Monthly Archives: July 2013

ROBIN THICKE’S BLURRED LINES — PART 2: SUCCESS FACTORS AND CONTROVERSIES

MUSIC.  What would drive over 500,000-800,000 consumers worldwide to download this track weekly and make it dominate worldwide record charts for over seven weeks and counting?  Let me count the ways…

1)  The Michael Jackson-esque “Woo!”.  Pharrell kept on yelping that high-pitched “Woo!” sound throughout the song.  It keeps on making me recall the late Michael Jackson, who does this yelp through several of his songs.

2)  Sampling Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”.  You can’t go wrong sampling Marvin Gaye, especially his 1978 dance classic.

3) “Hey, hey, hey!”  Just like the “Woo!”, the song is loaded with a whole bunch of “Hey, hey, hey!”s which are heard in a lot of soul records, but here reminds me of catchphrases uttered by Bill Cosby’s beloved character, Fat Albert, and Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi Bear.  Speaking of Bill Cosby, more on him when I talk about parodies…

4)  Naughty innuendos.  With minimal profanity, the song is laden with naughty lines like “What rhymes with hug me?” and others.  Yes, it also caused a furor, but, well, naughty things that are hinted at instead of being explicitly described tickles and piques the interests of many listeners, and would consider it enjoyable.

5)  Chorus.  The chorus for me sounds very similar to the slinky chorus of that 1990 Bell Biv Devoe classic, “Poison”.  It made me dream a mash-up between the two songs–it also would have a narrative thread, as it can start with “Blurred Lines”, about a guy seducing a lady but was then played by the lady and so the heartbroken guy labeled her the toxic word.

VIDEO:  The video that came with the song of course is a major contributor to its success.  The visuals do have their appeal, and let me break down the appealing elements.

1) Dem Girls.*  It’s not simply because the three girls are sexy and willing to go topless, but they are also all stunningly gorgeous and that off-the-hook beauty makes the video highly appealing.  I’ll be discussing more about them in the bottom of this essay.

* I use a slangy term as I’m actually making a cheeky pun.  Think about a David Guetta hit song with a title that had to be sanitized, and listen to the end of the chorus for a clue…

blurred

2) Silly Shuffle Dances.  It was reported in some articles that the idea for the guys’ silly shuffles is that they are playing dirty old men leering at pretty ladies.  Because they looked like their usual selves, that message didn’t quite come across and while some people are baffled by the walking, I found it amusing.  I especially like the way Robin shuffles across the room that I sometimes want to emulate that walk when I walk across my office floor.

3) Farm Props (Plus Other Inspirations from Classic Rock Album Covers).  It’s weird to see hay, a banjo, and a goat against a white video backdrop.  But the imagery made me recall a now-classic album cover from Roxy Music for Country Life.  I wonder if that was one of the inspirations for the video concept?

Album cover for Roxy Music’s Country Life

The nubile innocent vibe evoked by the blonde girl in the video also seems to be inspired by another classic rock album cover–though clearly the blonde girl is of legal age, she evokes the image of the topless 11-year-old girl on the controversial cover of the 1969 supergroup Blind Faith.

Cover for the eponymous album by Blind Faith

4)  Flashing Hash-tags.  As a nod to the Twitterverse, the video is peppered with flashing red hash-tags, featuring the words “#THICKE” and “#BLURREDLINES”.  It is one element that made the video unforgettable and rife for parodies.

5)  Overall Playful Vibe.  It is easy for a video featuring leering, fully-clothed men and topless, scantily clad women to become extremely vulgar, but the vibe of the entire video is actually more lighthearted and playful, that the video is in my reckoning, rather tolerable (though I do understand the arguments by some parties on why it is still objectionable).  There are some gentle cuddling and playful touching, but none that goes too far on-camera.  It is implied that the activities here are being done by consenting adults so that is why even if it generates controversy, it is not at the point where the public in general is repulsed by it.

CONTROVERSIES:  Speaking of controversy, let’s now talk about the objections about the song and video.

1)  Date-Rape Lyrics.  There are people who read the lyrics and feel that the song promotes date-rape, as it seems with lines like “I know you want it” seeming to imply that the girl’s explicit consent with what the man is asking is beside the point.  In a sense, I do agree that it could be dangerous to act on the lyrics of this song.  But I can also interpret it as a playful role-play between an established couple, too.

