Robin Thicke Blurs the Lines Between Art and Life (Analysis)
His new album, "Paula," an effort to woo back his wife, meets with a backlash from listeners who are merely looking for a follow-up to "Blurred Lines."
"Somebody tell me please, tell me please/Why do I have to pay attorney fees?"
—Marvin Gaye, "Is That Enough?"
Poets have been singing about love lost since the days of doomed 18th century romantics like Shelley, Keats and Byron, but rock and roll has raised it to a fine art since Elvis Presley admitted, "Well, since my baby left me/I found a new place to dwell/It's down at the end of lonely street/At Heartbreak Hotel."
There have been plenty of great pop-rock-soul albums about breaking up (with the best part, in the immortal words of The Ronettes: making up), including Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, his two-disc 1978 concept record about the bitter split with his wife Anna Gordy and source of the above quote on divorce. And Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, his 1975 album, examines his estrangement from Sara.
This year alone, there has been Coldplay's Ghost Stories, Chris Martin's "woe is me" reflection on his "conscious uncoupling" from Gwyneth Paltrow, a move that seems to have worked if tabloid reports of their reconciliation are accurate. The Black Keys' Turn Blue is yet another chronicle of a doomed marriage, in this case Dan Auerbach's own rather ugly separation from ex-wife Stephanie Gonis, amid allegations of her suicide attempts in front of their 5-year-old daughter and legal battles over a lock of Bob Dylan's hair. Jack White's Lazaretto has some acerbic words about his divorced wife, while Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence offers a typically idiosyncratic view of relationships as sadomasochistic affairs destined to implode.
But none of them matches Robin Thicke's Paula, his wacky mea culpa to his estranged wife, actress Paula Patton, the aural equivalent of Kobe Bryant buying a $4 million diamond sparkler for his aggrieved spouse, Vanessa, after being caught cheating with the employee of a Colorado resort and subsequently charged with rape, back in 2003.
The album has met with practically universal derision. The Atlantic's pop critic Sophie Gilbert called it "one of the creepiest albums ever made … the musical equivalent of a Facebook friend who refuses to stop overdoing it on tequila slammers and ranting about the demise of their relationship. It's messy, it's generally grammatically incoherent, it's humiliating for everyone involved."
Paula is the follow-up to his Blurred Lines album, a career-defining breakthrough thanks to its title track/single, a collaboration with writer Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I., downloaded more than 7 million times in the U.S. alone, largely due to its video featuring a naked model cavorting between the three. The song itself has been decried by everyone from those who claim it's an invitation to rape ("I know you want it") to the family of Marvin Gaye, who insist the melody of the song was taken from his song "Got to Give It Up." For their part, both Thicke and Williams insisted the song was about female empowerment, pointing to lyrics such as "You don't need no papers," "You are not a possession" and "That man is not your maker" to support their thesis that it's about giving women the freedom to explore their own sexuality without bowing to a man's domination. Still, the image of a nude Emily Ratajkowski in between the fully clothed males was enough to call it sexist, even if it was directed by a 50-year-old woman, Diane Martel, who also defended the clip as "meta" and "playful."
When Thicke went on Howard Stern and was questioned on how his wife felt about the "Blurred Lines" video, he was quick to insist she didn't mind, implying their relationship was "open." But when he followed it up with his much-publicized twerking appearance with Miley Cyrus on the MTV Video Music Awards in 2013, he began to look like a dirty old man. Finally, when pictures emerged of him fondling a blonde debutante's derriere on N.Y. Post's Page Six, Thicke's marriage — which includes a 4-year-old son, Julian Fuego — officially began to unravel, with the pair separating in February after nine years.
And that brings us to Paula, which was released last week and is already being touted as the biggest flop of the year, something tough to beat considering the desultory chart debuts of Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, with sales estimates in the range of 20,000 for its first seven days. Much of the reaction to the album stems from backlash to the success of "Blurred Lines," the seemingly sexist video and his separation from Patton, not of his cloying tone of his obsequious apology. You feel like telling him to man up, but if you listen to the album without benefit of the backstory, it's actually not that bad.
He channels his own blue-eyed soul, taking on the likes of Ray Charles ("Lock the Door"), Stevie Wonder and James Brown (the funky, horn-laden "Living in New York City," a mashup of "Living in the City" and "Living in America"), a Michael Jackson tribute ("Too Little Too Late," complete with its nod to Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T"), a Presley rockabilly homage ("Tippy Toes"), the soulful scat of Van Morrison ("The Opposite of Me") and the jump-swing jazz-blues of Louis Prima ("Time of Your Life"). If you stick to the music alone, then it's hard to fathom the level of animosity the album has aroused. Even the video for "Still Madly Crazy" seems to make up for the blatant sexuality of "Blurred Lines" with a cute, innocent scenario involving lip-syncing kids.
Still, as Gilbert's The Atlantic review suggested, Paula is more about Thicke's aggrieved ego than it is about Patton. It's a desperate plea to set things right again that completely exploits the relationship's demise for public sympathy.
"Look at me/I'm showing off again/Because vanity's my only friend," he sings in "Something Bad," but it seems less like a self-critique and more a statement of fact. In the slick "Love Can Come Back," with its slinky sax and gospel organ, he seems to be singing directly to Miley Cyrus: "Oh, you're way too young to dance like that/In front of a man like me, baby." Again, he's not showing any remorse, just restating the facts hoping we'll commiserate.
"I gotta get her go get her go get her back," he whispers in "Get Her Back," but there's no pain underneath that plea, unlike John Lennon moaning "Oh, Yoko." No, this isn't a desperate man who would do anything to get his wife back. It's a slick pop-soul singer coming off the biggest hit in his career groping for a follow-up. "Forgive me baby," he insists, but as Robin Thicke puts it in one of the songs here, it may already be "Too Little Too Late." Better he should have written about why he has to pay attorney fees.