2013: The Year That Everything Changed, Part 2

2013: The Year That Everything Changed, Part 2

This is the second installment of a series of essays about how 2013 marked the point in which popular music and the culture around it changed forever. You can read the first installment here. The next installment will come on Tuesday, September 8, and it’ll (tentatively) be about Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time.

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Was there a more monumental pop single in the 2010s than Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”? The initial impact of the Pharrell and T.I. collab was undeniable: the lead single from Thicke’s sixth studio album of the same name topped charts and sold an astronomical amount of copies at a time in which actual music sales were declining amidst streaming’s ominous rise.

Thicke had spent much of his career leading up to “Blurred Lines” sorta-floundering; his music was never quite commercially successful enough for him to become a leading name, his critical support existing only in pockets of poptimists (back when the term meant something more purposefully positive and hadn’t been contorted into meaninglessness). Now, with a mega-viral music video and the type of hit single destined for endless wedding-reception airings, it seemed like Robin Thicke had finally (and, somewhat improbably) arrived.

As it turns out, the eventual impact that “Blurred Lines” had on Thicke’s career was more of the car-crash variety. For starters, he would fail to replicate "the success of “Blurred Lines” for the rest of the decade—but topping the charts soon became the least of his problems when it came to this (admittedly still excellent-sounding) albatross of a single.

The song’s predatory-sounding lyrics and nudity-filled music video (which also marked a point of general introduction for model and eventual influencer Emily Ratajkowski, who starred in David Fincher films and achieved a level of internet ubiquity for the decade’s remainder) were accused of embracing misogyny and date rape. Multiple British student unions attempted to condemn and ban the song; a Wisconsin high school dance coach was fired for using “Blurred Lines” to soundtrack a routine.

“Blurred Lines” video director Diane Martel staged a defense of the video’s content and style, while Pharrell would continue to defend the song’s lyrics nearly a year after its release before completely disowning it last year. Thicke was far less successful than both in mounting what could be considered even a half-coherent argument. “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’,” Thicke blabbed to GQ. “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.’”

He later recanted the line of thought, blaming a bad Ron Burgundy impression and eventually claiming that the song’s ultimate message was that “men and women are equals.” None of it worked in his favor, nor did the twerk-tastic duet with Miley Cyrus that he performed at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (which went on to be the most-tweeted-about event in history at the time, breaking the record set by Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance earlier in the year).

“Blurred Lines” irreparably changed the mainstream critical discourse that surrounded pop music, particularly when it came to discussing issues surrounding gender and sexuality. To this point, the 2010s had witnessed a few brief flare-ups surrounding misogyny and pop; Kanye West’s “Monster” video arrived with a disclaimer that its dead-women imagery was “in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic” and regardless drew criticism from cultural thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But “Blurred Lines” marked a point in which discussing misogyny and rape culture became unavoidable and necessary lenses through which to view popular culture and society at large. This isn’t to say that no one was interrogating culture through these lenses previously, or to discount the work that a handful of pop critics had done on the subject in the time previous—but the discourse around the song and video undoubtedly marked the beginning of a sea change that still continues (albeit at a snail’s pace) today.

After decades of mainstream music writing having established a spotty track history on discussing these topics—not to mention the field’s often male-dominated makeup—"Blurred Lines” effectively presaged the #MeToo movement in forcing these discussions to somewhere near the front of the line, a mile marker that Kanye West’s Yeezus would continue to move (we’ll get to that in a later installment).

After “Blurred Lines,” Thicke’s career was in shambles. His wife and partner of 21 years, actress Paula Patton, would separate from and eventually divorce him, with allegations of abuse and addiction put forth in court filings. (In between the separation and divorce filings, Thicke attempted to get Patton back with, well, “Get Her Back,” as well as the public plea of an album Paula. Both were disastrous in intent and execution, and mercifully ignored by the public.) His greatest claim to fame since has been a judging gig on Fox’s reality TV competition The Masked Singer; he hasn’t put out an album since Paula’s release six years ago.

But “Blurred Lines” had implications far beyond the demise of Thicke’s public image. In August of 2013, Thicke, Williams, and T.I. became wrapped up in what would become a years-long legal battle with Marvin Gaye’s family about the validity of the latter’s claims that “Blurred Lines” had plagiarized Gaye’s 1977 single “Got to Give It Up.” The case stretched over the course of five years and, at one point, collided with the total collapse that was Thicke’s once-private life; in a 2014 deposition, he claimed that he was too high and drunk during the song’s creation to be held responsible for it, with Williams affirming that Thicke had publicly embellished his creative role in “Blurred Lines”’ genesis.

If any of this was supposed to “work” in terms of halting the Gaye family’s chances of achieving a legal victory, it didn’t. In 2015, a jury held Williams and Thicke (but not T.I.) liable to the Gaye family to the tune of $7.4 million; Gaye’s family were victorious again in 2018 upon appeal. Artists ranging from “Weird Al” Yankovic and Burt Bacharach to Keith Urban and Bill Withers questioned the judgment’s overall validity, and with good reason.

The eventual judgment opened up the potential for more legal battles over songs that carry similar melodic frameworks, as Ed Sheeran would later face two lawsuits over his 2014 single “Thinking Out Loud” bearing similarity to Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Last year, Katy Perry lost a copyright infringement battle against Christian rapper Flame over her 2013 single “Dark Horse,” owing $2.8 million in damages along with songwriting credits before a judge overturned the decision earlier this year.

In July, pop-punk band Yellowcard dropped a similar lawsuit against late rapper Juice WRLD for alleged similarities between their 2006 song “Holly Wood Died” and Juice’s 2018 hit “Lucid Dreams,” citing a discomfort in effectively taking legal action against his mother—the second potential legal challenge he faced for the song, after a rights dispute with Sting (whose 1993 single “Shape of My Heart” is sampled throughout) spilled out messily with angry public comments from producer Nick Mira.

These types of rights disputes will undoubtedly continue for years and decades to come, and we have “Blurred Lines” to thank—or, depending on what side you land on, blame—for forever changing the course of popular music and the discourse surrounding it, in just over four and a half minutes.

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Jamie Larson