The Ones of the ’10s: Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (feat. T.I. & Pharrell)

In The Ones of the ‘10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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Robin Thicke- “Blurred Lines” (feat. T.I. & Pharrell)

HIT #1: June 22, 2013

STAYED AT #1: 12 weeks

Is it possible for a hit song to both launch and destroy a career at the same time?

With “Blurred Lines,” the massive summer 2013 smash by industry journeyman Robin Thicke, that question might just have its answer. The song’s success should normally be a good thing for an artist. After all, pop stardom isn’t the kind of thing that can be achieved easily. It requires a perfect combination of luck and timing to be able to attract a wide audience that is constantly changing. Thicke was 36, a bit old for someone first hitting #1, but had been in the music industry game since he was a teenager. He’d largely done well in the R&B field with minor pop chart success but with “Blurred Lines” had made the jump to the mainstream.

Unfortunately, the song that got him there turned out to be a never-ending stream of controversy. Even during its summer peak at #1, you couldn’t go a day without hearing some form of criticism on whether its lyrics were misogynistic or promoted date rape. Much of that criticism was also directed towards its music video showing Thicke and his featured guests rapper T.I. and famed producer/singer/rapper Pharrell Williams fooling around with scantily clad models. And then there’s its more lasting legacy when it comes to musical copyright law with the courts ruling that Thicke and team had plagiarized a prior #1 hit that served as inspiration for the song, a hit from when Thicke was only months old. Everything about “Blurred Lines” is messy.

Robin Thicke grew up in Los Angeles with parents that were heavily involved in the entertainment business. (The #1 single in America when Thicke was born was Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born).”) His father, the late Alan Thicke, was famous for his role as father Dr. Jason Seaver on the hit ‘80s-‘90s sitcom Growing Pains but also had a career composing themes for sitcoms and game shows. His mom, Gloria Loring, spent six years in the ‘80s playing Liz Chandler on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. She also did some singing and songwriting that involved collaborating with her husband on themes to the sitcoms Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts Of Life. In 1986, Loring had a big pop moment with “Friends and Lovers,” a ballad collaboration with fellow singer/actor Carl Anderson. (“Friends and Lovers” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.) 

Born into that environment, naturally, Thicke wanted to be a part of it. As a teen, he got some parts on major sitcoms like The Wonder Years and with his dad on Growing Pains. But it was music that was Thicke’s true calling where a demo he recorded at 14 caught the attention of R&B singer Brian McKnight helping to get him a record deal with Interscope. (McKnight’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Back At One,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) In the beginning, Thicke focused on songwriting and producing for such acts as Brandy, 3T, Christina Aguilera, Mya, Marc Anthony, etc. He also co-wrote and produced songs on the 1999 debut self-titled solo album for former New Kids on the Block member Jordan Knight including its big hit “Give It To You” which he co-wrote with Knight and the hit-making R&B production team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. “Give It To You” wound up peaking at #10. (It’s a 3.)

Thicke began working on his own music soon after releasing his first album, A Beautiful World, in 2003 led off by “When I Get You Alone,” a song built off a sample of Walter Murphy’s 1976 #1 disco instrumental “A Fifth of Beethoven” but both of them didn’t make much impact. For the follow-up, 2006’s The Evolution of Robin Thicke, Thicke hooked up with The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams’ production team, who signed him to their Star Trak label. The new association gave Thicke the breakthrough he needed as the album went platinum going Top 5 on Billboard’s album charts but tellingly did better at R&B where it went to #1. The same dynamic applied to its lead single, the gentle and quiet acoustic ballad “Lost Without U,” which peaked on the Hot 100 at #14, his highest-charting single before “Blurred Lines,” but went to #1 on the R&B charts marking the first time since George Michael’s “One More Try” in 1988 that a white male artist topped such chart.

From there, Thicke became a solid B-lister and R&B star becoming one of the few white acts to be a credible R&B act releasing albums and singles that often performed better on the R&B charts than the pop charts including another R&B #1, 2009’s “Sex Therapy,” which went #54 on the Hot 100. He also became a popular opening act for artists including future The Ones of the ‘10s subjects John Legend and Beyoncé along with column veterans Maroon 5 and was also picked to open for the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, for his ill-fated This Is It concert series. Amid all this, Thicke continued his side job of collaborating with fellow artists and making various media appearances. Robin Thicke was doing just fine but then “Blurred Lines” happened.

