“Nature is a language, can’t you read?” A mashup of sexual literacies in contemporary music videos
Author: Don Sillence
It is true that psychoanalysis cannot boast that it has never occupied itself with trifles. On the contrary, the objects of its observations are generally those simple occurrences which the other sciences have thrown aside as much too insignificant, the waste products of the phenomenal world. But are you not confounding, in your criticism, the sublimity of the problems with the conspicuousness of their manifestations? Are there not very important things which under certain circumstances, and at certain times, can betray themselves only by very faint signs?
Sigmund Freud, “The Psychology Of Errors”, from (H.W. Chase, trans.) A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (New York: Horace Liveright, 1920), p. 11
There must always be two kinds of art, escape art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable art, that art which shall teach men to unlearn hatred and learn love.
W.H. Auden, “Psychology and Art”, quoted in Richard Hoggart’s Auden: An Introductory Essay (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), p. 36
He would have us remember most of all
to be enthusiastic over the night,
not only for the sense of wonder
it alone has to offer, but also
because it needs our love.
W.H. Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud, republished in Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 274
Track One: Blurred lines, faint signs
It’s probably worth reflecting, in passing, that of course there are literacies (plural); that of course there are other alphabets (syllabaries, logographies) and pictographies (ideographies, iconographies); that there are other literatures that are readable with these literacies – ways of reading, communicating, connecting; that of course there are multiple/divergent/critical/perverse ways to use these literatures.
In fact, it’s probably worth positing that this was, as much as any other interpretation, Richard Hoggart’s derailing train of thought when he importuned £2,400 from Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, to kickstart the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham in 1964. (Lane in turn consulted Bill Williams, Penguin’s chief editor, who allegedly responded: “Oh give him what he asks, Allen. You’ve made a fortune by riding cultural change without understanding it.” (Inglis, 152)) Hoggart’s CCCS planted a seed that often bloomed in the field called cultural studies. The uses of ‘literary criticism to study culture’ simply became, over time, ‘critical literacies to study cultures’.
It’s not worth debating, however, that Hoggart preferred/prioritised/promoted certain kinds of literacies/literatures; this is obvious in everything he wrote – here’s a sample from The Uses Of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life, with Special References to Publications and Entertainments
It seems, rather, as though a very large number of people are being held down at an appallingly low level in their reading. By now the massive publications provide worse fare than almost any individual reader requires; but that is according to their nature, as mass-publications. … To become a mass-art it has to grip and hold down the level of taste, and is doing so with great effectiveness.” (193, 200)
In fairness to Hoggart (ave atque vale), he was probably as troubled (certainly as critical, in his way) of high culture in the hands of elites as of mass culture (also in the hands of – owned and operated by – those elites, as he later snarled at the BBC: “A little caviar for the snobs and buckets of rubbish for the masses” (recalled by Hanley in Hoggart, The Uses Of Literacy, 2009, xx)); but we know what we think we know and remember mostly what we want to remember.
Whatever his legacy turns out to be, commentary like “The Newer Mass Art: Sex In Shiny Packets”, wherein Hoggart decries the social practices and their artefacts, musical and sexual, that he (passing by, standing outside) fundamentally does not understand and cannot ascribe value to – “the juke-box boys”, “the spicy magazines”, “sex-and-violence novels” – such critiques and their new-fashioned, contemporary equivalents remain part of standard arguments about sexual literacies in popular culture:
They are the most striking visual feature of mid-twentieth century mass-art; we are a democracy whose working-people are exchanging their birthright for a mass of pin-ups.” (177)
They have no aim, no ambition, no protection, no belief. … [These] are the figures some important contemporary forces are tending to create, the directionless and tamed helots of a machine-minding class.” (204-205)
Upon which we might latterly comment, though: our attitudes towards sex are complicated, and contemporary cultural representations and responses thereof no less so – a lexicon that only registers ‘pin-ups’ and ‘helots’ is insufficient language to explain it. This is why I think we need to talk about pop music videos, for example Robin Thicke’s best-selling single Blurred Lines (featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams; 2013): “If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say / (Williams: Hey, girl, come here) / If you can’t read from the same page”…
Track Two: Teasing Freud
I am fully conscious of the deficiencies of these studies. … [The] essays collected in these pages aim at arousing the interest of a fairly wide circle of educated readers [and they] … seek to bridge the gap between students of such subjects as social anthropology, philology and folklore on the one hand, and psycho-analysts on the other. Yet they cannot offer to either side what each lacks – to the former an adequate initiation into the new psychological technique or to the latter a sufficient grasp of the material that awaits treatment. They must therefore rest content with attracting the attention of the two parties and with encouraging a belief that occasional co-operation between them could not fail to be of benefit to research.
