Cracked's 'One Hit Blunders': 5 Reasons 'Blurred Lines' Became A Cursed Song
"Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I) was one of the biggest hits of 2013. It spent 12 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the best-selling singles of all time at over 14 million copies, becoming one of only 78 songs to go platinum ten times to achieve diamond certification. And despite all of that success, it also became one of the most problematic songs ever recorded.
Between its troubling lyrics, plagiarized musical composition, messed-up music video, and the attitudes of the songwriters themselves, this one 4 ½ minute song has sparked more controversy than most artists suffer over their entire careers. And nearly all of that controversy was handled with all the grace and dignity of someone crapping their pants at a middle school dance.
The Origin of “Blurred Lines”
A little over a month after the song’s release, Robin Thicke gave an interview with GQ where he described the creative process behind his biggest hit. According to Thicke, “Pharrell and I were in the studio, and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up. I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’”
Thicke then went on to describe how he and Pharrell got the song finished in just a couple of hours, trying out lines back and forth while acting like a couple of catcalling old men. After doing so many serious R&B songs about love, relationships, and insecurities, Thicke was just wanting to do something a little more lighthearted and silly. The lyrics were meant to be more of a tongue-in-cheek joke rather than the tongue-wagging creep anthem it was later perceived to be by the public.
The most important thing to keep in mind about this story is that nearly every word of it, by Robin Thicke’s own admission, is absolute horse shit. In sworn depositions in a copyright infringement lawsuit over the song, both Thicke and Pharrell Williams admitted that much of what was said in interviews about Thicke’s involvement in the writing, as well as the Marvin Gaye influence, was greatly exaggerated to help sell more records. Thicke had even admitted that while recording the album, and for every interview he did for the following year, he was drunk and high on Vicodin.
The truth is there’s not a lot that’s confirmed to be true about the writing of the song. For one, there have been so many sordid scandals that have surrounded the song over the years that everyone involved is desperate to change the subject. For another, the aforementioned copyright lawsuit has caused Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. to be very tight-lipped about how that song was written for fear that they might end up back in court. But more on that later.
Okay, So … The Lyrics …
"Blurred Lines" is certainly not the first song to hit the charts to hide some incredibly creepy lyrics set to a catchy beat. The Rolling Stones would’ve been canceled four times over with “Under My Thumb,” "Some Girls," “Stray Cat Blues,” and “Brown Sugar.” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” are both about stalking, and "Crash Into Me" by Dave Matthews Band is about a peeping Tom, but none of that has stopped any of those songs from being played at way too many wedding receptions.
But then again, this applies to all forms of entertainment. You can hide some truly disturbing shit if you just make everything around it sound cheerful enough. Here’s an odd example, but hear us out: Casper the Friendly Ghost. Doesn’t get any more wholesome than Casper, right? In fact, he’s so wholesome and playful that you forget that the whole story centers around a dead child. Oh, but he just wants to help people and be their friend! Yeah, that’s because he never got to do that when he was alive. That’s his unfinished business on Earth as the tortured spirit of, again, a dead child.
Now, we could easily go through “Blurred Lines” lyric by lyric, but we’re not going to because A) there are copyright issues involved in that, and B) providing the lyrics in their entirety really doesn’t really change the context when it contains lines like “You the hottest bitch in this place” and “I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two,” plus the line “I know you want it” repeated 18 freaking times.
The accusations of the song promoting sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture started popping up as soon as the song hit the airwaves. Those criticisms are completely valid. The lyrics are creepy as hell! It’s told from the point of view of a guy trying to hit on a girl at the club and how much he really wants to make this good girl turn bad. Here’s the problem with this fictional scenario: obviously, none of these lines are working on this girl, and the guy is not taking the hint. If this pick-up attempt was at all successful, the lyrics wouldn’t keep doubling down like that.
It can be easy to try to dismiss the lyrics to “Blurred Lines” just because it’s just a cheesy pop song that’s not meant to be taken seriously. These singers don’t actually think this way about women. It’s all a big joke … it’s a parody of this toxic behavior, right? Well, that’s when Poe’s Law comes into play; you can only craft a parody so well before it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing. There are guys out there in the real world behaving like the guy in "Blurred Lines," and the song definitely wasn’t a wake-up call for them. It was practically an anthem.
