Robin Thicke

Spinal Tap got it spot on. When the spoof hard rockers, immortalised in the 1984 “rockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, are told their record label won’t release their new album Smell the Glove because its cover – a naked woman on all fours, tethered to a leash and being made to smell a glove – is sexist, the guitarist looks puzzled. “What’s wrong with being sexy?” he asks.

Almost 30 years later Robin Thicke’s chart-topping single “Blurred Lines” hasn’t so much stumbled into Spinal Tap’s sexist-sexy muddle as actively revelled in it. The song is this summer’s anthem: it has spent the past 12 weeks at number one in the US and has sold more than a million copies in the UK alone. Like “Gangnam Style” it has inspired numerous parodies, many centring on its YouTube video, which has notched up more than 160m views.

But the hit has also provoked criticism for degrading women. The uncensored video shows Thicke, 36, in a black suit and sunglasses, the acme of men’s magazine sophistication, crooning, “I know you want it,” into the ear of a much younger woman wearing a thong, red lipstick and platform shoes. Alongside them cavort two more men, both clothed, and two other young women, both unclothed.

An insidiously catchy tune plays. “You’re a good girl,” Thicke croons, blowing cigarette smoke in the face of one of the women, the fashion models Elle Evans, Jessi M’Bengue and Emily Ratajkowski. Thicke’s male companions are the hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams and the rapper TI, whose guest rap includes one of the world’s least seductive chat-up lines: “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

While “Blurred Lines” is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and frivolous, it depicts women as playthings and carries a hefty undertow of sexual violence. A contributor to the Daily Beast news website, referring to the song’s “I know you want it” refrain, labelled the song “kind of rapey”.

Its talent for provocation dominated the MTV Video Music Awards when Thicke performed it with former Disney child star Miley Cyrus. He wore a stripy suit and stood with hand nonchalantly in pocket. Meanwhile the 20-year-old Cyrus, wearing a flesh-coloured PVC bikini, ground her buttocks against his groin in simulation of the hip-hop dance style known as “twerking”. Even Camille Paglia, arch-defender of the sexual “jungle”, joined the chorus of outrage, calling on Cyrus to “go back to school”.

In response to the criticisms levelled against “Blurred Lines”, Thicke has said, “It’s supposed to make us talk about …what the relationship between men and women is”; the song was made with “nothing but the most respect for women”. The singer went on to make the astonishing assertion that “Blurred Lines” is “actually a feminist movement in itself.” It’s not hard to imagine Spinal Tap nodding their shaggy heads in agreement. What’s wrong with being sexy?

Variations on the phrase “I know you want it” have a long pedigree in pop. This is another way of saying that a lot of songs – more than 90 per cent, according to a survey of the 2009 US charts by psychologists at the State University of New York – are about sex.

“If you want it,” Mick Jagger, ever willing, sang in the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed”, “you can lean on me.” “Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it,” Journey chorused in their 1981 hit “Any Way You Want It”, about a good-time gal who “loves to laugh”, “does everything” and “loves the lovin’ things”.

Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards

Madonna gave the sentiment a feminist twist in “Express Yourself”: “So, if you want it right now, make him show you how.” The words contained an echo of Aretha Franklin’s magisterial 1967 version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”: “What you want, baby, I got it./ What you need, you know I got it./ All I’m asking is for a little respect.”

Today’s charts are filled with a generation of women young enough to be Madonna’s daughters – or Franklin’s granddaughters: acts such as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Last year Emeli Sandé sold more albums in the UK than any other performer. In the US Adele had the year’s biggest-selling album, with Swift in second place. “Women are definitely dominating music right now,” Rihanna exulted in 2011. Last year the sales tracking company Nielsen SoundScan named her as the best-selling digital artist ever, with 47.5m download sales. Gaga, Swift, Perry, Beyoncé and Britney Spears also appeared among the top 10 acts for digital sales. Has the call for respect finally been met? Or is the situation, to paraphrase the “feminist” Thicke, rather more blurred?

