“Blurred Lines” wasn’t supposed to be a meaningful song. It was, by design, a trifle: Pharrell, in imperial-superstar mode, goofing off with the white soul singer and textbook sex idiot Robin Thicke and tossing in a tongue-twisting T.I. verse later for good measure. It’s safe to assume that no one involved in the making of “Blurred Lines” assumed anything legacy-defining was happening in the room where Pharrell wrote the lines “I feel so lucky/You want to hug me/What rhymes with hug me?”
Now, 10 years since its March 2013 release, “Blurred Lines” is a poisonous time capsule. In many ways, all of them unfortunate, it could be considered the song of the 2010s. Pick any disheartening pop-cultural trend of the past decade and chances are it applies to “Blurred Lines”: The hollow outrage cycle in news, increasingly reliant on hot takes tossed out with superhuman speed, often without a speck of human logic? The predatory power dynamics of the entertainment industry, and American society’s ongoing dismissal of consent? The increasingly litigious pop landscape, in which lawyers and music publishers fight for scraps, and every pop song feels safely Xeroxed from the last one? Every decade gets the songs it needs and the songs it deserves.
It is worth remembering that when “Blurred Lines” first came out, people manifestly did not hate it. In fact, Robin Thicke was considered something of an underdog. This was an absurd designation for the large adult son of a sitcom dad, whose career was launched because jazz legend Al Jarreau financed the recording of his demo and passed it along to R&B superstar Brian McKnight. But for a brief time—starting around 2006, when Lil Wayne remade Thicke’s track “Oh Shooter” for his universally acclaimed Tha Carter II—Thicke became a minor cause celebre within the music industry. Busta Rhymes sought him out; Pharrell signed him to his Star Trak label. Between 2006 and 2013, he released five studio albums, each of which performed respectably—The Evolution of Robin Thicke, his first record for Star Trak, eventually cracked platinum. There was a lane for a guy like him: He was a second-string Timberlake, the blue-eyed soul man whose music could smoothly make the leap onto Black radio formats at a time when radio formats still defined career arcs.
When the Diane Martel-directed video for “Blurred Lines” made its debut on March 20, 2013, it was greeted mostly with praise. SPIN called it “another fun slice of throwback soul from the perpetually underrated Thicke” and gave a fond blow-by-blow of the video’s “many, many great moments.” Multiple publications approvingly noted what they called a sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” At this point, the narrative around “Blurred Lines” was framed as a labor-of-love for all involved. For one brief and improbable moment, “Blurred Lines” was a feel-good story.
The song’s first controversy was entirely by design—a week after the video debuted, the “Blurred Lines” team uploaded an “unrated” version to YouTube. As with the original, the unrated cut featured Pharrell, T.I., and Robin Thicke doing silly dances against a blank background, grimacing and mugging at three supermodels as they pranced past. But this time, all three models—Emily Ratajkowski, Elle Evans, and Jessi M’Bengue—were topless, an obvious violation of YouTube’s community standards. The “Blurred Lines” team was clearly hoping the clip would get banned, and it did: The ensuing publicity helped push the song further up the charts.
As “Blurred Lines” became more popular, some opening shots were fired. In a Vice piece, the writer Bertie Brandes asserted that the video was “misogynist bullshit” and argued that it made Robin Thicke “look like a predator,” tailing nude women in black aviators and haggard-looking stubble. But very few other mainstream publications noted any objections as the song’s slow burn gave way to a sizzle in June 2013. “Congratulations to Robin Thicke,” trumpeted Vulture, “who just earned his first-ever Billboard No. 1 with ‘Blurred Lines,’ and congratulations to America for having killer taste in potential songs of the summer. Everyone do the T.I-with-a-hairbrush dance. You’ve earned it.”
There is a certain kind of ubiquity that arrives as a curse, that corrodes any and all goodwill that your success might have generated. If “Blurred Lines” had dropped out of the Top 10 a few weeks later, to be replaced by some other Song of the Summer, Thicke might still be making rounds on the nostalgia circuit today. In this alternate universe, it is probable—even likely—that the Marvin Gaye estate would never have seen fit to enter into litigation. But, rather infamously, that’s not what happened. Instead, “Blurred Lines” stayed at No. 1 for a numbing, dispiriting 12 weeks.