But the craziest thing about the song is that nearly all of this criticism could’ve been prevented with just one added layer of context: The woman’s reaction. All they had to do was replace Pharrell’s vocals with a female singer, maybe tweak a couple of the words, and at least then the song would’ve kinda made it sound like the girl they were hitting on was playing along. Or better yet, give her all new lyrics that act as a rebuttal to these creepy ass pickup lines. Maybe that would signal to the douchebags that the other lyrics are maybe not how you’re supposed to talk to a woman.
As it stands, it’s just Robin Thicke and T.I. throwing out these creepy lines with Pharrell playing hype man. When you listen to the song, you can almost picture the girl they’re hitting on sitting at the bar trying her best to ignore them, covering her drink with one hand and blinking HELP ME in Morse code to the bartender.
And Then There’s the Music Video
In case you don’t want to watch the video, we’ll break it down for you: Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. dance around like idiots in designer suits, flanked by three supermodels in their underwear with random props. #THICKE and #BLURREDLINES popping up in big red letters because this was 2013, and music execs had just discovered what hashtags were. And all of this taking place in front of a plain white backdrop with all the warm, inviting cinematography of a passport photo from Walgreens. Also, there's a second version of the video where the models are topless, because of course there is.
The video is pretty much exactly what you would expect for a song like this. They knew the song was gonna be controversial, so there was no reason for the music video to not lean into that as much as possible. It’s provocative, but in that “Hey, look at me, I’m being provocative!” way that pissed off exactly the kinda people they wanted to piss off.
And for years, that was really about all there was to say about the video. That, and they also used the same models and set to film a commercial for Beats Pill by Dre, a nearly eight-inch long pill-shaped Bluetooth speaker sold at RadioShack. To be fair, given the phallic shape of the speaker and the nature of the song, the commercial could’ve been a lot more risque than it actually was. It wasn’t until October of last year that the “Blurred Lines” video made headlines again.
Emily Ratajkowski, one of the models in the video, was set to release a book of essays about her life and career titled My Body. An early excerpt from the book detailed her experiences on the video shoot, including the revelation that Robin Thicke had drunkenly groped her bare breasts while on set.
Mostly out of shock, Ratajkowski tried to minimize the incident at the time. Diane Martel, the director of the video, did not share that level of restraint. She yelled at Thicke, “What the f— are you doing? That’s it! The shoot is over!” According to Martel, Thicke gave a sheepish apology, and they were able to continue shooting.
After the story made the rounds in the tabloids, Emily Ratajkowski said in interviews that she was hesitant to even write about the incident in the first place, much less have that be the section of the book that got released early. Turns out that particular excerpt being leaked, much like the groping itself, was against her wishes.
The Copyright Infringement Lawsuit
Here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice: If you find yourself being interviewed over your latest Top 40 hit, and they ask you what inspired you to write that song, don’t mention any other song specifically. Or, at the very least, make sure it’s in the public domain. Turns out, all those times that Robin Thicke stated in interviews that Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up was his favorite song of all time and that he wanted “Blurred Lines” to sound like it really came back to bite him in the ass.
When Marvin Gaye died in 1984, The rights to his music, life story, and likeness went to his children: Marvin III, Frankie, and Nona. And they are very protective of their father’s legacy, and they do not mess around. So, when “Blurred Lines” came out and its similarities to and stated inspiration from Got To Give It Up made the media rounds, the Gaye Estate took notice, and within a matter of months, they went to court.
The strange thing about this copyright infringement case was that it didn’t start with the Gaye Estate filing a lawsuit against the songwriters, but rather the other way around. The Gayes weren’t even at the cease-and-desist letter stage and were merely exploring their legal options at that point. But lawyers for Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. decided to beat them to the punch by filing what’s called a complaint for declaratory relief, which is meant to force a court to rule on whether or not they could be sued over this in the first place. Kinda weird that the guys who wrote “Blurred Lines” needed someone to establish boundaries, but whatever.