Laura Mvula is a UK singer-songwriter from Birmingham whose debut album Sing to the Moon was a top 10 hit this year. Influenced by Amy Winehouse and Ella Fitzgerald, she’s a soul and R’n’B singer, although deft orchestral arrangements also reflect a background in classical music: the 26-year-old graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire with a degree in composition.

Sing to the Moon’s central theme is the battle to conquer self-doubt. It’s summed up by the song “That’s Alright” in which Mvula sings that she “will never be what you want and that’s alright/ ’Cause my skin ain’t light and my body ain’t tight.”

“I wanted to create a song that made me feel big and strong, empowered. That thread runs through the whole album. When I was writing it I had in my head the idea that there were no rules or limitations that should stop me from expressing exactly what I wanted,” she says.

Male vs female listening

Female independence is a classic subject of women’s pop music, going back at least as far as a spirited Bessie Smith in 1923 singing the blues standard “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”. But just as Smith’s paean to doing what she wanted was written by a pair of men (Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins), so, too, Mvula is indebted to a male collaborator: Rumer producer Steve Brown, who persuaded her to write her album.

“It has been compromised in no way whatsoever, which has been extremely liberating,” says Mvula. “I have Steve to thank for a lot of that, because he was very adamant in keeping me on track, which was to be free – if that makes sense.”

The apparent contradiction – a male musician facilitating a female musician to find her voice – does indeed make sense. From studio engineers to heads of record labels, the music industry is dominated not by Rihanna’s women but by men. Traditionally, a woman trying to make herself heard has had no choice but to work with the opposite sex.

In 1972 feminists chanting Helen Reddy’s hit “I Am Woman” (“I am woman, hear me roar/ In numbers too big to ignore”) were singing along to a tune composed by an Australian called Ray Burton. Five years earlier, the words to Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” were written by Gerry Goffin; the music composed by his song-writing partner and ex-wife Carole King. Goffin, King later remarked, had a remarkable ability “to get inside a woman’s head and say the things a woman was thinking.” Some men, it seems, do know what a woman wants.

“I don’t believe in male-against-female. I’m not a feminist. I don’t believe in that stuff, I couldn’t care less about it,” Linda Perry says adamantly. Her vehemence is startling. The Californian, 48, is one of the most successful female songwriters in the US and one of the few women to work as a studio producer. In the 1990s she led the all-women rock band 4 Non Blondes, whose hit single “What’s Up” found her praying for “revolution” in a world “made up of this brotherhood of man”.

In 2001 she co-wrote and co-produced most of Pink’s breakthrough album Missundaztood, helping the younger woman restyle herself into a feisty pop-rocker. The following year she wrote and produced the classic self-empowerment anthem “Beautiful” for Christina Aguilera. She has also worked with Gwen Stefani, Alicia Keys and Céline Dion.

Despite writing for some of the biggest female names in music, Perry professes to be blind to gender. “I don’t look at myself and go, ‘Oh I’m a female songwriter,’” she says. “I’m just a songwriter. Today there are just as many male pop singers and boy bands as females, it’s very even to me.”

To a degree the figures bear her out. The top 40 best-selling albums in the UK last year were evenly split between female and male solo acts, each accounting for about 30 per cent of total sales (groups made up the rest). Women also appeared on more than half the 40 top-selling singles in 2012. But the gender ratio goes badly awry behind the scenes. Out of the 100,000 members of the Performing Rights Society, the UK representative body for songwriters and composers, only 13 per cent are women.

Perry bridles at the notion of being disadvantaged by her gender. Her big, declarative songs feature powerful emotions and strong statements of assertion: “Get the Party Started”, “What You Waiting For?” She insists she hasn’t suffered any prejudice working as a woman in the record industry, and, even if she had, “I would never have allowed it to be a problem.”

“You know what that video looks like to me?” Perry says of the video for “Blurred Lines”, shot by a woman, promo veteran Diane Martel. “A bunch of people having a good time, and being erotic and provocative. I don’t think anyone’s going to convince me that now in 2013 all of a sudden there’s this thing of men making women out to be whores or whatever, and women are standing by, like victims, appalled by this. That’s ridiculous! And you’re ridiculous for even buying into this bullshit!”

