There’s at least one Remy Martin delivery truck that rolls through the streets of the District displaying Robin Thicke’s handsome face, blown up 15 times larger than real life, a static photograph that winks. On the side of the truck is the cognac company’s slogan: “Things are getting interesting.”
That’s true. Things are constantly getting interesting for Thicke, but never for his music, which is both incredibly dull and incredibly popular. The disparity might make him the leading hack of his generation, but if he stays on course, Thicke won’t be remembered for his songs. He’ll be remembered for all of those interesting things.
Such as: the hard-to-explain popularity of his just-okay mega-hit “Blurred Lines.” Such as: the controversy over whether the lyrics to “Blurred Lines” were about non-consensual sex. Such as: that time Miley Cyrus danced a little too close to Thicke’s pants on MTV. Such as: a snapshot that surfaced of Thicke grabbing a body part that did not belong to Paula Patton, his wife of nine years. Such as: the couple’s galactically publicized separation this year. Such as: Thicke’s attempt to win her back by naming his new album “Paula.”
So here comes the grown-up Lloyd Dobler in his rumpled Rat Pack tux, not crawling so much as sauntering. (Things are getting interesting.) As far as mea culpas go, this one is inexplicably smug, bawdy and incoherent — as if Thicke figured out how to transpose an Anthony Weiner selfie into R&B.
The latent desire for self-
humiliation lurks in the heart of every performer, but the 37-year-old Thicke is taking it into new terrain. And whether he’s doing it out of complete obliviousness or pure opportunism, he’s also humiliating Patton. That’s just one of the reasons that the singer’s critics took to their laptops when the track list to “Paula” was announced, asserting that songs titled “Lock the Door” and “Still Madly Crazy” were romanticizing stalking.
Few had heard the album, but that didn’t slow the conversation. In the
social-media age, pop culture has become a safe place to talk about the most difficult subjects. We might flinch at reading about rape on our college campuses or in our military, but we’re eager to talk about it through the lens of “Game of Thrones” or a Lady Gaga video.
In pop music, those tough discussions seem to take place more frequently around race — such as when country alpha-male Brad Paisley pens a song called “Accidental Racist,” or when rapper Kanye West puts a Confederate flag on a T-shirt, or when pop singer Lily Allen makes a feminist music video that viewers deem racist. The messages sent out can end up mutating into very different conversations.
Artists are struggling to catch up to this reality, often flustered by their inability to control the debate while frequently failing to grasp the tremendous impact their work has on shaping our collective cultural life. When the entertainment industry douses the world with your art, it’s the world that gets to sort out what your art means.
Thicke’s new album seems to have been made with only a half awareness of this. It asks to be taken seriously, but exclusively as a plea to “get her back,” as Thicke croons on the album’s tepid first single. And while his lyrics feel as lazy and careless as ever, Thicke is also shrewd enough to defuse his most provocative lines with silliness.
“Lock the Door” is the biggest
eyebrow-raiser, a gospel-ish tune about being locked out of the house in which Thicke eventually pleads, “At least open the doggie door, throw a friend a juicy bone!” On the minimal funk of “Black Tar Cloud,” he blames himself for his broken home with quirky metaphors: “I was licking your wounds/I thought we were straight/I thought everyone was gonna eat the chips/Turns out I’m the only one who double dipped.”
But there’s little humor to be found in the piano-driven blues of “Love Can Grow Back,” which opens with a skeevy line — “You’re way too young to dance like that in front of a man like me” — then devolves into come-ons that feel baffling and gross.
Just plain baffling is the peppy bravado of “Time of Your Life,” “Tippy Toes” and “Living in New York City,” three ditties that may or may not be catering to the “Jersey Boys” demographic.
Throughout, Thicke fails to sell whatever it is he’s trying to sell. And because this album’s production is so tame and thin, he often sounds like a man finessing his Marvin Gaye impression while the Weather Channel drones in the next room.
And while the guy obviously knows how to push buttons, it seems that because of the mediocrity of his music, Thicke will eventually escape the controversies that have followed him. He’s inviting us to gawk at a spectacular celebrity split, but he doesn’t have a “Blurred Lines 2” in his back pocket.
If he isn’t on the radio, he isn’t in the discussion. That’s when things finally stop getting interesting.