These controversial lyrics seem out of character for Robin Thicke, it may seem, as he’s best known for those romantic, “respectful-to-women” lyrics.  But then again, unleashing Robin’s bad-boy side may be the thing to bring his career to the next level, as I mentioned how underrated he is.  I can imagine the banter between Robin and Pharrell in the studio:

Robin:  “What shall I do, Pharrell?  The record company is disappointed with the sales of my last album, Love After War.  What can I do to convince them that I still have it in me to go to the next level?”

Pharrell:  “You know, Robin, you got swagga.  But your songs are rather goody-goody.  I know you have a bit of a bad-boy in you, man.  Maybe you should show that side of you.”

Robin:  “You may be right.  What if I play this…” [Opening keyboard riff to “Blurred Lines”].

I think a good, upstanding, happily married gentleman like Robin Thicke should be allowed to show a little of his bad side, just as long as it doesn’t spill over and make him do a 180 on his personal life.  Anyway, it could be perfect fodder for some of Robin and Paula’s bedroom games (if you recall his “Love After War” video, it is likely they sometimes indulge in role-playing in their bedroom).  Don’t you imagine Paula saying to him, “You’ve been a very bad boy!  A very, very bad, bad boy, Robin…”

2)  The Video Objectifies Women.  Admittedly it is the truth, but the playful mood of the video makes it palatable and tolerable in my reckoning (though I know some might then argue that because it is playful that makes it more dangerous).  And adding fuel to this objection is the fact that in promotional appearances, due to obvious logistical reasons they don’t use the actual girls in the video to stand as back-up when Robin sings his song in TV appearances–they hired relatively close facsimiles.  It gives the implied message that girls could be interchangeable.  I know this is not really intentional, but I can’t help but notice the effect.

DEM GIRLS, I MEAN, LADIES:  So for the purposes of trying to counteract the unintentional objectification brought about by not actually featuring them in the promotion of the song in TV shows, let us pay tribute to those utterly stunning and beautiful women that graced the video.  Actually, Huffington Post has a more in-depth article on them that you can read here.

Emily Ratajkowski.  She’s the lovely Caucasian brunette in the video, born in London, UK but raised in California of Polish and Israeli descent.  She has done a lot of high profile modeling and commercial gigs, like this overly sexy Carls, Jr. commercial for Memphis Barbecue burgers.

Elle Evans.  Actually, this blonde has a pageant connection–she was third runner-up at Miss Teen USA 2008 representing Louisiana, and her real name is Lindsey Gayle Evans.  She then garnered notoriety by being dethroned from that post because she was then arrested for skipping a restaurant bill and being caught with marijuana.  It then led to a path of further notoriety as she then became October 2009’s Playboy’s Playmate of the Month and was girlfriend to dance music producer Deadmau5.  I was surprised by her notorious background as she looked so innocent in the video.

Jessi M’Bengue.  This black French (of Senegalese, Ivorian, and Algerian descent) model, actress, and singer  doesn’t normally look the way she does in the video.  She normally sports a frizzy afro, and is similarly striking and stunning in that look.

I originally intended this to be only a two-part essay, but I realize that with the slew of parodies (and other homages) that came up in the past few weeks, I am going to extend this into a three-part essay.

COMING UP:  THE PARODIES AND OTHER HOMAGES

THE WIZARD OF AHHHS: AN ODE TO KIRSTIE MALDONADO

A still from “The Wizard of Ahhhs” (image courtesy of Pentatonix)

It’s starting to be a bit routine but Pentatonix has again scored a buzzworthy achievement with their collaboration with American Idol Season 9 semifinalist (and long-time friend–remember the he and the core trio go back a long while before they formed the group) Todrick Hall, a six-minute tribute and condensation of the 1939 Judy Garland classic The Wizard of Oz.  Though it includes the Oscar-winning chestnut “Over the Rainbow”, the rest is a pastiche of modern pop songs (though “Lollipop” used for the Munchkins sequence is a 1958 oldie from the Chordettes) that are loosely linked to the plot of the film, or adapted to suit it.  It has the female member of the group, Kirstie Maldonado, at the forefront–not only did she play the lead role of Dorothy, but she also  played Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West.  Needless to say, she delivered the goods in all three roles, though I quibble that Glinda the Good Witch is not given material to actually sing–Liam Kyle Sullivan as Kelly’s “Shoes” and 20 Fingers “Short Short Man”featuring Gillette only requires her to “talk-sing”.

