Business News The Great Escape 2014

Blurred Lines – The debate so far

By | Published on Saturday 10 May 2014

Blurred Lines

Ahead of the ‘Blurred Lines’ debate at the CMU Insights-programmed Great Escape convention, CMU Publisher Caroline Moses surveys the debate that was kicked started by Robin Thicke’s controversial, presenting the key points and quotes that have been made to date.

Robin began a debate.

But the debate is bigger than Robin. In fact much bigger.

“Robin Thicke’s song may very well flirt with rape, but many rappers have received zero flack for openly endorsing it. If you’re going to fault a guy for the vague insinuation that getting explicit sexual consent is, maybe, kind of a bummer, shouldn’t you also fault someone for rapping this (the words of indie darling Earl Sweatshirt): ‘Her body is a temple / I don’t give a fuck / I’m atheist / Make me stop / Make me, bitch’. Aside from the public scolding of American rapper Rick Ross earlier this year (Ross rapped about date-raping a woman), and the occasional chiding of Kanye West or Lil Wayne, casual misogyny in hip hop goes largely unnoticed in the mainstream. If pop-culture feminists really took it to task, we’d hear about it every day”.
Emma Teitel, Macleans

Given that much more misogynistic – and violent – lyrics and images exist elsewhere in music, why did ‘Blurred Lines’ cause such a debate?

Perhaps by alluding to rape – rather than rapping or singing about actual violence to women – made it more offensive. The subtly made it more real – so the ‘this is just theatre’ defence rang less true.

“Thicke sings ‘I know you want it’, a phrase that many sexual assault survivors report their rapists saying to justify their actions, as demonstrated over and over in the Project Unbreakable testimonials”.
Sezin Koehler, Sociological Images

Though some question whether the “I’m being ironic” line is the get of jail card many artists believe it to be…

“…if [a female artist] is stripping down for the camera to point out the absurdity of music videos that portray women who strip down for the camera to the point of absurdity, but her ironic wink isn’t understood by her audience, is it still subversive? … Sure, [the artist] could have felt empowered and her performance could have given confidence to a handful of women, but does the personal benefit outweigh the collective harm? Sure many men could have watched this video and got the joke, but what about those who didn’t? What about the people who watched the video and internalized the message that women can be consumed like objects without consent because, you know … sex is about ‘blurred lines’ anyways”.
Elizabeth Plan, PolicyMic

But let’s focus on the bigger debate.

Let’s agree pop music can be misogynist, why is that a problem?

“Obviously, the more some images and clichés are repeatedly circulated, the more they become a norm or considered as such … the most pernicious consequence of seeing women in essentially sexually charged situations, or inferior/secondary positions, is the fact that the next generation has nothing else to identify to in the mainstream (or very little). Girls become convinced what they see is their only destiny.  Boys are induced into thinking their superiority to women is normal, to the point they may come to react very violently if and when confronted to a woman who reverses the role play”
Emily Gonneau, Musicogyny

“What is wrong to me is that younger artists, appealing to an even younger audience, are being overt sexually before they know what it all means… but equally, how could you stop kids watching this stuff? You’d have to go all big brother with retina or fingerprint scans! The only way to moderate what is fed to new generations is to moderate what is delivered, and that responsibility needs to come from the labels”
Adrienne Aiken speaking to The Guardian

Accusations against the industry

“Women are by and large the most victimized by the music industry, on multiple fronts. The label would lose its mind if a female artist did anything to shatter her image as a femme-fatale or appear anything other than ultra-sexual and provocative. The ubiquitous double standard in regards to sexual behavior is the most obvious example – where men can speak about women in sultry ways and aggrandize their own ego, women must be perceived as powerless and abject victims or risk being labelled as promiscuous or overbearing. The objectification of women has always been around, but it seems to have intensified in recent years, with marginally talented artists such as Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry being elevated to a level of fame that has little to do with their ability to make good music”.
Nathaniel Khaleel, Policy Mc

“Is it because a woman is seen as threatening if she has feminist lyrics in her songs? Is it just easier to market a song that has sexist or misogynistic lyrics than it is to promote a song that doesn’t? Judging from the kind of music that is popular nowadays, it seems that these are the opinions of most people in the music industry. Also judging by the artists in mainstream music who seem to hold feminist opinions but do not publically identify as being feminists – Lily Allen, anyone? -you could come to the conclusion that, if their record labels do have these opinions about feminism, the artists simply don’t publically identify as feminists because their record labels recommend against it. Readers, our lesson about the music industry today can be summed up easily with three words: It. Is. Dumb. Let’s hope the future of music shines a lot brighter than this”.
Robin S, The F Bomb

The call to act…

[Open letter to Universal Music CEO Lucian Grainge] “I’m calling on advertisers and consumers to stop supporting your company, Universal Music Group, until you stop exploiting black and brown women in your music. It’s that simple. I am also asking educators everywhere to help young people understand the role that corporations play in our mediated lives. Young people need to understand why it is that UMG’s music, songs like ‘Birthday Song’ – flood our radio, YouTube and music television. Educators, parents and peers need to have conversations about the meaning of popular music, unpack the harsh and complicated realities these messages reveal.  Ultimately, it’s bigger than one corporation. One artist. One song. Still, Mr Lucian Grainge, as CEO of Universal Music Group you cannot deny your power as a leader in the music industry. Therefore, you must do something”.
Nuala Cabral

This isn’t a new problem at all. But have things got worse in recent years?

