I Bet You Think This Blog is About You: Blurred Lines and the Problem with Direct Address

blurred-lines-cover

Who are you?

Or, I guess, who are “you”?

More accurately, if less grammatically, who is “you”?

“You” has been very busy, at least going by song lyrics.  Other genres—including a lot of poetry, even though people think of lyrics and poetry as the same thing—stay away from using “you” as the dominant pronoun.  You can count on one hand the number of novels written in second person.  (Bright Lights, Big City; something by Italo Calvino…  OK, on two fingers.)  Instruction manuals, and their snooty siblings, self-help books, sure, “you” yourself away.  Nonfiction—and blogs—use direct address as an occasional rhetorical device (“You can count on one hand…”).  But every song is about You.  Here’s a rundown of some song titles that begin with “You”:

You, Breaking Benjamin

You, REM

You & Me, Dave Matthews

You and Your Friend, T-Ride

You Are Not Alone, Michael Jackson

You Are the Everything, REM

You Are the Girl, Cars

You Belong With Me, Taylor Swift

You Better Run, Pat Benatar

You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon

(You Can Still) Rock in America, Night Ranger

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Stones

You Can’t Get What You Want, Joe Jackson

You Can’t Kill Michael Malloy, Primus

You Can’t Kill Rock & Roll, Ozzy

You Can’t Stop Progress, Clutch

You Could Be Mine, Guns n Roses

You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute, Flight of the Concords

You Don’t Know Me at All, Don Henley

You Don’t Know What Love Is,, White Stripes

You Drive Me Ape, The Dickies

You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Gap Band

And that’s just the “You D–“’s, with more than 40 more You-first, not including “You” contractions. This is just from my iTunes library.  (Yes. Taylor Swift.) Go pull up your own playlists and see for yourself (and go ahead and post favorite or significant titles in Comments).  And obviously this list can’t include all the songs that revolve around “you,” since that would be nearly all of them.  “You” had to be a big shot.  Who is “you,” and how do you have so much time to do everything?

All of this is a way of getting to the Song of the Summer, in caps, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.  Yes, it’s crazy popular, and you can’t listen to the radio for 10 minutes without hearing it.  But it’s controversial, because the lyrics have been declared rapey, a word that fills an important vocabulary niche but that still sounds, meaning aside for the moment, like the name of a cat.  A lot of it comes down to this line:

You know you want it.

It’s pretty damning out of context, especially the way I used sinister italics, sitting on the page like that creep on the public bus. And I’m not here to defend the song. (Hourman hates controversy.)  But a few things are interesting about it.  First, its context is not the page but rather a pretty sweet R&B song, which is melodic, playful, and even a little corny (musicians: it’s all in the flat 7s, the corniest of all intervals).  How else can Robin Thicke, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots pull off an all kiddy instrument version of the song?  (Of course, I am conveniently ignoring that OTHER video.)

And the song sounds and feels nothing like what I think of as the (intentionally, to be make fun of that sort of thing, according to the group; Thicke said something similar about his own song) rapeiest song of all, Stone Temple Pilots’ raucous Sex Type Thing.  Featured lyric: “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too, hurt you too,” totally worse than “You know you want it.”  (Musicians: the main riff revolves around a flat 5 interval, which everyone knows is the devil in music).

Maybe the song could deflect its accusations better if it were one of those He said/She said songs that allow for more than one point of view and point of “you”—think Don’t You Want Me’s first verse by the Guy:

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

 Followed up in the second verse by this, by the Girl:

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you

Balanced, dueling “you”s.  Or more recently, Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody I Used to Know, where we get the sense that both the man and woman are hurting over the breakup, not that one is right and the other wrong. First Gotye sings this:

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember

Later followed by Kimbra’s POV:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

No assumptions about what the woman wants, since the song allows her to tell us.

It’s also interesting to compare Blurred Lines to the runner-up song of the summer, the maybe even catchier Get Lucky by Daft Punk.  Here’s the chorus:

She’s up all night to the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to the sun

We’re up all night to get some

We’re up all night for good fun

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

No “you” at all!  Instead, the song uses “she” and “I’ before settling on “we.”  If the repeated line had been “You’re up all night to get lucky,” a la Blurred lines, it wouldn’t sound so sex positive:

 You’re up all night to the sun

You’re up all night to get some

You’re up all night for good fun

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

 Now it sounds so accusing, kinda shamey.  Now, it’s not a story about two individual people, She and I, who together comprise We, but rather the lyrics’ male speaker looking at and judging the behavior of an unnamed woman.