I also quibble that I hoped Todrick added a tornado special effect or at least a wind machine for the Kansas sequence (set to Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” and Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake”), but I suppose that is beyond their budget, but otherwise it was a visual treat and viewers would be amazed how they almost mimicked the original (though of course, Todrick’s Wizard is a bit more glammed up than the original).  Besides the songs Kirstie sang, three of the other members delivered great highlights:  Scott Hoying as the Scarecrow covered Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You”, Mitch Grassi as the Tin Man covered Danity Kane’s “Damaged” (though I heard of this girl group, I never actually listened to their songs, and Mitch’s version made me discover and enjoy this catchy tune for the first time–and made me also recall pre-douchebag-era Chris Brown’s smash hit “Forever” and felt that the two songs could make a great mash-up), and Avi Kaplan as the Cowardly Lion gave a comic bass twist to Miley Cyrus’ “Can’t Be Tamed”.  But the best part is the finale, a mash-up of songs with “Home”in its title, starting with Kirstie as Dorothy singing Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home”, then three songs with the word as its one-word title, starting with Todrick singing Daughtry’s song, followed by Scott and Mitch singing Phillip Phillips’song, and lastly Avi (in his higher register) singing Michael Bublé’s song before Kirstie reprised her tune and Scott ended with a snippet of “Over the Rainbow”.  Kevin Olusola may not have any solo (he plays Dorothy’s dog Toto), but as usual his awesome beatboxing skills provided a bedrock foundation for all those songs to soar, and the group’s harmonies (which some detractors claimed is auto-tuned–in my opinion, yes, there might have been some effects, but I think they can deliver those harmonies well live) are stunning.  It was a feast of sight and sound.

I reflected a bit over the past few months about Kirstie Maldonado’s role in the group.  Though she’s an undeniably talented vocalist, I initially thought she doesn’t carry as much weight musically as her other group members.  But then, I reflected on the way she delivers her lyrics during her solos and the fact that she has a theatre background and it dawned on me that Kirstie actually has something special and important to contribute to her group, that her presence is just as important and essential as the other members.  I believe Kirstie’s theatrical background made her approach song lyrics the way an actor approaches a role, and the effect is that when she sings her lines, she doesn’t simply sing the lyrics but it sounded as if she actually lived those lines, and that made the entire performance believable.  And that quality is actually essential for most pop singers to truly connect to an audience–it’s that quality that helped  limited singers like Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Madonna sustain major careers, and singers with obvious virtuosity like Adele, Aretha Franklin, and Barbra Streisand move their listeners with intense feelings.   This believability is of course well-demonstrated in the above video, but let me highlight where this important quality was also demonstrated.

1) The Sing-Off Mashup Medley (“Bittersweet Symphony” – the Verve / “Hollaback Girl” – Gwen Stefani / “Baba O’Riley”- the Who / “Last Friday Night” – Katy Perry).  Check Kirstie’s lead singing the opening lines of Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night”; doesn’t it sound like she probably had a bender herself one time or another?

2) “Somebody that I Used to Know” – originally by Gotye featuring Kimbra.  Listen to how Kirstie phrased the “screwed me over” lyric and how intense she sounded when she sang out the title.  That delivery provided such emotional power that in my opinion made it such a major improvement over the original.

3) “Thrift Shop”- originally by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz.  Well, as a palate cleanser, here is Kirstie in her comic best rapping rapidly and sassily and squeakily yelping “POPPING TAGS!!!”

4) “Evolution of Music.”  Listening to her solo to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” makes me wonder if she actually did some “experimentation”.  

Some posters recommend that Kirstie should branch out to Broadway.  I think she is definitely ready for it as she has the right skill sets for it and can definitely shine in that milieu.

As a closing note, a dance super-group featuring So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew alumni Philip Chbeeb and Hok Konishi (both just missed top 10 in the former and won in the latter with separate crews in separate seasons) just posted a video dancing to the group’s “Evolution of Music”.  Though they skipped a few of the snippets of that epic medley, it’s a treat to behold.  Check it out:

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

ROBIN THICKE’S “BLURRED LINES”: PART 1 – SUCCESS OVERDUE

Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell up to some mischief?