“The music industry has gone through massive turmoil these last fifteen years, its huge party ended brutally: it takes a huge and conscious effort not to get lazy when you panic. The need for money can overcome other considerations; of course there are always exceptions – but this starts to become a problem when a majority of people stop thinking and confuse what the market wants with what they think the market wants because it’s what the market has always been given”
Emily Gonneau, Musicogyny

“The pressure today is to make your video rise to the top among all this stuff. As a result, the music industry is more risk-averse, going for shock tactics, the lowest common denominator. Very simply, it’s market forces in operation”.
Dawn Shadforth speaking to The Guardian

Let’s assume we are nervous of censorship, and of hindering artistic expression, what could be done?

Champion the female artists who buck the trend…

“It’s more likely, and more desirable, that tangible change will be driven organically by formidable artists rather than chastened executives. Black women such as Angel Haze and Janelle Monáe don’t so much resist hypersexualised imagery as behave as if it is not even a consideration. They have so much charisma and dynamism that they are riveting without having to strip down. Admittedly, they aren’t yet household names, but it is only a matter of time before a truly unorthodox star emerges. If pop music has created a problem, then only pop music can solve it”.
Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian

Make a stand when artists misbehave off stage

“Nineteen-year-old Def Jam rapper Lil Reese was recently caught on tape attacking a woman later identified as Tiairah Marie with a flurry of punches, continuing to kick her even after she fell. Although he later apologised on Twitter for his actions, UMG and Def Jam remained silent. And their silence and unwillingness to take a stand marks their endorsement of a corporate-sponsored culture of violence. From the images portrayed to the physical actions of their artists, Universal Music Group is allowing women of color to continue to be treated as objects. It’s time for this failure to shoulder responsibility to end. As long as these images and instances of domestic violence are condoned, women of color will never overcome the history of fetishization and objectification that manifests throughout the media today”.
YingYing Shang, Huffington Post

“R. Kelly is a known predator being provided ample chances at redemption without so much as a nod to remorse, let alone any legal accountability for the lives he has damaged … there’s complicity from the fans, complicity from the industry, complicity from fellow artists, complicity from the courts, complicity from everywhere”.
Mychal Denzel Smith, Feministing

Address chauvinism in the industry – is the single most immediate thing that could be done?

“Work relationships are often much more casual than in more formal sectors… except this often slips into familiarity (“which breeds contempt” as the saying goes) and blurs the usual delimitations between appropriate and non-appropriate behaviour & remarks. Navigating these situations on a daily basis of a long period of time is delicate, confusing and exhausting”.
Emily Gonneau, Musicogyny

“Young A&R guys are also taken more seriously than women because there’s this weird tradition where knowledge of music has always been considered quite male. The real problem is that there aren’t enough women high up in the industry, because it’s a very unfriendly place to be an older woman. It’s quite hard to have children, for instance, because of the nature of the job, and the industry is also obsessed by younger women”.
Amy Morgan speaking to The Guardian

“My original ambition was to be a major record company director, but it took me a long time to realise that that was never going to happen. Why? Because you have to modify your behaviour – essentially, you had to behave as one of the lads to progress… It’s also funny how people look differently – and positively! – at women when they’re working independently from a big company, as I have done since 2001. You’re not a cog any more. The music industry is becoming more mixed too. Five years ago, there were no female agents, but now about 50% of the people I’m dealing with are women. It gives me faith that the old boys’ clubs are being torn apart”.
Lisa Paulon speaking to The Guardian

“One of the main reasons that women in the music industry have such a hard time being accepted on equal terms, is that as Ani DiFranco points out in her song ‘Make them apologise’, ‘the music industry is still run by men’. A&R has always been dominated by men, and this has a large impact on which artists are selected for record companies. For example, any group that consists mostly or entirely of women will be considered either a novelty or a cult act. Agents, promoters and managers are typically male, and so it is very likely that they have often discriminated against female artists in general, possibly more so if they resist being marketed as sex objects. Photographers are also typically male, and often when photographing bands with a female performer, she will be asked to step forward in front of the rest of the band, regardless of whether she is the frontwoman or not. Her physical attractiveness will be used to market the product to the public, much more than her talent”
She’s Pretty Good For A Girl Blog

Of course pop music is just one part of this debate – but the music community has its role to play

“Were it only ‘Blurred Lines’ in question – or just popular music (see ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ for a widely beloved rape song) – the problem would be easily surmountable. But rape culture pervades society; so transforming it must as well. It’s necessary to bring feminist, anti-rape practices and messages into all parts of our lives”.
Jimmy Johnson, Truth Out

And read all of our articles on the ‘Blurred Lines’ strand at this year’s Great Escape, and listen to all four sessions in full here.