Irony

Last year was full of strange cultural moments, but one that sticks out in my mind is the Great Kerfuffle–capitalized because it would be a great name for the apocalypse–surrounding Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards. I’ll say this right up front: I don’t care one way or the other about Miley Cyrus. In fact, I don’t care about Robin Thicke, either. I’m not about to sit in judgement of either of these people as people. And if I did, I would be missing the point.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past nine months, Robin Thick and crew put out a song called “Blurred Lines,” which is basically a rape song we can dance to. More on that later. At the VMAs, Miley Cyrus dressed like a crazy person and did a little interpretive dance number that a lot of people thought was inappropriate for television. Obviously, these were the people who turn on MTV only to watch the Awards, otherwise they’d already have been desensitized to twerking. (It may be the word of the year, but my spellchecker still refuses to acknowledge it. I tried spelling it “twercking” on the off chance that it might act like the word “panic” when shifting it to the present progressive. The hard “k” ending theoretically makes that unnecessary–viz “baking”–but I’m not sure about the roots of the word, so sometimes it’s best to just try and fail.)

There were two main interpretations of this. One was that Cyrus is to blame because she demeaned herself by acting like a sex object and associating herself with the legitimization of rape. The other is that Thicke took too little blame for being the cultural legitimizer. Unfortunately, while people were busy assigning blame, the song got more and more traction. It is still so popular that you can hear it in grocery stores, malls, and on TV. It even played on my Air Asia flight back from the Philippines once we’d landed in Kuala Lumpur. Pretty good for something that caused such a controversy.

Below is a segment of the lyrics to “Blurred Lines.”

[Chorus: Robin Thicke]
And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get passed me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about gettin blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

[Verse 2: Robin Thicke]
What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on
What do we need steam for
You the hottest bitch in this place
I feel so lucky
Hey, hey, hey
You wanna hug me
Hey, hey, hey
What rhymes with hug me?
Hey, hey, hey

[Pre-chorus: Robin Thicke]
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
Hey, hey, hey
You don’t need no papers
Hey, hey, hey
Than man is not your maker
Hey, hey, hey

[Chorus: Robin Thicke]
And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get passed me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about gettin blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

Ladies?

Ladies?

Next are the lyrics to “Sex Type Thing” by the Stone Temple Pilots.

I am, I am, I am
I said, “I wanna get next to you”
I said, “I gonna get close to you”
You wouldn’t want me, have to hurt you too, hurt you too

I ain’t, I ain’t, I ain’t
A buyin’ into your apathy
I’m gonna learn ya my philosophy
You wanna know about atrocity, atrocity?

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

I am a man, a man
I’ll give ya somethin’ that you won’t forget
I said, “Ya shouldn’t have worn that dress”
I said, “Ya shouldn’t have worn that dress, worn that dress”

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

Here I come, I come, I come, I come
Here I come, I come, I come

I am, I am, I am
I said, “I wanna get next to you”
I said, “I gonna get close to you”
You wouldn’t want me, have to hurt you too, hurt you too

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

I know you want what’s on my mind
I know you like what’s on my mind
I know it eats you up inside
I know, you know, you know, you know

Here I come, I come, I come, I come
Here I come, I come, I come
Come on
Here I come, I come, I come, I come
Here I come, I come, I come, I come
[etc…]

So they’re pretty much the same song, right? Wrong. The content might be similar, but in this case, the medium is the message. “Sex Type Thing” was, at its core, grunge: naturally dripping with bitter irony and angst, and generally ranting against the status quo. They lyrics may say one thing, but we know they mean another because we know what we’re listening to. With “Blurred Lines,” we don’t really know what we’re listening to, other than pop, which is not typically as strong a sounding board for double talk and embedded irony (not to be confused with fatuousness). When we hear rape-y lyrics in a pop song, our first notion is not to think, “Oh, this is about something else.”

In fact, “Blurred Lines” isn’t about anything else. In a GQ interview, Robin Thicke said, “We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!'” Because women love that. He then got weirdly ironical when talking about the video they made for the song:

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.” So we just wanted to turn it over on its head and make people go, “Women and their bodies are beautiful. Men are always gonna want to follow them around.”

I get it. They were being super lighthearted and funny. Great. But the song came out first. It’s super easy to see the light irony in the video, but it’s just as hard to apply that humor retroactively to the song as it is not to apply the rape-y vibe of the song to the images in the video.

The song is what it is, though, and like everything else, it will eventually fade away into obscurity. I often complain, to those who will listen, that Americans have a tendency to look for something to be upset about to the point that the real big crimes go unnoticed. The scandal here isn’t that a bunch of guys crafted something misogynistic, or that a young woman decided to have some fun with her sexuality in public. Those things have been happening as long as this globe has been spinning, and will continue until the heat death of the universe. Rather, it is that as a culture, we missed a teachable moment. In terms of cultural values, it was the perfect time for a wake-up call, to at least make people aware of larger trends in pop culture. And in language and communication, it would have been a great moment to stop and say, “See how they crafted that joke? Don’t do that.”

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