Sigmund Freud, “Preface” to (James Strachey trans.) Totem and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), pp. ix-x
But, second things second. It is easy enough to accept the possibility of sexual literacies, of being sexually literate, of being able to critically or creatively speak and write and depict and enact sexuality; nonetheless, it is a subject, a set of practices, about which human beings are distinctly sensitive. Which brings us (back) to Freud. Whether you accept or critically extend Freud’s particular theories, analyses or insights or not (‘The Uses Of Freud’), the idea that human sexuality cannot be interpreted/understood, categorised/measured (allowing for ‘standard deviations’…), is not widely regarded – except by those who argue, usually for moral reasons, that it should not be measured, or those who think the measuring is what should be measured (as
with writers like Foucault and Butler who argue that historical accounts are produced by – and produce – power).
In fact, while psychoanalytic traditions have been maintained and moderated that are excellent at explaining formations, functions, practices, those traditions are arguably somewhat tenuous or uncalibrated when it comes to allowing for cultural differences and cultural differences over time. As Butler contends in Bodies That Matter (1993), historical manifestations/performances of patriarchy/masculinity/gender/sexuality are in fact subject to historical discourses/differences, as are the psychological/psychoanalytic theories that follow on from them. (This is responded to by Žižek inThe Ticklish Subject (1999), and worked through, without resolution, in their combined book with Ernesto Laclau, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000).)
Writing as a layperson, this might not actually be the problem that it seems from the outside – the kinds of cultural and historical distinction which appertain to, which are critically alive in, the field of cultural studies might be of no practical consequence in contemporary clinical work. An invocation of ‘best practice’, a willingness to stay ‘up-to-date’, an acknowledgement of past (mis/)understandings and an attenuated interest in regional variations seems perfectly sufficient in any professional capacity. What matter to the patient/analysand how subjectivities are constructed in times and places and persons not their own?
Perhaps none, except the most obvious and vital: when it is insisted that symptomatic occurrences (in Freud’s work – dreams, jokes, mistakes/slips in memory, speech, writing and so on) always have “definite structure and meaning when subjetced [sic.] to analysis” (this from the “Translator’s Introduction” to the 1919 Routledge edition of Totem And Taboo, p. x). For it is not so much that reading cultural symptoms is deterministic/overdetermined (or even close reading in the tradition of Hoggart’s cultural literary criticism) but that it is nonetheless subject to what
we could call socio-historical countertransference (as in, the analyst transfers onto the patient; the critic and reader transfers onto the text); it might not be a problem – it might be useful, it might be necessary, it might be inevitable – but we should still be aware and wary of how ‘definitively’ we ‘close read’ the ‘symptoms’.
Track Three: Don’t ask, don’t tell (disavow)
Eric Ducker: “In his interview with GQ, Robin Thicke said the idea was to be ‘derogatory towards women’, and that comment has caused some controversy. Was that something that was discussed on set or in the planning of the video?”
Diane Martel (Blurred Lines video director): “That’s crazy. Maybe he wasn’t thinking when he said that.”
Grantland interview, 26/06/13
So what can we say about the contemporary, about our moment and our place in it, that is different, changing? Arguably, our sexual literacy. Changes are being marked in our laws, our social media and our everyday lives; where they are most visible, most commented-upon, most remarkable, however, is in the intensified dreamworlds, the ‘escape art’, of pop music videos. This is where our sexualities are being staged, far more regularly and much more immediately than almost any other narrative form in the public sphere (pornography and advertising aside).
How definitive are the symptoms?
Well, Anthea Bell, in her “Translator’s Preface” to Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (2002; pp. xliv-xlvii), describes the difficulty of translating Freud, particularly her work on teasing apart terms like fehlleistung – the ‘Freudian slip itself’, otherwise written as parapraxis, faulty action, misperformance – and the word vergreifen – inappropriate action; mistake; blunder; actions that miss their mark. Of the many meanings she toyed with for vergreifen, one of them was musical (a common use) – ‘to strike the wrong note’ (be ‘off-key’, ‘out-of-key’).
