There is, perhaps, no more reliable generator of schadenfreude in pop music right now than Robin Thicke. In the past year, he’s gone from a chart-topping artist to a public laughingstock: There was the controversy over whether “Blurred Lines” was a come-on or a date-rape anthem. There was the choice to present his referee-stripe-clad crotch as the beneficiary of Miley’s twerking prowess at the 2013 VMAs. There was the photo of Thicke grabbing a fan’s ass at the after-party. And finally, there was the very public divorce from his wife of twenty years, Paula Patton, and his decision to not only pepper all subsequent live shows with public declarations that he would “get his girl back,” but to release an entire album about said attempts at back-getting, entitled (predictably enough) Paula.
All of this behavior has accumulated, over time, to spoil what little affection the listening public had for Thicke. By now, he belongs firmly to the tradition of the celebrity trainwreck: The star who is famous by virtue of being infamous, who’s kept in the public eye largely because we enjoy complaining about the fact that he’s still around. Yet the most fascinating thing about Thicke’s downfall may not be its details, but how our hatred of him flips the usual gender script of celebrity downfall.
But first, let’s recap a few of those details. Last week, seemingly everyone on my social media feeds was delightedly relaying the information that Paula had only sold 530 copies in the UK. Before that, his #AskThicke hashtag turned into a massive, and widely covered, public drubbing. On its release date, the songs on Paula were scoured for their most embarrassing lines, which were promptly snipped out and re-posted online to save readers the trouble of listening to the record. Not that taking Thicke out of context was unusual, by that point: Even before those lyrics hit, feminist bloggers were confidently posting detailed, damning analyses of Paula’s stalkeresque content — “She’s his fantasy. He needs to get her back. He’ll isolate her, maybe refuse to let her leave. He’ll lock the door. He’ll do whatever he wants” — based on the track list alone, without having heard the actual songs.
The public vilification of Thicke can sometimes get so heated as to be illogical: During the furor over the video for “Get Her Back,” I heard several people claim that the text messages shown on screen were actually sent to Thicke by Patton, which made about as much sense as claiming that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West actually had sex on a flying motorcycle. Similarly, though Thicke is hardly the first musician to write a break-up album about a clearly identifiable subject — Taylor Swift’s exes are typically named within a few days of an album’s release; no-one believed that Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was about anyone other than his first wife Sara; several reviews of Paula have mentioned Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, a break-up album released as revenge for the fact that Gaye’s ex-wife was entitled to 50% of the royalties from his first post-break-up album — he is, perhaps, the first musician whose work has been called “psychologically abusive” due to the fact that we know who he’s singing about. Granted, naming the record after her was gross, but if he’d called it, say, Sad Times With Robin Thicke, would that actually make it harder to identify the woman in the songs?
Yet Thicke-hatred is not unfounded. Those pre-emptive condemnations of Paula were often wrong about its content, but right about its tone: “Lock the Door,” for example, turns out to be about getting locked out, not locking someone else in, but the image of a recently dumped Thicke camped outside your front door, demanding to be let in, still ought to inspire some vivid nightmares. And that’s before he turns the whole thing into an allegory about begging for (I think) anal sex — “at least open the doggy door! All I need is a little hole!” — which transforms the whole thing into an entirely new sort of horror show.
Though it’s entirely possible to subject one’s unease with Thicke to detailed analysis, it may actually be more truthful and effective to say that he’s simply creepy: That he’s got a bad vibe, that his subtext reads all wrong, that there’s just something not-quite-safe about the guy. Even in his more “romantic” mode, Thicke’s idea of sex is pretty grody; it has a lot to do with frilly lingerie and “treating you right” and, just often enough to seem unintentionally revealing, with women’s feet, which he nuzzled in the “Blurred Lines” video and devotes not one, but two paeans to on Paula. (“I should have brought you roses / Good ’n’ Plenty / And rubbed your toesies,” he sings, on “Too Little Too Late,” before diving into the next track, “Tippy Toes,” which hinges its chorus on a description of a dancing woman that never mentions anything above her ankles.)