In the complaint, the lawyers tried to make the claim that while “Blurred Lines” was intended to evoke the era of songs like Got To Give It Up, the Gaye Estate could not claim ownership over the genre. The family then counterclaimed that the two songs had substantial similarities in their main vocal and instrumental themes. They also cited several media interviews with Robin Thicke where he declared his fondness for Marvin Gaye’s work, including that pretty on-the-nose GQ interview.
But it was in the depositions that Robin Thicke and Pharrell gave in this case that took a turn for the weird. Thicke was able to evade many of the tough questions by admitting that nearly everything he stated in interviews was just to sell more records, and he was high and drunk whenever he made them. When asked if he considered himself an honest man, Thicke bluntly responded, “No.” This was the kinda stuff you might say to get out of jury duty, but not as a plaintiff.
For Pharrell’s deposition, it was pretty clear he was 5,000% done with this bs. If you’re looking for a drinking game that will cause your liver to eject from your body, watch this clip ...
... and do a shot every time Pharrell says he’s not comfortable (19 times in 13 minutes). When asked to explain the chord structure of “Blurred Lines,” he very snarkily refused to answer the question by saying, “I’m not here to teach you music … I’m not a teacher.”
The Gaye family had their own setbacks as well. For example, Thicke’s and Williams’ lawyers successfully argued to prevent any of Marvin Gaye’s music from being played for the jury. The reasoning for this was that the Gaye Family only held the rights to the sheet music, not the actual recording. So now, they were forced to prove the two songs sounded alike … on paper? That’s like trying to prove art forgery while blindfolded. Although later, an edited version of Got to Give It Up that removed any non-copyrightable elements in the recording was allowed.
In March of 2015, the jury unanimously ruled that Thicke and Williams were liable in the case, and the Gaye Family was awarded $7.4 million in damages. This was later reduced to $5.3 million, plus 50% of the future royalties from the song. Considering this new ruling came three years after the song was released, combined with the other controversies around the song, half the proceeds seem like it would probably be equivalent to getting half of Kevin Spacey’s residuals for everything after Baby Driver.
The next year, Thicke, Williams, and T.I. unsuccessfully appealed the decision. An amicus brief was filed with the appeal that was co-signed by 212 songwriters, composers, musicians, and producers, claiming the “Blurred Lines” ruling would have an "adverse impact on their own creativity, on the creativity of future artists, and on the music industry in general." The list of artists in this brief is interesting, to say the least. It’s not every day you see the Go-Go’s, Tool, and R. Kelly on the same lineup like this.
In 2019, the Gayes took Pharrell back to court again, this time accusing him of committing perjury in the original case based on an interview with GQ where Williams talked about reverse-engineering the feeling of Got To Give It Up. The judge ruled that the statements were open to multiple interpretations and dismissed the case. Perhaps the biggest takeaway of the whole ordeal is this: For the love of all things holy, STOP TALKING TO GQ MAGAZINE!
In the wake of all the scandals over “Blurred Lines,” it seems like everyone involved has managed to put the song’s many scandals behind them. T.I. moved on to other successful projects but also garnered more accusations of misogyny along the way. His statements over why he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 got him in some hot water, starting with “Not to be sexist, but …” and just digging himself a deeper hole from there. And in 2019, he admitted on a podcast that he would accompany his daughter to have her hymen checked by a gynecologist to confirm that she was still a virgin. We’ll give you a second to let your soul finish vomiting after reading that.
Robin Thicke had a bumpier path back from the scandals. His struggles with addiction, along with reports of infidelity and domestic abuse, lead to a particularly nasty divorce from his wife Paula in 2014. Thicke channeled/over-shared his feelings into his follow-up album Paula, which turned out to be perhaps the worst post-divorce pop album since Kirk Van Houten’s Can I Borrow a Feeling?
We’re sure Paula Patton just loved this. Yup; no conceivable way this blew up in his face.
Pharrell did another interview with GQ in 2019, where he talked about how he finally understood the criticism over “Blurred Lines” and how the song was emblematic of a chauvinistic culture. Sure, it took him six years to finally get it, but still, progress!
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Interscope Records