The same thing happens if you contrast the next line in Blurred Lines: “You’re a good girl.”  It’s the singer’s assessment of what the woman thinks of herself, not necessarily what she thinks.  Contrast it with Tom Petty’s Free Falling, which begins with the exact same line but in 3rd person:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

And with 3rd person comes the feeling of objectivity, which may be at the heart of the Blurred Lines—and, for me, the “you”—controversy.  “She’s a good girl” sounds like an omniscient narrator.  It means what it sounds like, or at least doesn’t call attention to its own possible ambiguity.  “You’re a good girl” sounds subjective—who are you to say or know whether she/I/ you is/am/are a good girl?  Blurred lines indeed.  Whether we find the line—and “You know you want it”—offensive or not boils down to whether we believe the singer.    If the singer—he—is reliable, and she—the recipient of the song’s words—is a good girl, and does want it, and the blurred lines of the title represent  the internal conflict within the woman herself, then the song is seductive, which I take as Thicke’s—and every lyricist’s—intention.  But if we doubt him, and hear situational blurred lines—he thinks that she wants it, but she doesn’t—well, that’s rapey.

But it’s up to you to decide.

Time: Over time, about 80 minutes, since I didn’t keep track that well, with double apologies for going italics crazy.

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13 thoughts on “I Bet You Think This Blog is About You: Blurred Lines and the Problem with Direct Address

  1. I still don’t like the song, but I do like the analysis. I’m not sure if the personalization of the song is what’s so offensive, or if it’s just gross and rapey.

    P.s. Thanks for using rapey.

    P.p.s. Best Title Award

  2. Anne says:

    Excellent analysis! Thank you.

  3. JennyG says:

    Good stuff. I would argue that it’s almost impossible to take the singer as reliable because he refers to the woman as ‘bitch’ and expresses a desire to sexually ‘liberate’ her, which no one needs. One can sexually liberate oneself, with a hand from an adventurous partner perhaps, but to try to liberate someone else sexually is to violate his/her boundaries, which the singer imagines are blurred. Hence rapey.

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks, JennyG. I forgot about “bitch” since I almost always hear the radio edit, but it does change the tone of the song. Good close reading of “liberate,” too, a word that arguably turns to doublespeak in this context.

  4. Amy B says:

    WordPress ate my last comment. Basically I said: I have never heard this song before (and I sort of say that with some bizarre pride) but enjoyed this essay nevertheless. Your cultural analysis is always so entertainingly insightful!

  5. Hourman says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Amy. At first I was surprised that you had never heard the song, but in 2013, unlike previous eras, it’s possible to listen to lots of music but completely ignore the Top 10, thanks to Spotify, Pandora, one’s own library, etc. The jury is out on whether you’re missing out.

    • Amy B says:

      You are exactly right. I listen to music daily, but almost nothing that makes the Top 40. Of course, I hear and read references to current hit songs all the time, but rarely feel compelled to go find out what is being referenced.

  6. Alessandra G says:

    You know, when I first heard the song, I was totally crazy about it, I mean you just can’t deny that when it comes to Pharrell, his music is genius. But then yes, I started paying attention to the lyrics. I can’t say that I am not used to lyrics where women are offended thanks to modern hip-hop music (I’d like to make a remark here that only rappers of pop culture do that, for example modern hip-hop artists like Common or Mos Def who are not that mainstream never offend females) but this lyrics is really pretty offensive. Although, my opinion on the whole is that this song wouldn’t become popular if this kind of lyrics would be something extraordinary. Remember the song by Pussycat Dolls When I grow Up (it’s here http://mp3pole.com/search/pussycat-dolls-when-i-grow-up.html ) In this lyrics women themselves admit what they want from life and their true passions. So I absolutely agree with your analysis of this song and I just want to say that the popularity of this song is the reflection of our society and what is going on in people’s minds.

  7. Hourman says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Alessandra. You raise a great point. Lots of other songs–gangsta rap, extreme metal, even, like Prince–have far more offensive, sexist, and misogynistic lyrics than this one, so why the fuss? I wonder if it has to do with Blurred Lines’ airplay on pop radio, with tons of tweens (and younger–I know from my kids) singing “I know you want it” etc. Rap and metal were already marginalized by class and race, but here is this stealth sex song that sounds like pure ear honey.

  8. freehugs3 says:

    thank you very much

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