In an answer to the entirely reasonable question – ‘Why examine the shallow, disposable pop music of Blurred Lines to explore the concept of changing/contemporary sexual literacy?’ – it is simplest here to respond à la Bell – ‘Because it strikes the wrong note, misses the mark.’
To understand how and why, you have to recall how the strongest injunctions and exhortations (taboos and practices) of a culture are the ones least spoken of, the ones that are practically invisible, while the ones that appear the strongest – e.g. ‘thou shalt not kill’, rape, rob, commit incest, etc. vs., I might add, ‘love’ (as in Auden’s early take: ‘we must love one another or die’) – are actually the ones which we are most ambivalent about (not uncaring; in fact, the opposite – we have mixed feelings, contradictory feelings: e.g. no killing except under certain circumstances – war, judicial, and so on).
This is why, for example, the official United States policy on service by gays and lesbians in the military enforced between 1994 and 2011 (‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass’ – ‘don’t ask a soldier if they are gay/lesbian and don’t tell anyone if you are a gay/lesbian soldier; don’t act upon it within the service, if you are’), while outwardly seeming insane – a recognition of pretence: if you do/say/are something/someone we say is ‘wrong’ then just lie by omission – was nevertheless the structural compromise deemed necessary to go on living that lie (disavowal, by ‘making invisible’). That the Obama Administration has adjudged American society and their military culture as being ready now to ‘deal with the truth’ (no longer as ambivalent) is a fascinating recognition of a perceived societal change, albeit certainly not a global one. At any rate, the point is that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a working myth, operational.
These effectively ubiquitous (however partial and contradictory, thwarted and mistaken), inculcating myths form a significant part of our sexual literacy. The operative ideology for the current generation has been the formulation of consent – ‘No Means No’ – that people can unambiguously signal their sexual desires and that this must be recognised/respected/reckoned with. Thicke’s Blurred Lines, by contrast, is a direct broadside against ‘no means no’ – a throwback anthem to the primacy of male desire, which has both succeeded financially (one of the highest-selling songs of the last decade) and failed imaginatively (Thicke is at best naïve and practically no-one appears to take his work particularly seriously – including, apparently, his own video director; that Thicke’s controversial success may have contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to Paula Patton, spawning the far less commercially successful follow-up album Paula (2014), is perhaps also worth mentioning). How can we account for this apparent contradiction?
Mashup: We are perverts and we aren’t
The delight many of us feel (and the disgust and disapproval some others feel) in bodily movement, in song and rhythm, in the patterning of words, in looking, … and in other activities learned prior to the Oedipal period and outside of social meaning suggests how the perverse persists in normative behaviour. We might even ask if the meaningful activities of social life would be possible without their perverse foundations. For the ordinary neurotic, jouissance must remain unconscious lest the experience recall too disruptively the lawlessness of polymorphous perversity with its suspicion that in fact there is no law. We encounter, however, a negative reflection of that jouissance in the contempt we so often hear in complaints about the disgusting pleasures of others: … their loud and disorderly music; their irresponsible sexual extravagance … [Following Foucault,] perversity is actually a discursive construct generated to define normative life. But the purpose of this construct may be less to implant an arbitrarily generated perversity than to provide cover for the specific pleasures that sustain and threaten the law. That is, I can continue to believe that my world is orderly and enjoy the covert pleasures of that world so long as I denounce the perversity that so obviously dominates the lives of others. … In effect, perversion allows one to continue to live in a world suffused with enjoyment after the point where the Oedipal law of restraint should have taken effect.