By any objective measure, three entire months is an absurdly long stretch of time to command the pop charts. Songs that exert this kind of stranglehold on the public imagination always wear out their welcome, but there is a special kind of vitriol reserved for the ones that are upbeat, peppy, or salacious. If Mariah Carey’s soaring breakup ballad “We Belong Together,” a song that spent 14 weeks at the top spot in 2005, came on while you were waiting in line for coffee, you might not wince. But imagine your reaction to Flo Rida’s “Low” (10 weeks in 2008) or the Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” (14 weeks, 2009) playing over those same coffee-shop speakers. Things curdle when left under a spotlight for that long.
A month after the song hit No. 1, The Daily Beast published a piece titled “‘Blurred Lines,’ Robin Thicke’s Song of the Summer, Is Kind of Rapey.” The writer, Tricia Romano, noted how the phrase “I know you want it,” particularly when paired with a video in which fully clothed male performers leer at naked women who parade wordlessly in front of them, summoned some dark ideas about what sexual consent looked and sounded like. The music critic Maura Johnston, one of Romano’s sources, pointed out that Thicke’s squeaky-clean image—he’d been married to actress Paula Patton for years and wasn’t known in public circles for womanizing—took some of the unsavory edge off of the song. Still, something about the knifelike sound of the word “rapey” sliced through the discourse. Once the idea had been voiced, it was hard to hear the song, or watch the video, in quite the same way.
In response, Robin Thicke went to multiple outlets to douse the flames of controversy—with a gasoline can. “What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman,” he mused sardonically to GQ. “I’ve never gotten to do that before.” (He complained afterwards that the reporter had failed to note his sarcasm and adoption of a Ron Burgundy voice, as if this provided ample mitigating context.) Later, he rationalized that the video was “the director’s idea, and she’s a woman,” adding, “let’s not forget, everybody—[the models] got paid handsomely to take their clothes off.” He came off less like a harmless, square-jawed himbo and more like the asshole in a popped collar at the end of the bar. In turn, “Blurred Lines” didn’t sound like such a good time anymore.
If Miley Cyrus had not wiggled her way into Robin Thicke’s orbit, the story might have ended there. But as “Blurred Lines” climbed the charts, the former Disney Channel star was undergoing a pop metamorphosis of her own. Looking to shed her Mickey ears, Cyrus began flashing more skin, and those images were then fed into the thresher of SEO headlines and emerged as an inventory of body parts: “underbutt, “crotch,” “sideboob,” “spectacular ass.” She also began donning cornrows, flashed a gold grill at a Myspace event, declared her love of “hood music,” and claimed Lil’ Kim as spiritual kin.
Just as “Blurred Lines” hit No. 1, Cyrus released “We Can’t Stop,” the first single from her album Bangerz. The Atlanta producer Mike WiLL Made-It gave the track to Cyrus after Rihanna passed on it, and Cyrus asked the songwriting duo Timothy and Theron Thomas to give her “something that just feels Black.” The lyrics shouted out the “homegirls with the big butts, shaking it like we at a strip club” while in the video—also directed by Diane Martel—Cyrus twerked in the company of Black female backup dancers. Black cultural outlets decried her behavior, with the Root labeling her “the poster child for cultural appropriation,” and placing “We Can’t Stop” in a long lineage of privileged white pop stars turning to Black culture for superficial “edge.” But mainstream media ignored the angle almost entirely.
Cyrus and Thicke represented two halves of an uncomfortable conversation about predation and agency. Both stories were about objectification from different angles. For Cyrus, the Bangerz album cycle was about both her own objectification at the hands of the media and the kind she practiced on the Black women whose bodies she used as props. The “Blurred Lines” video, with its men in elegant dinner attire standing behind prancing naked ladies, represented a vision of the male gaze that even WWII-era grandfathers could recognize. They were both playing with different kinds of fire, and although neither of them yet knew it, their destinies were on track to collide. By the beginning of August 2013, the same month as the MTV VMAs, “We Can’t Stop” was the No. 2 song in America—held off only by “Blurred Lines.”
Absurdly, Thicke might have initially seen a VMAs collaboration with Cyrus as a chance to dial down the criticism that had built up around his song. By giving the “you know you want it” lyrics to a female duet partner, he could shift some of the conception of him as the predatory male lurker. It’s a time-tested move, dating back to the era of screwball comedy: give the woman the role of the aggressor to put off charges of chauvinism. Time and time again during the various “Blurred Lines” controversies, he had trotted out the example of his then-wife, Paula Patton, saying it was a song for her. “She’s my good girl,” he said. “And I know she wants it, because we’ve been together 20 years.” Again, in another timeline—or more crucially, with a star less unpredictable than Cyrus in 2013—this strategy might even have worked. But, once more, that is not what happened. Instead, Miley Cyrus came out on the VMAs stage before Robin Thicke and simulated analingus on a Black woman in a bear costume.
