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Pharrell Williams regrets ‘Blurred Lines’

The long-time producer has spoken up about his feature on the 2013 hit ‘Blurred Lines’, highlighting its problematic tendencies. Should we let artists become retrospectively remorseful about their own work?

If you left your house at any point at all in 2013 you’ll be familiar with Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke’s chart-topping hit that’s been the centre of turbulent headlines ever since its release for featuring misogynistic lyrics and breaching copyright laws.

The track included T.I and Pharrell Williams as vocalists, who both appear in the uncensored music video that’s somehow still available to watch on YouTube despite featuring naked women, men in suits, and dodgy lyrics that question sexual consent. Pharrell has never addressed any of its problematic associations until now – stating that he’s ‘embarrassed’ and would ‘never write a track like that anymore’.

Pharrell isn’t the first creator to either distance themselves from or alter work associated with them years on from its original release. JK Rowling has retrospectively added progressive values to Harry Potter’s lore, while Quentin Tarantino expressed regret at not speaking out on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct – but only when it became public.

Should we celebrate post-wokeness in artists that have already made a killing from their work, or be more critical of when and how creators speak out? It’s worth keeping in mind that Pharrell has waited a long time to mention any kind of regret, only speaking out when the revenue from ‘Blurred Lines’ has thoroughly dried up. Should we be asking for these kind of moral epiphanies far sooner?

What has Pharrell said about ‘Blurred Lines’?

Speaking in an interview for GQ, Pharrell reflects on his place in the industry and how he’s realigned his own values following the #MeToo aftermath, a frequent necessity for older artists who made their name in the nineties and noughties.

‘Some of my old songs I would never write or sing today’, he says. ‘I was born in an era that allowed a lot of things that wouldn’t fly today’. That’s a fair comment given the list of celebrities who’ve been convicted or accused of sexual assault, misconduct, or inappropriate behaviour this decade.

Pharrell clearly sees himself as part of the problem, or at least he was on some of his previous songs. ‘Blurred Lines really opened me up’, he explains. ‘We live in a chauvinist culture, hadn’t realised that. Didn’t realise that some of my songs catered to that’. The backlash surrounding the song triggered a moment of personal growth, forcing Pharrell to take a look at what his music stands for and alter his attitudes toward future projects.

Artists speaking up and pushing progressive social causes should be championed; Beyoncé has donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and publicly supported a variety of movements, dedicating her Super Bowl Performance to the Black Panthers. Halsey also frequently makes speeches at rallies, most recently performing a spoken-word piece at the 2018 Women’s March in New York City. Efforts like these should absolutely be celebrated.

Are Pharrell’s interview comments an example of ‘performative wokeness’?

However, some attempts to contribute to ‘woke’ culture as it becomes a cultural norm  can feel a little disingenuous, as if public figures are merely adapting to circumstance. J.K. Rowling, for example, added intricacies to the Harry Potter lore – such as Jewish and LGBTQ+ students – years after finishing the books and films. Obviously confirming an all-inclusive school in a fictional universe for children is a good thing, but I don’t think it’s fair to give J.K. Rowling credit for being ‘woke’ when the diversity of Hogwarts was never mentioned in the source material. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Similarly, while Pharrell’s revelations about the industry are great, it also seems like he’s waited a long time to speak up. It’s been six years since ‘Blurred Lines’ released. In some ways, this new GQ interview feels like Pharrell’s waited for the right moment in his career to say something, at a time when it most suits him.

If he really did realise all of these things about chauvinistic attitudes after the song’s release, why didn’t he speak up sooner? Robin Thicke is no longer topping the charts, ‘Blurred Lines’ has faded from zeitgeist, and speaking now presents a minimal amount of backlash.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Pharrell is older than he looks. At 46, he’s been in the industry a long time, and knows the ins and outs of the music biz like no other. To say that he had no idea his previous material would be problematic is a stretch, in my opinion. Growth is encouraged and I applaud it, but there is an air of tactical thinking about how and when Pharrell chose to raise his voice.

I’m not the only one who’s felt this, too – check out this video on the subject by YouTube reviewer Anthony Fantano.

Welcoming progressive growth in music

With that being said, it’s great to see Pharrell at least acknowledge and address the problems that are associated with ‘Blurred Lines’. Whether it’s genuinely sincere or performative, the fact that such a big name in the industry is taking an active role in the conversation surrounding gender, identity, and class helps to normalise an issue that’s still prevalent in the music industry.

I also doubt that ‘Blurred Lines’ would find as much success if it was released today. We’ve made big leaps toward publicising the sexist hierarchy of the entertainment industry in the years since. Of course, there’s still much to do, and plenty of hurdles to overcome, but Pharrell’s change of heart is a reflection of the shifting times.

We should support artists that are retrospective about their work, but we also shouldn’t forget that they did contribute to the problem on a widespread scale for a long time. ‘Post-woke’ is a phenomena we’re seeing increasingly as older creators catch up with Gen Z attitudes, and we should be wary of giving them too much credit. Growth is great and pushing these issues to the forefront of entertainment is important – but Pharrell did also willingly perform and record a song that’s literally about ‘domesticating women’ at the age of 40. That’s something worth remembering.