Molly Anne Rothenberg and Dennis A. Foster, “Introduction: Beneath the Kin: Perversion and Social Analysis”, in Rothenberg, Foster and Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Perversion and the Social Relation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 3-4
This notion of perversion plays with an earlier insight by Bruce Fink, collected in the same volume:
If neurosis can be understood as a set of strategies by which people protest against a ‘definitive’ sacrifice of jouissance – castration – imposed upon them by their parents (attempting to recover some modicum of jouissance) and come to desire in relation to the law, perversion involves the attempt to prop up the law so that limits can be set to jouissance (what Lacan calls ‘the will to jouissance’). Whereas we see an utter and complete absence of the law in psychosis, and a definitive instatement of the law in neurosis (overcome only in fantasy), in perversion the subject struggles to bring the law into being – in a word, to make the Other exist. … [Perversion], like every other activity, must be considered in terms of the satisfaction it brings (however indirect or intuitive), but it also must be considered in terms of the function it serves in relation to the law and separation. A neurotic symptom provides the patient with a certain substitute satisfaction, but it also forms, in certain instances, in order to bind anxiety; so too the pervert’s activities serve a purpose that is not simply that of achieving direct sexual satisfaction. Many neurotics think perverts must be getting an awful lot more satisfaction in life than they are … This stops them from seeing what it is that the apparent ‘will to jouissance’ … in perversion is designed to do, is in the service of, and is covering over.” (38, 53-54)
As a structural category, very few of us are clinically ‘perverts’, yet the vast majority of our sexuality is perversely articulated (Fink, 39). Blurred Lines, the video, likewise poses as a neurotic fantasy but is in fact actually perverse – not superficially perverse (‘look at all the rule-breaking fun I’m having at the expense of, or with the acquiescence/collusion of – consent/non-consent – these women’) or clinically perverse, i.e. desiring condemnation (“you’re a good girl” = ‘I’m a bad boy’, ‘punish me, administer me’), but in the sense that it is perversely performative, disavowing its own ‘message’. Thicke in the song (Thicke et al.– the whole structure/meaning of the song is conceivably founded on the counterpoint between the three male performers) claims he hates “blurred lines” but this premise is shakily predicated on a model of contradictory desire (“you’re a good girl / I know you want it”). However, Thicke’s blurred lines are being erased in our culture by the defined lines, battlelines, of ‘no means no’; everything in the video clip, therefore, is ‘blurred’ – overemphasised, comically over-compensating (or, from Martel’s perspective, ironically distancing or satirically skewering).
There are numerous examples. (Note: there are two official versions of the video, both dreamt up by Martel – one ‘unrated’, in which the models are topless, wearing flesh-coloured underwear in most scenes, the other ‘covering up’, for more general, ‘safe-for-work’, consumption.)
In both videos there’s a shot of a toy car riding (‘driving’) down Emily Ratajkowski’s bottom as she poses on all fours. In the so-called ‘unrated’ version, there’s a later scene where Ratajkowski frowns (thoughtfully/critically) then the video cuts to a shot of a tiny ‘Stop’ sign rested on her bottom.
In another (‘unrated’) shot Jessie M’Bengue chases Thicke with a cartoonishly-oversized hypodermic needle; Thicke responds by injecting her in the bottom with it (presumably Freud would be unmoved by this tepid sort of conscious repetition).
In a third scene (both versions), Elle Evans is riding a taxidermied dog – literally, the dog is dead and stuffed, a sideswipe at the lyrics (“OK, now he was close, tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature / Just let me liberate you … / You don’t need no papers”; the singers thusly chorus in unison – “You’re the hottest bitch in this place”). Interestingly, similar scenes appears in Martel’s video for Miley Cyrus’s We Can’t Stop, including a series of dead/stuffed animals who are arranged to face a series of mirrors. Ironically, the simplest way to avoid charges of animal cruelty is to make sure they’re dead; avoiding charges of misogyny by claiming women – secretly – enjoy it is apparently more difficult…)
Furthermore, in both versions the models are deliberately parading endlessly, back and forth (in the ‘nude’ version, their motions seem more like a prancing parody of the clothed male actor-performers’ dancing). Why do they keep moving? They’re active (actors; literally ‘sexually active’ participants) – if they were still (objects, unmoving), their sexual objectification would be utterly traumatic, far too deeply realised for casual consumption.
Honestly, Martel never seems to run out of good-bad ideas – the models ride stationary bicycles, leisurely pedalling backwards, or lazily wield strings of sausages; in one scene, M’Bengue wears a mask with intense, direct eyes pasted on it, autonomously mirroring/faltering the gaze of the audience; etc…
And, of course, the pièce de résistance – the fact that the Twitter hashtags ‘#THICKE’ and ‘#BLURRED LINES’ symptomatically repeat over and over and over (roughly 30 times) in the videos, awkwardly obscuring/blocking out the actors, demanding/desiring controversy and success.
Now examine these two statements:
Robin Thicke (GQ, 07/05/13) (a classic ‘just joking’ disavowal): “We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.’ People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’”; and
Diane Martel (Grantland, 26/06/13): “I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men. … It also forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera. This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck.”