Thicke and Pharrell were in the studio one day when Thicke mentioned one of his favorite songs ever was Marvin Gaye’s 1977 #1 “Got To Give It Up” wanting to make a similar type of song. (They might have made it too similar but we’ll get to that later.) The two wrote “Blurred Lines” in a half-hour and recorded much of the track shortly after with T.I. not coming in with his verse until months later. (In a later court deposition, Thicke admitted to being high on Vicodin and alcohol during the session and that Pharrell wrote most of the song.) In a 2013 interview with GQ, Thicke had this to say about its creation, “Him and I would go back and forth where I’d sing a line and he’d be like, “Hey, hey, hey!” We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, “Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!”” In another interview with Howard Stern, Thicke elaborated that the lyrics for “Blurred Lines” were inspired by his then-wife actress Paula Patton and their sexual desires.

All of those stories explain a lot about the lyrics. In “Blurred Lines,” Thicke is trying to pick up a girl for a night of rough sex. The song makes her out to be a wild and outgoing person whose previous boyfriend wasn’t much fun but Thicke knows her true nature and will live up to her style, “Okay, now he was close/Tried to domesticate you/But you’re an animal/Baby, it’s in your nature”. On the surface, this idea doesn’t seem too bad. He knows what this girl is into and isn’t afraid to satisfy her desires. Thicke even entices this girl with marijuana from Jamaica which he says works for him from “Dakota to Decatur.”

The main problem for many is Thicke himself who sings the song in a smug delivery that makes him come across as the type of creep who randomly hits on girls at nightclubs and bars. Saying something like “I know you want it” is not the kind of remark that’ll turn you into a ladies’ man in real life. The main line with the title, “I hate these blurred lines,” is also seen by critics as condoning date rape showing Thicke frustrated with the lines of consent which in the context of the song means mixed messages in wanting sex while assuming this girl is already into sex. Thicke has said it means the line between a good girl and a bad girl but others saw it as something else.

The song was immediately met with backlash, the kind I don’t think I’ve ever seen for a major hit song before or since. From just looking at the song’s Wikipedia page, the backlash was extensive especially in the UK with universities straight-up banning the song. The group End Violence Against Women Coalition even named Thicke “Sexist of the Year” for 2013. This wasn’t just any old moral backlash against a pop song. While the backlash was big at the time, it’s easy to imagine it being much more severe in the wake of the #MeToo movement. 

At the time, Thicke and Pharrell made statements defending the song trying to argue it actually had a feminist meaning. Speaking to the Today Show, Thicke explained that the song was made with good intentions and welcomed the controversy saying, “It’s actually a feminist movement within itself. It’s saying that women and men are equals as animals and as power.” That statement though is contradicted by the same GQ interview I mentioned where he says, “We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, “We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.” People say, “Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?” I’m like, “Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.”

Thicke later said to Oprah Winfrey that he had made that statement in an imitation of Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character from Anchorman with the interviewer not noting it while calling it a “bad joke.” Regardless, if you’re facing backlash over a song that’s accused of being misogynistic, saying it’s proud to degrade women is not the kind of thing you want to say. Just last week, Thicke expressed full regret over “Blurred Lines” saying to the New York Post, “It doesn’t matter what your intentions were when you wrote the song … the people were being negatively affected by it. And I think now, obviously, culture, society has moved into a completely different place. You won’t see me making any videos like that ever again!”

Pharrell defended the song in an NPR interview with the line “That man is not your maker” which he tried to explain was giving power to the woman before getting into some evolutional type shit, “I think it’s very clear. There’s nothing misogynistic about it. It takes the power from whatever “man” — if you’re looking at the lyrics, the power is right there in the woman’s hand. That man — me as a human being, me as a man, I’m not your maker, I can’t tell you what to do.” But in a 2019 GQ interview, Pharrell disowned “Blurred Lines” understanding how it could be interpreted as misogynistic, “And then I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn’t matter that that’s not my behavior. Or the way I think about things. It just matters how it affects women. And I was like, Got it. I get it. Cool.”

Getting away from the controversy, “Blurred Lines” isn’t exactly bad per se. Pharrell’s only vocal contribution is the “woo” ad-lib he does throughout and it gives the song a fun energy and I don’t have a problem with the funky breakdown. At the very least everyone sounds like they’re enjoying themselves. But Pharrell’s production- cowbell, programmed drums, blocky bass, and keyboard- has a very plastic feel that sounds like a pale imitation of funk without the sweaty intensity. Even the hook for all its attention isn’t that catchy or memorable as well as T.I.’s part. It just lingers around like a bad smell. Had it come out a decade earlier, “Blurred Lines” would have had likely been given The Neptunes touch with funky guitars and hip-hop beats. I’m not saying it’d be better but at least it wouldn’t sound as ungainly as what we got.

