his way to number one, with the help of some naked ladies.

The first half of Thicke’s album effectively emulates the fluttering funk and lush disco popular in the late '70s. This music swells and falls in satisfying waves; making it required skill and tremendous attention to detail, but the music lands with a gentle nudge and a seemingly effortless caress. Thicke melds a driving beat, choppy funk guitar with all the edges planed down smooth, flicks of slap bass, stair-step horns, and waves of backing vocals enveloping the lead.

It’s gleaming, fast-paced, sugar-coated. Of course, Thicke is not the only falsetto-wielding white pop star climbing the stairway up the charts, and at times he sounds a lot like a competitor, Justin Timberlake. (Their occasional sonic similarity does not extend to their looks, though in a recent New York Times profile of the singer, teenagers did ask Thicke if he was Timberlake.) Pick your Timberlake-like moment on Blurred Lines -- the vocals on “Oooh La La” or “Ain’t No Hat 4 That” (which also channels Hall and Oates “I Can’t Go For That”), the beat to “Give It 2 U,” which owes much to JT’s “SexyBack.” However, Thicke never confuses length with artistic vitality, a problem that has plagued Timberlake.

Though Thicke avoids the temptation of unnecessary length, Blurred Lines loses its charm when it stops trying to resurrect Michael Jackson. In the second half of the album, Thicke largely drops the funk, instead bringing in club-centric electronics and inserting a few ballads for old time's sake, with disappointing results. The clubby synths are an unimaginative concession to the current state of pop, since that first-half funk was plenty danceable and significantly less clunky. The ballads feel tacked on, especially since they only show up at the end, and they lack the pull of classic early Thicke (“Lost Without You”).

But at this point, the main question hovering over this album is not whether Thicke's new emphasis on boogying away from life's problems is incompatible with his old abilities as a balladeer. Cue the naked ladies. All the music on the album has been overshadowed by its title track, which is both the number one pop hit Thicke has long hoped for and the recipient of plenty of negative attention from critics and women’s rights groups, thanks in large part to its instantly notorious video. The video contains three bare breasted models prancing around while Thicke, the producer Pharrell, and the rapper T.I. frolic. The men are dressed in black formal wear that stands out next to the bare skin and white underwear worn by the women. Pharrell, ever dapper, also sports a straw hat.

Most of the time, the video for the song is plain silly, almost a caricature of a music video. In one particularly unsubtle scene, the video backdrop informs viewers that “Robin Thicke has a big dick.” The singer also talks up his endowment in “Give It 2 U". Who knew escapism involved all this penis-size assessment? Thicke does some strutting and hip wiggling, but doesn’t seem capable of much else -- or to care that’s he’s not capable of much else. There’s plenty of clowning for the camera, a pair of giant dice, an oversized bicycle, and a massive syringe.

Musically, “Blurred Lines” is hardly more than a pulsing rhythm section, the kind of stripped-down funk that has long been Pharrell’s trademark mixed in with Thicke’s zest for the late '70s (Thicke cited Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” as an influence). Thicke and Pharrell played well together on “Wanna Love You Girl", from 2006, one of Thicke’s liveliest early tracks. T.I., who reliably assists R&B singers with hits -- Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt” -- also raps a verse. Complete with “hey hey heys” and a cowbell that ensures that even the most resistant listeners will notice the beat, “Blurred Lines” is music you dance to.

The lyrics are the source of most of the trouble. One lyric in particular: Thicke sings, “I know you want it", suggesting that refusing his advances is meaningless, just a step in a coy game. At best this is a dumb line (no blurring) at worst an offensive one, although Thicke isn’t the first singer to use it and almost certainly won’t be the last, especially now that using it seems to have been partially responsible for his stay on top of the charts. Despite all this, Thicke might still have escaped notice if he hadn’t named the tune “Blurred Lines". When applied to naked women and flirtation, this blurriness may suggest disregarding whatever boundaries ladies might put in place, setting off alarm bells.

Thicke is hardly the only R&B singer trying to sex up his videos, he’s just the one who seems the most gleeful about it. Timberlake’s recently released “Tunnel Vision” video contained a number of writhing topless dancers and an overactive smoke machine that reeked of faux-seriousness. JT’s song begins with the repeated phrase “I know you like it", but he hasn’t attracted the same sort of ridicule as Thicke, maybe because JT dances alone, always completely separate from the ladies -- though his face does appear at one point looking through several women with his eyes roughly at breast level -- or because everyone finds him too lovable to critique. Timberlake sticks to the classic monomania that gets passed off as crazy-in-love, though it could just as easily be creepy: “I’ve got tunnel vision for you.” (Another singer, the Weeknd, has topless ladies in his videos too, though he hasn’t sold enough records at this point to merit attention.)

Thicke’s not just looking to lift the smoothness from the late '70s, he’s also looking to steal from -- and make fun of? -- rap videos’ sexiness. R&B and hip-hop have a competitive and cannibalistic relationship. Hip-hop came along in the '80s and '90s, rearranged soul and funk songs to make hip-hop beats, and then drafted R&B singers to provide hooks. Hip-hop also heisted R&B’s sexiness, sales, and critical attention.

Since then, R&B has fought back by preying on its predator. Mary J. Blige gained favor as the queen of hip-hop soul; D’Angelo earned praise for infusing the music of the '70s with the pulse of rap. R. Kelly sold millions of albums by adeptly mixing R&B and rap through constant collaboration, speak-singing, and calling himself as an R&B thug. From beats to breasts: R&B hasn’t just reached for hip-hop’s percussion, it has reached for its look. Hip-hop videos consistently offer the most female bare skin, so it’s no surprise that R&B singers want in on that too, and the dancers are now losing their tops. Lyrics and breasts aside, the “Blurred Lines” video is either ridiculous or just plain inept. Dancers gyrate, but not in sexual ways.

Thicke said that he and Pharrell had no intention of creating a controversy, only a hit. But would “Blurred Lines” have become a hit without the video? It’s hard to believe the song’s creators didn’t know what they were doing, especially since Pharrell has always had a knack for the charts. In fact, it’s more comforting to believe they knew exactly what they’re doing; otherwise, we have to believe that they actually think the things they sing about. Most likely, after years spent trying to climb to the top as a smooth, honeyed love man, Thicke decided to go with sex, which still sells. And that line is unlikely to blur -- or change at all -- any time soon.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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