Thicke and Weird: the Politics Behind “Word Crimes”

Yesterday, as part of his #8videos8days campaign, Weird Al Yankovic debuted the second single from his new album, Mandatory Fun. On its surface, “Word Crimes”—a parody of Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit-single, “Blurred Lines”—is an anthem for Internet grammarians who constantly find themselves confronting English language fails, causing Merrill Barr over at Nerdist to declare, “[W]e all now have the perfect thing to send to people who, despite our protestations, continue to walk all over the English language.” For English majors, writers, and other members of the Grammar P.D., Yankovic’s new track is a godsend, if not for its utility, then for its comedic value.

As a parody of the most controversial song in recent memory, the political importance of “Word Crimes” cannot be ignored. In his review of Mandatory Fun, Kenneth Partridge claims that “[a] more satirical, cynical parodist could have taken this in a million super-searing directions, but Al isn’t interested in commenting on Thicke’s alleged misogyny.” Partridge is wrong on two counts. Firstly, there is no such thing as “No comment,” so Yankovic’s refusal to lace the song with jabs at the “Blurred Lines” artist is itself a statement. Secondly, if you’re going to call Robin Thicke an “alleged” misogynist, you might as well call North Korea an alleged human rights violator. I apologize to the purists in the audience, but for the sake of my argument, I’m going to unpack these points in reverse.

TRIGGER WARNING: A discussion of rape culture follows. Some of the outgoing links may feature graphic descriptions of sexual assault and domestic violence.

When it dropped in 2013, Blurred Lines generated a media firestorm that reinvigorated an ongoing national conversation on rape culture. The video for the album’s title track featured naked female models—looking bored, even sad or angry—surrounded by dapper, suited-up male singers; it was the male gaze, embodied. While some people jumped into the fray in defense of “Blurred Lines,”  the vast majority agreed that—with lines like “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” and “Do it like it hurt, like it hurt / What, you don’t like work?”—the song maintained a solid anti-woman bent.

The problem, and perhaps even the twisted genius, behind Thicke’s track is that no line in particular is inherently misogynist. “Blurred Lines” walks a thin—or blurred, if you will—gray line between being innocuous and being rapey. If the often-cited line “I know you want it” had instead been “You say you want it,” then chances are good that I wouldn’t be writing this now; that’s the power of semantics, and it is reasonable to assume that, as a songwriter, Thicke knew exactly what he was doing by choosing to deny the song’s unseen and unheard female object her own voice. As recorded, the song’s tone establishes a lack of respect for women’s autonomy, which spawned an excellent article from Sezin Koehler, who paired Thicke’s lyrics with similar statements from rapists, as recorded by their victims on Project Unbreakable.

I want to talk a moment about the enormous weight such a simple change would have carried. If Thicke’s song had shown a measure of respect for women’s autonomy,  its more violent lyrics would have been hailed for being sex-positive, and for portraying women as creatures with their own sexual appetites, which are independent of their male partners’ preferences. All of the negative press “Blurred Lines” received for his single would have been reversed as the feminists of the Internet praised the new, sexy hit of summer ’13. While his song may be only circumstantially misogynistic, the fact that Thicke is not interested the mutual support feminists have to offer is telling. Instead, Thicke displayed enjoyment in his bad press, releasing another misogynistic single from his hit album. “Give It 2 U” is “Blurred Lines” twin and successor, again assuming female desire without inquiring about—or affirming the need for—consent.

Paula, the 2014 follow-up to Blurred Lines, is one part of Thicke’s dogged lobby to win back the affections of his estranged wife, Paula Patton. Its first single is nothing if not evidence of the singer’s refusal to understand or acknowledge male entitlement. While “Get Her Back” may be no worse than other, more-beloved pop songs—I’m thinking here of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Pink Floyd’s “Don’t Leave Me Now”—bad timing in particular makes it insulting. For Thicke to rush a lackluster album for the sole purpose of publicly begging his ex to return is disrespectful to his fan base, who effectively sign his checks; Paula is a slap in the face to the artist’s (dwindling) legion of bosses. Additionally, to follow a horrific and widely-discussed killing spree—an incident spurred by the pickup artist culture for which Thicke has become a poster boy—with a song that apologizes for verbal abuse and promises to do better is an unfathomable act of hubris.

Thicke’s persistent anti-woman messages have swiftly damaged his success, however. In a recent Forbes article, Hugh McIntyre proclaimed that “Thicke’s new album Paula is a complete and utter flop,” calling the radical drop in album sales “unprecedented.” McIntyre attributes this fall from grace to “a worldwide shift in attitudes toward the singer,” which has left him “almost unilaterally disliked.”

So, having addressed all that, where does this leave Yankovic and “Word Crimes?”

As I said before, Yankovic’s decision to parody such a provocative track, as well as his choice not to comment on the surrounding controversy, does not constitute a lack of opinion on either. Because the Mandatory Fun scribe has made a career by rewriting hit songs into goofy caricatures, selecting a song as popular and catchy as “Blurred Lines” is a given. And while I’m sure there will be some who will argue that it was Yankovic’s duty to malign Thicke’s opinions on women, the simple truth is that it isn’t.

What’s more, for “Word Crimes” to operate in such a capacity would be out of character for an artist who, despite garnering notoriety for reworking other artists’ material, is known and admired for his originality and family-friendliness. As Yankovic himself noted, “There were already about 10,000 parodies of [‘Blurred Lines’] and they were all rapey.” For his parody to be anything worth listening to, it must be both fresh and fun for listeners of all ages. An attempt to rehash the thorough scrutiny Thicke received last year would lower Yankovic to triteness, and, let’s face it, any anti-rape diatribe worth its salt is inappropriate for elementary school ears.

“Word Crimes” doesn’t leave the feminists who campaigned against Thicke in the dust, however. With campus protests in the public eye—and with “Defined Lines,” the most popular “Blurred Lines” parody video, coming from some brilliant women at Auckland University’s Law School—Yankovic’s new song is sure to resonate with liberal arts students and alumni across the globe. And the best part? “Word Crimes” doesn’t ask anyone to choose between ethics and entertainment.