“Really, Robin Thicke? This is how you’re gonna get your soon-to-be-ex-wife Paula Patton back?” Lindsey Weber wrote in Vulture last week when the R&B singer released the track list for his new album, titled, with an extreme lack of subtlety, “Paula.” With track names such as “Love Can Grow Back” and “Still Madly Crazy,” the album promised to be several unnerving steps beyond Lloyd Dobler’s courtship-by-boombox strategy. Robin Thicke is in pain, and we are all expected to bleed with him.
When the album’s first video, “Get Her Back,” premiered this morning, much of the reaction was to the imagery of the clip, which suggests a violent fight between the couple, over Thicke’s plea for a reconciliation. Although I understand the impulse to feel outraged by the idea that domestic violence is an occasion for a romantic grand gesture, my reaction was actually somewhat different. I was bored.
Sexism can be outraging, exhausting and terrifying. Experiencing it can make you despair, or change your life to avoid it. But even the sharp spikes of horror brought on by the most extreme expressions of hatred for women are undergirded by the same thing: a sense of monotony and predictability. Sexism’s real power comes less from the occasional shocking setback or act of violence, than from the grinding sameness and persistence of it.
Robin Thicke’s biggest hits and headlines in recent years are a perfect reflection of this kind of stifling dullness.
Sure, it is disturbing that his smash single “Blurred Lines” aims an eraser at the line between consensual sex and force. But as a matter of both artistry and sexism, it is incredibly tiresome that we are supposed to get excited about grade-school dirty puns that substitute for rhyming or Thicke’s celebrations of the size of his genitalia in an unrated cut of the music video.
The smug expression on Thicke’s face when the much-younger Miley Cyrus twerked up on him at the 2013 Video Music Awards was the look of a man who thinks he is getting away with something. Thicke was apparently unaware that “dirty old man” is a well-established tradition, and joining it was not a particularly daring or clever act. The firestorm that enveloped the pair in the days that followed, and the fact that it mostly scorched Cyrus, was entirely predictable.
Now, once again, Thicke seems to have confused the intensity of his own emotions with any sort of public interest in his efforts to reconcile with his wife.
I suppose we are meant to think it is in some way significant that Thicke illustrates the video for “Get Her Back” with what we can only hope is an imaginary text message conversation between himself and Patton. But Thicke is not actually subverting narratives of domestic violence, relationship conflict or even his own musical genre by self-flagellating in public, or by seeming to accept criticism of his drinking, embarrassing behavior, or even intimate violence.
Singing “I gotta treat her right, I gotta cherish her for life,” or any variation thereof, is not proof of self-awareness or artistic insight. It is a massive cliche, and one with sometimes-deadly implications for the women who are urged by violent or emotionally abusive partners that this time it will be different. This is not even to mention the idea that my colleague Ann Hornaday identified as so prevalent in pop culture, that the simple fact of male persistence ought to be enough to bring a woman around to loving him.
Good art can play with tropes like this one. The second season of “Orange Is the New Black” has a sensitive exploration of why a woman might stay with a violent man who was good with her children. Thicke’s protestation of reform, set against women’s naked bodies and blooming roses, does not meet that standard.
For artists, this should be a cautionary tale. Whether art is ideologically correct is not the measure of its entertainment value. But dragging listeners, viewers and readers through the same, endlessly boring things they are asked to swallow every day ought to be.