The three minutes and six seconds of Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” performance at the VMAs was one of those mesmerizing public messes we rarely experience together anymore. From the moment she emerged—from the chest of a Kanye-style space bear—she exuded a riveting and unruly energy that was as much “Jim Carrey in The Grinch” as it was “out-of-control sexpot,” thrashing and twerking and grinding on the set like an overtired toddler, as the camera operators collected immortal reaction shots. As she had in the “We Can’t Stop” video, she surrounded herself with Black backup dancers whose only job was to provide contrast to Cyrus, towards whom she gestured with proprietary glee. And then Robin Thicke joined her onstage for “Blurred Lines.”
Together, Cyrus and Thicke stirred up the kind of shit-storm that neither could have accomplished on their own. For one shutter-clicked eternity, a white man’s predatory leering at all women met up with a white woman’s opportunistic leering at Black women, and they combined to make an infernal beast with two backs, a “We Can’t Stop”-able force meeting an immovable, Beetlejuice-suited object.
The moment, of course, that all the chatter circulated around was when Cyrus, wearing the foam finger from the “Blurred Lines” video, bent over in front of Thicke, twerking and rubbing the floppy digit on her crotch. There was a tiny grin on Thicke’s face, who was clearly enjoying the moment, but not nearly as much as the crowd, who screamed in response to Cyrus’s ass-shaking as if witnessing the moonwalk for the first time.
To much of white America in 2013, twerking was apparently as scandalous as the twist had been to parents in the 1960s. Conservative outlets fumed, naturally, but even some of Cyrus’ pop-star colleagues came gunning for her: “I twerk all the time like a mofo,” Pink told reporters. “[But] there’s a place for that, and it’s not on stage.” (A 67-year-old Cher registered her own objections: “I’ve seen other girls do it better.”)
It’s nearly impossible to imagine this level of celebrity pearl-clutching today, when twerking is an accepted part of mainstream culture, but Cyrus caused a sensation that set new records for audience engagement in the social-media age. “What is twerking” was Google’s top query for 2013, while Twitter users sent out a record-breaking 306,100 tweets per minute during Cyrus’ VMAs performance. (Gloating, Cyrus tweeted the statistics herself.) This was a growing sign of Twitter’s rising power in shaping pop cultural narratives in real time. Going forward, the Twitter reaction would be part of the news story itself.
Cyrus’ performance marked another significant development: In a vanishingly rare confluence, multiple mainstream media outlets went on record to accuse her of cultural appropriation. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica called the VMAs “a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture,” singling out Cyrus’ performance. New York’s Jody Rosen deemed the performance “a minstrel show.” Writing in Slate, Tressie McMillan Cottom expanded on this parallel and examined the ignominious record of “historical caricatures of black women.” “Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her,” Cottom noted. “She had particularly rotund black women,” a choice that “[played] a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself, while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact.”
It was the kind of nuanced sociopolitical critique that rarely found this much oxygen in major news outlets, and it clearly took Cyrus and her team off-guard. Tellingly, while Cyrus showed up in interviews armed with snappy retorts to claims she’d over-sexualized herself (“If I really wanted to come out and do a raunchy sex show, I wouldn’t have been dressed as a damn bear”), she found herself completely tongue-tied when trying to grapple with charges of racism: “You’re thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it,” she protested. Like Thicke, she had come confidently prepared to deal with one kind of backlash only to find herself blindsided by another.
Despite all of this, the VMAs backlash was just a pothole on the road to world domination for Cyrus, America’s most-Googled human of 2013. Immediately after the event, she released her next hit single, “Wrecking Ball,” with the infamous mallet-licking video debuting two weeks later. But for Thicke, the VMAs were purely a debacle. Afterward, he crossed some mystical Rubicon in pop culture. Both he and his hit song were officially toxic.
After weeks of national conversation about the sexual power dynamics of “Blurred Lines,” including radio bans and protests from sexual-abuse survivors, the situation effectively collapsed when a photo emerged of Thicke from an afterparty with his hand resting comfortably on the ass of a young blond woman. Not long afterward, his wife Paula Patton filed for divorce. Desperate, Thicke began projecting Patton’s image behind him during concerts and assuring audiences he was going to “get [his] girl back.” Things only grew bleaker from there: In 2017, Patton accused Thicke of domestic abuse, and Thicke temporarily lost custody of his son. In a metaphor too neat to invent, “Wrecking Ball” swung into the No. 1 spot just as Thicke started his long spiral downward.
