Banning the lines of music lyrics

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards, a song and a performance that sparked all sorts of debate.

Blurred Lines began as the party track of the summer — but soon became one of the most controversial songs of the decade. From Miley to Sinead, and now Lily, Suzanne Harrington looks at pop music’s latest brawl.

HERE’S a pop quiz for you. Is Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’ advocating non-consensual sex, or rape, as it is better known? Is Miley Cyrus empowered, or exploited? Should Sinead O’Connor have kept her mouth shut? And is Lily Allen’s new feminist video racist?

Let’s start with the first one. How bad does a song have to be to get banned by students unions? The answer seems a bit, well, blurred. In case you’ve missed the ongoing kerfuffle around ‘rapey’ R&B song ‘Blurred Lines’, released last July by non-household name Robin Thicke, here’s a catch up. The lyrics contain the phrase “You know you want it”, which some online commentators — specifically Tricia Romano of the Daily Beast — have interpreted as being very dodgy indeed around the area of sexual consent. Now around 20 students unions in the UK, including Edinburgh and University College London, have decided they don’t want it on their playlist.

You can see their point — Thicke is keen to convince “the hottest bitch in this place” that she “must wanna get nasty”, and that he “hates these blurred lines”. Same tired old R&B misogyny. But banning it? Seriously? Ringing around a few Irish student unions, the response is the same — students didn’t think much of it lyricwise, but it didn’t bother them enough to request an actual ban.
“No students have brought it to the council, but it has aggrieved some of our members,” says Sean Kearns, president of UCG students union. “Maybe sometimes a stand has to be taken if something causes huge offence, but in this case there has been debate, which may be more constructive than a ban.”

Instead of banning iffy songs, UCG has a campaign called Y=S, or Yes Equals Sex, which seems rather more constructive, were its very existence not so depressing. (“If you have sex with someone who is too drunk to consent you are committing rape. Always get positive, sober consent before sex. Always get a sober yes.”)

Anne Sexton, sex columnist with Hot Press, is unsure whether banning a song is ever a good idea — remember Tipper Gore in the 1980s and her brainchild Parents’ Music Resource Centre, set up to place advisory stickers on music with explicit lyrics? It only served to make the music hotter.

But while Mrs Gore was worried about lyrics like Prince’s Darling Nikki (because it contained the word ‘masturbating’, and featured a dominant woman who liked recreational sex) it is not the explicitness which concerns today, but the intention. The implied consent within what is being termed rape culture. The unending objectification of women — especially black women — in urban music. The monotonous sexualisation.

“While I understand why a number of student unions have banned the song, I am not sure this in itself achieves anything,” says Sexton. “After all, the song was a summer hit and pop music has moved on.
“However, I imagine that the student unions who’ve banned the track want to achieve is send a counter-message to ‘Blurred Lines’ use of the idea that ‘No may mean yes’. If anything positive has come out of the controversy around the song is that it has got people talking about the idea of sexual agency and sexual consent — particularly the idea that you need an enthusiastic yes, which is very different from the idea that ‘silence is consent’. It has also got people talking about the concept of rape culture, which is a controversial topic, but certainly one that could do with exploration,” says Sexton.

“I believe that student unions want to stress that sex without enthusiastic consent is wrong then that’s a very important and necessary message. However, my concern with banning the song is that it is very likely that this message will be lost in the ensuing debate about censorship and freedom of speech.”

Why Thicke’s song was singled out from amongst the endless tide of sexism that is urban pop is a mystery, until you remember Miley Cyrus and her twerking at the Video Music Awards in August. Outrage ensued, much of it directed at Thicke, for supposedly being a sleazeball, despite the passivity of his performance. Miley Cyrus’s transition from Hannah Montana to twerk-fiend and naked concrete ball rider has caused much discomfort. So much that Sinead O’Connor, doubtless with good motive, wrote her that open letter advising her not to allow herself be exploited — Cyrus was unimpressed and responded badly. It was widely supposed that Terry Richardson, director of the ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, had been responsible for persuading Cyrus to go naked, fellate the lump hammer, etc. It was assumed that Cyrus had little say about her appearance in the video.

Is this in itself not a sexist assumption, that she is just some dumb girl easily led? Or did Miley call her own shots? If so, why did she get naked — to shrug of Hannah Montana forever? If so, bravo — it worked.

MEANWHILE, Thicke’s video for ‘Blurred Lines’, featuring several models in minimal attire, was directed by a woman, Diane Martel — yet its sexual content was attributed directly to Thicke, as though Martel did not exist. Hmmm.

All of this might sound pedantic, but what is at fault here is the overall raunch culture. Is it really empowering to always be in your underwear in front of the camera? If so, why are the men always fully clothed?

While Sinead O’Connor’s communication to Miley Cyrus was sincere though ill advised, it remains nevertheless the antithesis of feminism that female entertainers need to get naked to get noticed.
Or are they complicit in their own undressing? Are they leading or following the culture? Lily Allen’s new track, ‘Hard Out Here’, is clever and exasperated and mocking.

She takes a direct hit at Thicke whose video contains some silver balloons spelling ‘Robin Thicke Has A Big Dick’ — in Allen’s video, where she comments on her post-birth status, she counters with ‘Lily Allen Has A Baggy P***y’, also in silver balloons. You’ve got to love her candour.

But Allen’s video uses commercially sexualised black women to comment on the commercialised sexualisation of black women — bit of an own goal? Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore thinks it’s racist, while other comments on its YouTube page range from “At what point does satire become hypocrisy?” to “You don’t have to be a paragon of virtue to say something worthwhile”.

The thing is that Allen is selling a pop song, not a policy document.

She is playing the pop game, while making her point — getting sidetracked by the colour of her dancers kind of takes the focus off the whole misogyny of the wider urban pop culture.

Nothing should ever be censored, but the change has to come from within the culture.

Women, keep your kit on. Do not use poles as props, refrain from licking hammers. There will always be stupid songs like Blurred Lines (Robin Thicke, by the way, who is happily married to his partner of 20 years, professed mild terror in the Huffington Post at the idea of ever working with Miley Cyrus again — perhaps she is a twerk too far).
What is needed to change the culture is not Sinead O’Connor writing letters, Annie Lennox demanding ratings systems for pop videos, student unions banning songs, or female columnists slagging off female pop stars — what we would like are more women in music who do not conform to hypersexualised expectations. Who make music with their clothes on. And yes, they exist — from Angel Haze to Adele, they are out there.

They just need to make a lot more noise.


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