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.