It might have seemed, at least initially, that the only one to emerge from “Blurred Lines” smelling like roses was Pharrell Williams, despite the fact that he wrote its controversial lyrics. The song’s sleaziness didn’t seem to rub off on him. Maybe it was his dimples, or his impishly youthful demeanor. He seemed, initially, free to resume his charmed trajectory. But nobody who came into contact with “Blurred Lines” escaped unscathed, and the song would soon come for Pharrell, too.
Talking about the inspiration behind “Blurred Lines” in the same GQ interview where he mused about the pleasure of degrading women, Thicke said the following: “Pharrell and I were in the studio, and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up.’ I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’ Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half hour and recorded it.”
As far as smoking guns go, it’s hard to imagine an admission more hilariously incriminating. The Marvin Gaye Estate certainly thought so, which is why they made this quote a cornerstone of their lawsuit, which they officially filed at the end of 2013. Except, as the ensuing depositions of both Thicke and Williams confirmed, Thicke’s statement to GQ was a lie—he wasn’t in the room when Williams wrote the words, groove, and melody of “Blurred Lines.” He was high on Vicodin and alcohol, and had virtually nothing to do with the song’s creation.
The dimensions of the court case against “Blurred Lines” are so varied that an entire streaming miniseries could be made about the story, including dramatic cross-cuts between Thicke and Williams’ depositions. One detail often lost to time is that they more or less invited the lawsuit to come crashing down on their heads by preemptively suing the Marvin Gaye Estate. When people began commenting on the similarities between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up,” Thicke and Williams’ legal team filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that “there are no similarities between the plaintiffs’ composition and those the claimants allege they own other than commonplace musical elements.”
It was an aggressive move, a classic “best defense is a good offense” gambit meant to intimidate the Gaye family into either foregoing litigation entirely or settling quickly. But no. As the song barreled its way through successive cultural referendums—sexual consent, slut-shaming, minstrelsy, and now, incredibly, the nature of creativity itself—it began to seem like a dark star sent to burn its way through every contentious issue in American culture. But at each point, there was an act of hubris—either from Williams or from Thicke—that pushed “Blurred Lines” back out into the limelight, where it could absorb more punishment.
With their preemptive lawsuit, Williams’ lawyers were acting out of supreme confidence that their case was rock-solid. And, on paper, it was. The Williams/Thicke team would go on to painstakingly demonstrate in court that while the two compositions shared common elements—a groove on electric piano, syncopated bass, accents on a cowbell—the notes and rhythms themselves were different, and the two compositions weren’t even in the same key.
And yet anyone with ears could hear that they were at least in conversation. Remember: The similarities were so obvious that many early outlets erroneously reported that “Blurred Lines” contained a sample of the song. Even if Thicke had spun his Marvin Gaye quote out of thin air, the fact that he groped for Gaye’s name in general, and “Got to Give It Up” in particular, was evidence enough that Marvin Gaye’s spirit was in the room, even if Thicke was not. During the studio sessions, Williams added in all sorts of background noises and soft yelps, which made the lizard-brain comparison even more inevitable.
Williams and Thicke kept attempting to strong-arm the Gaye Estate, which, in turn, resisted—a judge dismissed Williams’ attempt to get a summary judgment, and then the Gaye Estate rejected a lowball six-figure settlement. Things were complicated further by the fact that both songs shared a publisher, and the Gaye family felt bullied by EMI into dropping the suit. In response, the Gaye Estate launched their suit, which alleged “blatant copying” of “a constellation of distinctive and significant compositional elements,” and the battle lines were drawn.
When a jury found Williams and Thicke guilty of copyright infringement and ordered them to pay the Gaye family a staggering $7.3 million in damages in March 2015, a shocked Williams and his team vowed to appeal, stating that the verdict “sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward.” Indeed, the implications of a “Blurred Lines” loss was frightening enough to spur an amicus brief that included John Oates, Hans Zimmer, and Rivers Cuomo among its 200 signatories. “By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process,” read the brief. It was not enough. The appeals court ruled again in favor of the Gaye Estate, and Williams and Thicke were ordered to pay $5.3 million in damages in July 2015.
The fallout from the decision was incalculable. By demonstrating the value of a high-profile lawsuit against a massive pop song, the “Blurred Lines” case helped underline the potential financial upside to owning catalogs like Gaye’s. If the stampede of venture capitalists competing to snap up beloved artist catalogs—from Otis Redding to James Brown to Smokey Robinson—proceeded from a specific assumption, it’s that whoever owns the assets gets to demand payment.