The biggest hit around the world these days is the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring producer Pharrell and rapper T.I.  Though Robin Thicke is considered a successful, established artist, this is the first time he has a hit this big.  The song and associated music video has a compelling combination of an irresistible dance groove and  appealing hooks mixed with a heady dose of edgy naughtiness that brought about some controversy and notoriety (because of the lyrical content and the accompanying music video) that has kept people buzzing.  It is both currently distinctive and evokes a retro era at the same time–it harkens to the carefree days of the 1970s, in my opinion.  I’ll elaborate on these factors further in the second part of this two-part essay, but for the meantime I”ll embed the safer, sanitized YouTube version below (for those who want the unrated version, click on this link).

Speaking of retro, I want to talk about Robin’s pedigree: many know he’s a “showbiz scion” as he’s the son of actor/musicians Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring.  Alan Thicke is better known by most people for playing the patriarch in the beloved mid 1980s-early 1990s sitcom Growing Pains–in general I don’t particularly care that much for this sitcom, though I can recall catching glimpses of it when we had the Armed Forces Network on our UHF when I was in high school and college.  And pageant fans would remember him for being married to Miss World 1990 Gina Tolleson for five years years (1994-99).

Alan Thicke with Miss World 1990 Gina Tolleson (image courtesy of Corbis Images)

Meanwhile, Gloria Loring is best known for acting in the soap opera General Hospital and for a popular duet she performed on that show with actor/singer Carl Anderson (best known for his role as Judas in the Broadway and movie versions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar–clip of his sizzlingly groovy version of “Superstar”here) called “Friends and Lovers” (which ironically was released and charted on the year her divorce with Alan Thicke was finalized in 1986).  Below is the video clip of that song as performed in the soap.

But I’ll always remember Robin’s parents very fondly as they (yes, both of them wrote them) were responsible for writing the theme songs to two rather beloved late 1970s-early 1980s sitcoms of my childhood–Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life.  Dad sang the Diff’rent Strokes theme while Mom sang The Facts of Life theme song from its second season onwards.  Below are those fondly remembered theme songs.

What I observed about Robin Thicke’s career is that he’s actually better embraced overseas than in America.  Yes, “Blurred Lines”is now a big number one hit in the U.S. and will likely dominate the charts for the rest of the summer, but the song was first warmly embraced in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, and the UK before the US caught on (it was languishing in the lower half of the Billboard Hot 100 then).  It took a guest performance on the popular TV series The Voice for America to finally clamor for this tune.  For me, this success is payback for the series of underrated shoulda-been-bigger-hits that he had so far throughout his career.

Let me do an overview of how underrated his career is.  Let’s start with his debut single back in 2002, “When I Get You Alone“(basically, Walter Evans’ “A Fifth of Beethoven” [which in turn was a disco-fied remake of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony] with lyrics written by Robin).  This awesome jam did not chart at all in America, but was a smash in Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.  The song is also well regarded in Australia with its inaugural Australian Idol champion Guy Sebastian performing a cover version of it.  America started to appreciate this song five years later when American Idol Season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis performed it, too, with his own beatboxing twist.  It’s interesting how Robin Thicke looked then, with lengthy Jesus-length locks as he played a bike messenger in the video of this song.  This debut number made me think that Robin was initially going for a Jamiroquai-type style, and I mean that as a compliment.  I know Americans unearthing this gem now has a high regard for this number, but it’s frustrating how it was a flop and never got its proper due–this song still can make you groove on in 2013.

Robin Thicke had a looks evolution (to paraphrase the title of his second album) before his present style, as his follow-up song from this debut, “Brand New Jones” showed him cutting off his Jesus locks for a Lisa Rinna-esque fly-away style.  Anyway, this is also notable for the female model–it’s his then-fiancee (and now wife) Paula Patton.  This follow-up did not make any impact on any chart.

Robin has then settled to his present looks as he intended to launch his follow-up album in August 2005 with “Wanna Love You Girl“–interestingly enough, this was produced by Pharrell Williams, and Pharrell had a rap cameo.  Unfortunately, this launching single was a flop, failing to hit the Hot 100 and only figuring at No. 65 in the R&B charts, and it prompted them to hold back the release of the album for over a year.