It’s hard to talk about “Blurred Lines” without talking about its music video. Diane Martel, who’d just come off of making the video for the prior #1 “Just Give Me A Reason,” directed the “Blurred Lines” video and it turned out to be just the thing to help Interscope have faith in the song. Thicke played “Blurred Lines” for the label people after first recording but they didn’t care much for it. Label head Jimmy Iovine was shown the video and only watched a few seconds before calling it a smash. 

Two versions of the video were put out. The first one, the one everyone knows, was released along with the song showing the models more dressed in scantily clad attire. The other video released a week later, went in a more explicit direction with the models topless and wearing only thongs. It was the second video that led to YouTube suspending it for violating its Terms of Use but eventually allowed it back on where it still lives today. I won’t post the unrated video but you can access it here. Much like the lyrics, the video was also criticized for being misogynistic.

Like most modern songs, “Blurred Lines” is a song you can’t listen to without picturing its video in your head. You probably know the gist. Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. stand around in a room with three models Emily Ratajkowski, Elle Evans, and Jessi M’Bengue spending the video fooling around with each other as random flashes of #THICKE and #BLURREDLINES show up throughout. There’s also Thicke singing using one girl’s feet, playing with animals, and balloons that spell out ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG D. Martel explained how the video is supposed to reflect the so-called empowering nature of the song, ”I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men. Look at Emily Ratajkowski’s performance; it’s very, very funny and subtly ridiculing. That’s what is fresh to me. It also forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators.”

Controversy aside, Martel did a real shit job with this video. It’s not even about the sexism accusations but simply because it’s not a very good video. I don’t expect music videos to always be huge pieces of art but this one feels especially lazy and cheap. This isn’t the type of quality you’d expect from a veteran director and three mainstream stars. If there are any deeper subliminal messages present I don’t see it. All I view the video as is a bunch of guys and models fucking around with Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. constantly mugging the camera with the smugness that comes across on record. I haven’t watched the explicit video though I can’t imagine it does anything better than what most of us have seen.

Now we have to get into the other major controversy. Upon “Blurred Lines’” release, the estate of Marvin Gaye claimed that the song bore a heavy resemblance to Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” to where it constituted copyright infringement threatening legal action if Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. didn’t pay up. In response, Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. filed a complaint for declaratory relief against Marvin Gaye’s three children to confirm that their song didn’t copy “Got To Give It Up.” Gaye’s family then countersued arguing “Blurred Lines” was heavily similar to “Got To Give It Up” that it infringed on the latter’s copyright. 

Amid the storm of the Marvin Gaye situation, what doesn’t get discussed about the controversy is that there was another accusation of musical plagiarism against “Blurred Lines.” That came from Bridgeport Music, the music publishing company for the ‘70s funk band Funkadelic, arguing that Thicke’s song infringed upon Funkadelic’s 1974 song “Sexy Ways” becoming a part of the lawsuit with Marvin Gaye’s family. The band’s leader George Clinton though tweeted in support of Thicke and team saying “Blurred Lines” did not rip off “Sexy Ways.” In 2014, Bridgeport settled out of court thus being dropped from the lawsuit which was for the best as “Sexy Ways” bears no resemblance to “Blurred Lines” whatsoever. (Funkadelic’s highest-charting single, 1978’s “One Nation Under A Groove,” peaked at #28.)

After a month-long civil trial, a California jury ultimately decided that “Blurred Lines” did indeed borrow heavily from “Got To Give It Up” finding Thicke and Pharrell liable for copyright infringement though T.I. was ultimately cleared. As a result, Gaye’s family was awarded damages upward of $7.4 million that Thicke and Pharrell had to pay. It also meant that Marvin Gaye was given a songwriting credit on “Blurred Lines’” meaning his estate now ranks in much of the song’s royalties. 

Reaction to the ruling was overwhelmingly negative within the music community feeling that the court was setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to musical copyright and creativity. They also worried about its impact on artists who would have to now constantly look over their heads when making music worrying about any similarities that could warrant a lawsuit. Because of all this, hundreds of artists wound up filing amicus curiae briefs in support of Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I.’s appeal of the ruling. It ultimately didn’t do much in the end as California’s Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling against Thicke and Pharrell in 2018.

I’m not a musicologist but even I have to agree with how bullshit this ruling is. Thicke and Pharrell were open about the influence of “Got To Give It Up” on “Blurred Lines” and while it shares a lot of the same characteristics like its minimal bass, keyboard, and cowbell it does not sample or interpolate the melody of Marvin Gaye’s song. Besides, most of pop music is about taking inspiration from songs we like and turning it into something new. And as someone who has a basic knowledge of music theory, songs are filled with notes, chords, and progressions that are commonly used and accepted. Nobody can just claim the right to actual music notes. As we’ll see going forward, this ruling opened the door to various frivolous cases of accusations of songs that happened to sound similar to another.