Silly as fuck. Exactly. Blurred Lines is a phallic last gasp.
Žižek writes (following Freud, then Lacan) in Less Than Nothing (here quoted by Bjerre, 68, 69): “The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never ‘just life’: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things.”; and: “In the shift from desire to drive, we pass from the lost object to loss itself as an object. In other words, the weird movement called ‘drive’ is not driven by the ‘impossible’ quest for the lost object: it is a push to directly enact the ‘loss’ – the gap, cut, distance – itself.”
This, precisely, is the message of Blurred Lines, excessive and enacting (compelled to enact) a patriarchal sense of loss (how/who-ever authored…) – on the one hand utterly banal, and necessarily so, like all pop music and popular culture generally (music and lyrics decried, or perversely celebrated, as simplistic, repetitive, mostly meant as meaningless – which paradoxically means that it’s open to interpretation, provides a space for our desires, our disavowal, our ambivalence: what’s empty can be filled, can be both sexy and sexist), but alternatively, as argued, unsettlingly, destabilisingly perverse.
The point is that it is already a ‘made mistake’, it reveals itself symptomatically/socially/as satisfaction; not that it wasn’t enormously successful (‘sexism sells’), nor that rape and rape culture isn’t real (nor patriarchy and its controlling (self)interests), but that like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, ‘no means no’ is already mapping out its moment of impending social change (cultural fission), and Blurred Lines with its insistence on the importance of male sexuality actually reveals its impotence. Like the phrase some rappers use to enhance/define their masculinity – ‘no homo’ – Blurred Lines helpfully reveals the anxiety, the patriarchal trauma of potent female sexuality: that if no means no, yes really means yes.
There is another difference between the two videos, one which – almost certainly unintentionally – spells this out. The ‘unrated’ video features shots of a wall of balloons (with naked model, capering madly) that state “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK” (also, predictably, Martel’s idea; Thicke’s too-obvious concern: “You sure T.I. and Pharrell will be okay with that?” (GQ)). The other, ‘safe’ version simply says “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG D_”; and you’re left to fill in the blank. Traditional literacy finds it easy, if childish, to complete that couplet. Our sexual literacy, however, suggests that whatever we naively assume should appear in that line, we in fact know better – that we can’t actually fill that gap/anxiety (this fetishising of his own dick has, quite properly, castrated him – the fetish makes visible the fact of a lack).
Remix: There ought to be a law against it…
The point is not only that humans have sex in a more cultivated way (or, of course, in an incomparably more cruel way) than animals, but that they are able to elevate sexuality into an absolute Aim to which they subordinate their entire life. … Although this passion [, this will to drown oneself in the night of jouissance, to leave behind the daily universe of symbolic obligations,] strives to suspend the domain of Culture (of symbolic obligations, etc.) it clearly has nothing to do with a return to instinctual Nature – rather it involves the most radical perversion of the natural instinct, so that, paradoxically, it is the very recourse to the order of Culture that enables us to escape the deadly vortex of this ‘unnatural’ passion, and to regain the pacifying natural balance of instinctual needs in their symbolized form. … [The fact is] that ‘there is no sexual relationship’: culture not only confers a cultivated form on sexuality, but thoroughly derails it, so that the only way for a human being to be able to ‘do it’, to enjoy it, is to rely on some ‘perverse’ idiosyncratic phantasmatic scenario – the ultimate human perversion is that so-called ‘natural’ instinctual sexual satisfaction needs a cultural prosthesis, some kind of symbolic crutch, in order to remain operative.
Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999), pp. 83-84
The contemporary passage towards the mythological conception/dictum of ‘no means no/yes means yes’ can be located in the re-presentation of sexual meaning in Blurred Lines learnt from earlier examples (its symbolic heritage, primal forefathers) such as Duran Duran’s Girls On Film (1983).
Girls On Film also consists of two versions (the more explicit known as the ‘night version’), and the video (ostensibly/disavowedly satirising/critiquing fashion model exploitation) gleefully revels in its recreations of overstated male desires – parading onto a stage via a catwalk (as Duran Duran sing: “See them walking hand in hand across the bridge at midnight”), models mount a lathered barber’s pole and pillow fight, a masseuse straddles a man’s back (cue gratuitous/obligatory shot of squirting oil), a cowgirl leads on reins a man dressed as a horse, rubs him down, etc. It culminates in two different endings – in the ‘explicit’ clip, a woman in a fur coat strips off to mud wrestle another woman and is then washed off by a man with a hose, while in the ‘safe’ ‘day version’ two couples (and a ‘protective’ bouncer) enter, dance joyfully, then return to the backstage world.