He’s one of the few pop stars you can easily imagine buying a crate of flavored body oils, or offering to treat you to a bubble bath followed by a “sensual massage;” his loverman act is so over-the-top and oddly dated that he teeters perpetually on the verge of becoming Tommy Wiseau in The Room, sprinkling rose petals on his girlfriend’s breasts while his fish-belly-white ass grinds horrifically away. Now that Thicke has entered his “TEARING ME APART, PAULAAAAA” phase, our visceral discomfort — the fact that Paula reads as invasive and manipulative, where other, equally explicit break-up albums sound honest or sad — says as much as anything else about Thicke’s lack of self-awareness or appropriate boundaries, his propensity to scare women while trying to win them over.
The fact that these reactions are intuitive rather than strictly logical doesn’t invalidate them. In most real-world situations, it’s far safer to acknowledge being creeped-out and get away from the creeper than it is to sit there, within his reach, trying to figure out why he makes you so uncomfortable. Yet, crucially, Thicke’s critics aren’t avoiding him. We’re seeking him out, actively keeping track of his life so as to scorn him more effectively. (Name one other artist whose first-week UK sales figures you can quote off the top of your head.) Even for people who don’t listen to his music, he’s a reliable source of entertainment, because it’s fun to see him suffer. Which is where this whole thing starts to get interesting.
In our current moment — post-Britney, post-Lohan, ten years after Perez Hilton began blogging — we’re all smart enough to know how the celebrity-meltdown sausage gets made. We know, as it were, the conventions of the genre. The ideal candidate is female, and preferably very young; she should begin with a squeaky-clean image that can be subsequently tarnished with sex, or drugs, or both. It helps if she’s got an illness: Psychotic breaks are always big business, but eating disorders and drug addictions are also in high demand. She should be wounded in a way that we can cast as pathetic: Crying on-stage about the death of a pet, like Miley, or in the midst of a “downward spiral” due to a break-up, as Jennifer Aniston reportedly has been for the past ten years. But, ideally, her public vulnerability makes her dangerous to the public: A few hit-and-runs or car wrecks, a la Bynes and Lohan, or a reputation for irresponsible parenting or “difficult behavior,” in the Britney mode, adds spice to our dislike, and keeps it all from seeming too unfair.
It’s not impossible for a man to make the list, but it is rare. For men, we usually require an actual record of violent behavior (Mel Gibson, Chris Brown) or at least repeated allegations of violence (Michael Jackson) before we crack down. The trainwreck’s essential qualities — her over-emotionality, her fragility, her capacity to be corrupted by sex and success — are typically coded feminine. Yet Thicke has them all: Pathetically wounded, his “clean” (married, romantic) image tarnished by “dirty” rumors of infidelity, more than a little deluded and dangerous in his insistence that “no” always means “maybe,” that the lines between him and the women he wants are always “blurred” no matter how clear and firm they seem to anyone else, he’s perfectly suited for the Celebrity Meltdown slot we usually reserve for women. We hate Thicke the way we hate girls: Based on vibe, on rumor, on what he feels and whether we want him to feel it. Thicke may go down in history as the first man ever to be stereotyped as a crazy ex-girlfriend.
Our hatred for Robin Thicke may not be fair, or even fact-based, but it is a case of turnabout-as-fair-play: Women are the ones who’ve been stereotyped as “hysterical,” prone to overreact to things, the people who get dangerous when they’re dumped. (Think about any movie in the Swimfan/Obsessed/Fatal Attraction genre, or Morello on Orange is the New Black, convinced of a man’s love for her and willing to kill for him after a single date.) Yet, overwhelmingly, it’s men who stalk their former partners, men who kill women for rejecting them. It’s men who form online anti-woman hate groups and publish manuals about tricking women into sex by treating them badly; it’s men who go on killing sprees designed to punish women for not putting out. Thicke’s been made to carry our anger at every man who can’t take “no” for an answer, who thinks he can win us over with baby talk and foot massages when we’re afraid for our lives. We don’t know whether Paula Patton feels unsafe because of Paula — we can’t know that until she makes a public statement on the matter, which she’s refused to do — but we do know that Robin Thicke looks more like a “crazy ex” than Jennifer Aniston ever did, or could. The rush to vilify and pile on Thicke is cruel — celebrity-trainwreck narratives always are — but it’s also a sign that we’re willing to be a bit more fair, or at least equitable, in where we direct our scorn.
Photo by Kate Ter Haar, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license