Eventually, Robin released his second album The Evolution of Robin Thicke in September 2006.  With his recording career at risk he decided to do the music video for “Lost Without U” with his wife Paula Patton as his leading lady–the song is an ode to her during times when Robin didn’t have confidence in himself.  This breezy acousstic-guitar-laced ballad proved to be the breakthrough he needed as it charted in the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually topped the Billboard R&B chart for a staggering 11 weeks.  Considering that it topped the R&B chart for that long, one would assume it would have been at least a Top Five hit in the overall Hot 100 chart, right?  In this case, it only peaked at a measly No. 14!  Sure, it had such chart longevity that it eventually became the No. 48 song of 2007 (a big deal for a song that didn’t hit the Top 10), but with such a relatively low peak position, we can still classify this in the “underrated” file.*

* Prior to present rule changes, the rankings in the R&B charts is based on airplay and sales from specialized R&B stores.  It was only in the early 1960s (which led to a temporary abolition of the R&B charts from 1963 to 1965) and early 1990s that there was a high correlation between a Hot 100 hit and an R&B hit.  Since sales are now primarily done via online downloads, which do not make any distinction amongst music genres and with the present rule changes in place, the correlation between a Hot 100 hit and an R&B hit is high again.

The breakthrough hit also introduced what is now a Robin Thicke trademark–his manly falsetto.  With the success of this song, he took the King of the Manly Falsetto mantle that has been long vacated by D’Angelo (most famous for “Brown Sugar” and especially “Untitled (How Does It Feel)“).  Maxwell is one who periodically could pull off a coup to rip off that mantle off Robin, and Eric Benet is a princely pretender to that throne, and as much as I love Justin Timberlake, he’s just too boyish to ever be considered “manly”.

For his next album release in 2008, he came up with “Magic“.  It’s a very lush song with orchestral strings evoking Barry White’s orchestra (not his famous romantic bass voice, of course) in his 1970s prime.  Yes, it was a Top 10 R&B hit, but that only translated to a mediocre No. 59 ranking in the Hot 100.  I have very fond memories of this number not only for it being played in some Samsung commercials, but also that it was also played in the Miss Universe 2008 evening gown competition, which memorably featured the Taliana Twirl and the Dayana Dervish (and okay, Krystle Stewart’s notorious gown fall, too).  I was soooo outraged that this didn’t hit the Top 40 as I thought it deserved to be as successful as Lady Gaga’s breakthrough hit, “Just Dance” (similarly performed in Miss Universe 2008 during the swimsuit round), if not even more.

I think a key reason why this single fizzled were the unfavorable comparisons to Justin Timberlake that some media and Internet denizens laid on him–which is unfair as even though Justin and Robin have similar musical and performing styles, their similarities do not necessarily mean that one is a rip-off of the other, and that as proven this year, there is room for both Caucasian soul men to thrive in this marketplace.  I think some people also criticized the video for being cheesy and retro–I realized even then the retro special effects were deliberate.  I suppose this style of video was a bit ahead of its time–remember that now Bruno Mars is having a smash success with an even more cheesy-retro video for “Treasure” (oh, so Kool & the Gang, that one!).

For his 2009 song “Sex Therapy“, Robin had the genius to interpolate the melody of the chorus of the Lesley Gore 1963 classic “It’s My Party” to his sensually seductive suite.  Though the video is laden with hot, gorgeous models, Robin again got his wife Paula to be his leading lady.  It was a No. 1 R&B hit, but guess what that translated to in the Hot 100–a No. 54 peak?!

In most of his videos, Robin is usually dapper in tailored suits, but you just wonder if he’s a skinny, not-so-toned white boy underneath those suits, or does he have a physique that matches his handsome face?  That question was finally answered in “Love after War“, as while he was doing sexy role-playing games with his wife, we finally learn that his body is as swoonworthy as his face and his music–lean, yes, but attractively buffed and sinewy.  It’s just a shame that this song and album were not as successful as previous offerings after his breakthrough.

With such under-appreciated gems like the above over the past decade, I view the humongous success of “Blurred Lines” as payback for these songs’ lack of success.  Coming up in the second part of my essay are the factors that brought forth this humongous success and I’ll try to address the controversies associated with this song.