Girls On Film, like Blurred Lines, is wildly over the top yet, unlike Blurred Lines, is representative of an MTV era absolutely invested in its embrace of the contradictions of (male-engendered/engineered) desire – the explicit version begins with extensive shots of the making of the set, the artifice and construction, people doing hair and makeup, literally building the stage on which the band play (adjacent to the stage on which ‘the action takes place’, connected by the catwalk to backstage). Backstage, however, is also revealed as ‘fantasmatic’ in the ‘explicit’ video, when the women, now ‘off-stage’, continue their sexual performances (a naked woman languorously blows hot air all over her body with a hairdryer then ice-cubes her nipples cold; other women laughingly pour alcohol over each other’s breasts etc.).
Here then we see the success and failure of the Blurred Lines enterprise for the ‘no means no’ generation – a catchy tune and signalling your ironic distance allows a certain amount of disavowed pleasure; however, T.I.’s (too-)explicit rap (“Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you / So hit me up when you pass through / I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two … / Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you / He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that”) failed to reinforce, reinscribe or replace the blurred lines laid out by Duran Duran (viz. “the crowd all love pulling dolly by the hair”).
This explains what happened next.
In the months that followed Blurred Lines’ release, a number of musical covers, parodies and mashed-up critiques appeared. Of particular interest were the attempts at recuperation, as first Ellen presented a sans-T.I. version, where Thicke and Williams sang a slightly different tune: “You’re the hottest chick in the place … / I always wanted a good girl” (uploaded 16 May 2013), followed by Jimmy Fallon and The Roots of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, who re-sang/restaged the song with Thicke, accompanying him on children’s toy instruments and replacing T.I.’s lyrics with a more female-friendly rap by Black Thought (“Good girlfriends, I had a few / But the best girlfriend I ever had was you / I thank God for my blessings, it began with you / So I put a ring on it and I married you / … See the lines gettin’ blurrier / I come home to my own Miss America”; uploaded 1 August 2013), and finally it was reprised – also sans-T.I. verses – in an episode of the television show Glee entitled “The End of Twerk” (airdate 14 November 2013).
Perhaps the definitive restaging of Blurred Lines, though, came at the Video Music Awards (25 August 2013), where Miley Cyrus performed a mashup/medley/encore of We Can’t Stop (“Can’t you see it’s we who own the night / … We run things, things don’t run we / Don’t take nothing from nobody / … And we can’t stop / And we won’t stop”) which turned into a duet with Thicke on Blurred Lines. As her song ended, Cyrus stripped off her outfit to reveal skin-coloured underwear (not topless) and donned a giant foam ‘novelty’ finger-hand with which she alternately stroked Thicke’s crotch and her own, and vigorously simulated with it as her phallus (the finger-hand actually first appeared in Blurred Lines, though smaller and only for a split-second), all the while striding the stage with Thicke trailing behind her. At the conclusion of their performance, Cyrus stuck the foam finger against her tongue and worried it playfully; Thicke’s sexual irrelevance duly demonstrated.
So much for Blurred Lines; ‘yes means yes’, this perceived shift of empowering women from objects of desiring to subjects of choosing, has begun to take centre-stage (notably, the California legislature is right now in the process of adopting a new affirmative standard of consent; perhaps we should start calling it ‘a standard of assent’…).
Where is this to be found in pop music today?
In a more direct retort to Thicke, Lily Allen’s video for Hard Out Here (2013) had balloons that jeered “LILY ALLEN HAS A BAGGY PUSSY”, a satirical feminist reaction to objectification. Ironically enough (‘to each according to their desire, from each according to their lack’…), Allen was also accused of objectification, as her clip contained scenes with women of colour twerking (in a sequence structured not unlike Beyoncé’s Partition (2013; ‘a woman fantasises’) but mimicking Girls On Film e.g. the women pour alcohol on each other etc.). Allen’s refusal to commit/submit to her own objectification (singing: “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? / Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two? / We’ve never had it so good, uh-huh, we’re out of the woods / And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’ve misunderstood”), while surrounding herself with images of other women twerking, left her exposed to condemnations of being insufficiently/incorrectly/improperly satirical – too real. (This could be sensibly compared to Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda (2014), who in sampling Sir Mix-a-Lot’s catchy blend of sexism and racial critique from Baby Got Back (1992) also arguably remixed its gender politics: at the end of the video it is Minaj who clearly decides what the ‘meaning’ of her butt-shaking lap dance in front of Drake is…; but then, she’s the one ‘choosing’ to do it.)