Much as one might admire Perry’s strength of vision and ability to thrive in a business controlled by men, her dismissal of the criticisms levelled at “Blurred Lines” is not entirely convincing. For Thicke’s hit reveals an insidious gender imbalance in the charts. On one side are prominent female stars projecting a powerful image of female independence – an independence often requiring the invisible role of male songwriters, producers and executives in helping realise it. Then there’s the flipside of men pronouncing that they know what women want: the lubricious atmosphere that we find in “Blurred Lines” and other recent videos, such as the promo for Justin Timberlake’s new single “Tunnel Vision” – which finds the singer, fully clothed, enunciating the Thickean refrain, “I know you like it, I know you like it,” as undressed women perform “sexy” dances.

A commonly cited source of Thicke and Timberlake’s sexism is hip-hop culture, which has a tradition of denigrating women every bit as ignoble as the hard rock scene satirised by Spinal Tap. Kanye West’s new album Yeezus is a recent example – praised as “brilliant” by Rolling Stone magazine and “wilful provocation” by the website Pitchfork, and filled with misogynist invective: an aggressively hyper-sexualised view of the world in which women are as disposable as West’s hastily composed rhymes.

But there’s another source for the attitudes projected by “Blurred Lines” that has received scant attention. Not only is the music industry male-dominated: so, too, is the market in which it pitches its wares.

According to the British Phonographic Industry’s 2013 yearbook, males are the principal consumers of music in the UK, responsible for 65 per cent of sales. The proportion rises to 70 per cent for digital music (technology in this respect seems to be enhancing, not erasing, the gender gap).

The music genre with the highest proportion of female listeners is easy listening at 43 per cent. Pop – which includes boy bands and the likes of Rihanna – has an almost 41 per cent female audience. The lowest ratio for women is jazz and blues with almost 26 per cent, then rock, which has a 29 per cent female demographic. There is no music genre in which men form the minority of listeners.

To gain a more detailed picture of listening habits, I asked the music streaming service Spotify if it could break down by gender the favourite music of its 20m active users last year. Rather than crunching 12 months of data, the boffins at Spotify’s analytics HQ in Sweden provided a snapshot, picking one day a month, and charted the top 10 most popular artists among Spotify’s approximately 5m US male and female users in each 24-hour period. (There were more male users of Spotify than female among the service’s US subscribers by a ratio of roughly 52:48.)

Some of the data are unsurprising. One Direction were the most popular band among female listeners on the picked day in December, by a proportion of 80 per cent. Meanwhile Eminem, on the equivalent day in August, was the most popular among male listeners (72 per cent). (Perhaps the boy band and the rapper should maximise their market penetration with a duet.)

More notable was the gender of the performers in each sex’s tables. Female Spotify users turn out to be far more open to listening to the opposite sex. There were on average five men each month in their top 10 favourite acts. Male Spotify users notched up a risible 0.3 per cent of female artists per month. Only four are among the 120 acts in their year’s worth of data: Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Ellie Goulding and Lana Del Rey. The rest, bar the odd group with a woman in it, is comprised of men, a single-sex ghetto of rappers, rockers, DJs and pop stars.

Caveats apply. The Spotify sample may be huge but it doesn’t encompass every variety of pop listener. Streaming songs isn’t the same as buying music. For the likes of Emeli Sandé and Adele to sell more albums than their male counterparts in a market dominated by male consumers shows there must be a degree of gender overlap in their respective audiences. But a huge imbalance remains – a dismal one in my view. Men aren’t prepared to listen to women in anything like the volume that women listen to men.

It might be thought that pop music, with its numerous female stars and compulsive erotic focus, would be a vehicle for men and women to communicate with each other; more so indeed than other art forms. Closer examination reveals a different picture. For all the strong female voices, the charts remain a fortress of male presumption, summed up by Robin Thicke’s oily croon of “I know you want it”. Alongside that lies wilful ignorance – men who don’t want to listen to the opposite sex, who really aren’t interested in learning what women want.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

Get alerts on Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article