Despite or maybe in spite of the controversies, “Blurred Lines” became a major worldwide hit where it became the UK’s top song of 2013 and topped various Billboard charts including once again the R&B charts. Even with the controversies, I remember people enjoying the song when it would play at dances not even thinking of the lyrical implications myself included. After all, if you look past the lyrics it does make for an enjoyable dance jam. And as many have pointed out, it wasn’t even the worst offender in 2013 when it came to misogynistic hit songs and yet there’s still an uncomfortable feeling listening to the song again 8 years later. It’s the kind of song I’m perfectly fine leaving in 2013 and it seems most have done the same including the artists themselves.

For Thicke, “Blurred Lines” brought him to a level of fame he hadn’t seen before. He was able to perform the song everywhere he went including at the MTV Video Music Awards where his performance was the subject of Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking. That’s not the kind of event you’d want to be proud of participating in but he’s performing his worldwide hit to the widest possible audience he’ll ever get so that’s something. 

Pharrell Williams will appear in this column again as a solo artist but T.I. and Robin Thicke will not. For T.I., he hasn’t made much of a chart impact since “Blurred Lines” with his highest-charting single since, 2014’s laughably ironic “No Mediocre” a collaboration with Iggy Azalea, peaking at #33. (Iggy Azalea will eventually appear in this column.) He continues to release music but has largely settled into an elder statesman role showing up in places like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Ant-Man. He’s also gotten himself into several controversies including very recently when he was accused of sexual abuse against many women making an already uncomfortable song even more uncomfortable.

As for Robin Thicke, he quickly had other things to deal with. Amid the “Blurred Lines” success, Thicke and his wife separated which led Thicke to quickly record and release his next album Paula, an album attempting to save the marriage. Paula wound up a monumental flop selling only 24,000 in its first week despite a #9 album chart debut and peak falling hard after. That’s not even the most embarrassing figure with some countries reporting Paula sales figures in the hundreds including just 158 copies sold in Australia in the first week. For someone who had one of the biggest hit songs of the past year, that’s a stratospheric drop. It’s an album so disastrous that YouTube critic Todd in the Shadows already did a great Trainwreckord review of it

Pop chart-wise, Thicke wouldn’t get into the Top 10 again after “Blurred Lines.” His highest-charting single since was its immediate followup, the 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar collaboration “Give It 2 U” which peaked at #25. With Paula, its lead-off single “Get Her Back” flopped at #82. That’s it as a lead artist but Thicke’s last charting appearance to date was as a feature on Flo Rida’s “I Don’t Like It, I Love It” with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White which peaked at #43. 

Nowadays, Thicke spends his time judging on The Masked Singer but after a few years of failed singles, he’s just released his newest album, his first since Paula, On Earth, And In Heaven. He seems to be in a better place now but his main legacy will always be his big hit that wound up causing a moral outcry and screwed up musical copyright law.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s YouTuber Bart Baker’s “Blurred Lines” parody that gets into a lot of the controversies surrounding the song:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” his hilarious grammar themed parody of “Blurred Lines” that makes it miles better than the original:

(“Word Crimes” peaked at #39. Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Joel McHale singing “Blurred Lines” while wearing a Robin Thicke mask on a 2020 episode of The Masked Singer. As someone who’s never watched the show, I have no fucking clue of what is going on here:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Daft Punk, Pharrell, and Nile Rodgers’ gloriously repetitive retro disco collaboration “Get Lucky” peaked at #2 behind “Blurred Lines.” We’re up all night to the sun. We’re up all night to get some. We’re up all night for good fun. We’re up all night to get lucky. It’s a 10.

(“Get Lucky” is Daft Punk’s highest-charting single as lead artists but as guests, they’ll be in this column eventually.)

THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: Imagine Dragons’ bombastic and apocalyptic electro-indie rock revolution anthem “Radioactive” peaked at #3 behind “Blurred Lines.” I feel it in my bones. Enough to make my systems blow. Welcome to the new age, to the new age. It’s a 10.

Bruno Mars’ cheesy retro early ‘80s R&B jam “Treasure” peaked at #5 behind “Blurred Lines.” I know that you don’t know it, but you’re fine, so fine. It’s an 8.

And finally, Zedd and Foxes’ powerfully tragic EDM collaboration “Clarity” peaked at #8 behind “Blurred Lines.” Cause you are the piece of me I wish I didn’t need. Chasing relentlessly, still fight and I don’t know why. It’s an 8.