The key transition, though, might be in the shift from Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) video (2008), with the singer on the verge of realising her sexual independence, to the split single Yoncé/Partition (2013) and her 2014 VMA performance, where an evolving fantasy is now enacted – female sexual subjectivity.
In Yoncé, women walk/dance in the streets, framed/formed/filmed as partial objects – bottoms, breasts – then revealed as objects of self-identificatory desire for Beyoncé (“And every girl in here gotta look me up and down / All on Instagram, cake by the pound / Circulate the image every time I come around”; there are no men physically present in the video, although they are the subjects of desire in the song: “this all for you, just walk my way / Just tell me how it’s lookin’ babe / … Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor”).
This is inverted in Partition: Beyoncé plays a rich woman, sitting across the breakfast table from a disinterested partner – she fantasises about an intense sexual connection she could have with him (having sex in their chauffeured car, then stripping for him in a cabaret club, where she self-confidently sings: “Take all of me / I just wanna be the girl you like / The kinda girl you like / Is right here with me”). At one point she stops singing and a woman says in French (a rough translation): “Do you like sex? / Sex, I mean the physical activity, coitus. Do you like it? / You aren’t interested in sex? / Men think that feminists hate sex but it is a very challenging/stimulating and natural activity that women love” – the fantasy winds up, and then Beyoncé is back at the table, thoughtful and seemingly not dissatisfied.
In these connected videos, Beyoncé contrasts ‘all for you’ with ‘all of me’, moving from object to subject (although still somewhat ambivalently performed/’dressed up’/split as the ‘object of desire’). This distinct manoeuvre for Beyoncé, charting through her part in Lady Gaga’s Telephone (2010) to Run The World (Girls) in 2011, recently culminated in her 2014 MTV VMA medley/mash-up of her fifth album, where songs about sexuality confidently melded with her takes on identity, motherhood and self-perception/liberation (the extraordinary moment – Beyoncé remixing Partition into Flawless, with its commanding sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.’ Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”; Beyoncé standing in front of these words, flashing up on the screen behind her, and seguing from Yoncé to Blue, as home video of her life with her husband and daughter made much the same argument: that there’s no contradiction in a good girl wanting it…).
Richard Hoggart in The Way We Live Now (249) insightfully wrote that “we carry our changing world with us all the time, and it always seems normal”, which is mostly right – we do until we don’t and then we don’t until we do, but most of it’s normal most of the time. In terms of sexual literacy, though, it’s clear our changing world is changing dramatically right now.
And what of the night, as Auden put it, and its need for our love? Humans are not animals who have learned how to behave, sexually speaking. Our dark desires are, by and large, merely a defence against the ‘night of jouissance’ (structured by the trauma of emerging sexuality) and much of it is attenuated/displaced/channelled into ‘acceptable’ forms/forums/formulae. Yet, determining what is ‘acceptable’ matters very much in life, and even in pop music – our voices carry and our words connect.
Auden, clearly channelling Freud, wrote elsewhere (Canzone, meaning ‘song’ in Italian; in Williams, 261):
If in this dark now I less often know
That spiral staircase where the haunted will
Hunts for its stolen luggage, who should know
Better than you, beloved, how I know
What gives security to any world.
Or in whose mirror I begin to know
The chaos of the heart as merchants know
Their coins and cities, genius its own day?
For through our lively traffic all the day,
In my own person I am forced to know
How much must be forgotten out of love,
How much must be forgiven, even love.
Lessons learnt when we play out the same scenes are as clearly signifying/significant as when we deviate. People scoff or shudder at the sexualities of the past, that someone might be aroused at the sight of an ankle or that paedophilia might ever have been acceptable – but what is it about our sexualities now, in the early internet era, that humanity will look back on and laugh, or curse?
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About the Author
Don Sillence is an independent researcher currently completing a postgraduate thesis on the future of novels (formerly a member of the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University).