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Robin Thicke’s ‘Get Her Back’ is an example of how not to do a song about an ex

Robin Thicke performs during the annual Wal-Mart Shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., on June 6. (AP Photo/Sarah Bentham)

On Monday, Robin Thicke released the video for “Get Her Back,” the first single from his forthcoming album “Paula.” The album, named for Thicke’s estranged wife, actress Paula Patton, is slated to drop on July 1, but Thicke has already received some criticism for its concept — a very public attempt at reconciliation with Patton — and tracklist, which hit the Internet last week. The video has only added to the backlash.

Thicke appears with a bloody face in some scenes and stares solemnly into the camera as text messages appear across the screen. Examples: “I wrote a whole album about you.” “I hate myself.” “You embarrassed me.” “You’re reckless.” There’s a lot that’s unclear about the video — why Thicke is bleeding, for one. Nor is there any context for the text messages, so we can only guess as to whether they’re being sent or received. In a particularly troubling moment, Thicke points a finger at his temple. The video ends with a text that reads — rather ominously, following the video’s imagery — “This is just the beginning.”

Thicke is no stranger to controversy around his songs or music videos. (Ahem, “Blurred Lines.”)  But if we’re buying — literally — into the idea that Thicke wants his wife back, the general consensus is that he’s going about it the wrong way. “What rhymes with desperate?” asked Jezebel. “This might be how you sell a few albums, but it’s certainly not how you reconcile with your estranged wife,” wrote Vulture.

If Thicke’s “Paula” offers a look at how not to do a song about someone you love(d), it’s worth taking a look at what goes into making a great song (or even an entire album) about an ex — without it being creepy or anticlimactic.

Pick a universal theme

In-laws, am I right? In 2001, Outkast nailed the complexities of shared custody with “Ms. Jackson,” widely understood to be about Andre 3000’s relationship with Erykah Badu. Written as an apology to the mother of an ex, the song gives a detailed — and respectful — look at a relationship that started with good intentions on the part of two people in love. Do we know for sure that it’s about Badu? Of course not. Which brings us to…

Be Subtle

It’s been more than 40 years since Carly Simon released “You’re So Vain” and we still don’t know who paired a strategically placed hat with an apricot scarf. Simon whispered a clue in a 2009 re-recording of the song, but it didn’t give us the answer, just a qualifier. “You probably think this song is about you” — if your name is David. Alas, David is a very common name.

Be Genuine

Taylor Swift is arguably the queen of writing about her real-life relationships. Love or loathe her, she keeps it pretty consistent with her breakup-inspired hits. So consistent, in fact, that the liner notes of her most recent albums included coded clues for fans to over-analyze. Swift’s last album “Red,” had fans guessing which songs were about Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a pretty safe bet that the well-reviewed ballad,  “All Too Well” is Gyllenhaal-inspired. And it’s a classic Swift narrative — detailed, but relatable.

Make it a project

Kanye West’s genre-eschewing 2008 album, “808s and Heartbreak,” was recorded on the heels of his mother’s death and his breakup with fiance Alexis Phifer. As a result, the album’s lyrics are raw and revealing. Not everyone loved the trip down misery lane, but it was a breakthrough for West, who has only gone on to take more artistic risks (see: “Yeezus“). It’s worth noting that in his review of “808s and Heartbreak,” Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards called it  “an album so exquisite, so assured, it threatens to invent an entirely new strand of urban pop music.”

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.



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Emily Yahr · June 23, 2014

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