Now, when pop songs are recorded, they routinely pass through a forensic musicological analysis for any possible similarities to other songs, old or new, often with preemptive songwriter credits handed out as a result. A much more common practice, seen everywhere from hits by Nicki Minaj to Saweetie to Bebe Rexha and Jack Harlow, is to sample a large chunk of a beloved song wholesale, which ensures bigger checks to publishers and downplays the threat of litigation.
Despite losing the court case, Pharrell has won comfortably in the court of public opinion. Ironically, the plagiarism accusations strengthened his reputation as a creative voice, rather than weakened it. He was cast as the martyr, a voice of reason and a representative for creative freedom. “You can’t copyright a feeling,” Pharrell protested memorably during the suit, and it was easy to sympathize with him, the guardian of vibes against the grubby hands of the lawyers. But it’s worth recalling that if Williams and Thicke’s lawyers had preemptively granted a small piece of the publishing royalties to the Gaye Estate along with an interpolation credit in the liner notes, the legal fiasco would likely have been avoided.
Williams also expressed regret for the “Blurred Lines” lyrics, telling GQ in 2019, “Some of my old songs, I would never write or sing today. I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn’t matter that that’s not my behavior. Or the way I think about things. It just matters how it affects women.” He went on to assert, with perhaps a touch too much wide-eyed naivete: “I realized that we live in a chauvinist culture in our country. I hadn’t realized that. Didn’t realize that some of my songs catered to that. So that blew my mind.” And yet, almost no one called him out. In a feat of near-magical PR, Pharrell managed to skirt responsibility for the song’s effect on the creative landscape and for its problematic message, despite being the person who is arguably most responsible for both.
As the years have worn on and “Blurred Lines” fades into the rearview, the song has come to seem more repellent, not less. In 2013, intersectional and/or feminist critiques of pop songs were hard to find in mainstream media. American pop culture as a whole was inherently frattier: On the pop charts, two strains of music defined by the prefix “bro”—“bro-country” and “bro-step”—had just sprung to life. R-rated Judd Apatow comedies ruled at the multiplex, even as Katherine Heigl, the co-star of the director’s $220 million-grossing 2007 film Knocked Up, faced career exile for noting, correctly, that the message of the film was a little “sexist.” Female celebrities who found their privacy violated by upskirt paparazzi photos were still expected to go onto morning news shows to “apologize.”
In this environment, the voices that rang out against “Blurred Lines” were lonely ones. There was little in the way of evidence, at that point, to prove the song’s wrongness, which is how people resorted to suggestive, rather than concrete, terms—sketchy, skeevy. Rapey. And yet, in the ensuing decade, even more damning revelations related to the song emerged.
Throughout the “Blurred Lines” fiasco, T.I. seemed like a bystander, a guest rapper who was just there to do a silly hairbrush dance and skate past. And yet, in 2021, he and his wife, Tiny, were accused of drugging and sexually assaulting a number of women. Emily Ratajkowski—who at the time of the video’s release, gave interviews about how her bored, disdainful performance in the video turned the song’s supposed misogyny on its head—revealed in her 2021 memoir that at one point during the shoot, Thicke clapped his hands over her bare breasts without consent. (The video’s director, Diane Martel, corroborated the memory.)
Looming over all of these bleak sexual power dynamics, of course, was the man that people still referred to in 2013 as “Uncle Terry.” The “Blurred Lines” video, as directed by Martel, was a Terry Richardson homage in everything but name, from its antiseptic blank backdrop to its lascivious gaze and the balloons spelling out “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK.” “It was Diane Martel’s idea,” Thicke said. “She told me, ‘I have this idea to do like a Terry Richardson kind of a video, a shoot with the girls being naked.’” Richardson was often cited as one of the inspirations behind the “We Can’t Stop” video, which was also directed by Martel. Richardson himself directed the “Wrecking Ball” video, in which Cyrus appeared nude. At the time of the “Blurred Lines” video, allegations of sexual assault against Terry Richardson were at least three years old. It would take another five years for the allegations against Richardson to work their way to the forefront of the culture and render him unhirable.
It was these sorts of power structures upon which “Blurred Lines” perched. The song was a fissure crack, revealing rot all the way down to the foundations: The shadowy nature of sexual misconduct in the workplace, the difficulty in reporting it, the power structures actively suppressing it, and its normalization in the entertainment industry. It raised the question: If this “fun” song, the catchy ditty that we couldn’t get out of our heads, could conceal such vast reserves of sulfurous darkness—what else were we missing? A decade on, we’re still sorting out the answers.