Those are just a few of the (tamer) ways that Robin Thicke’s new album, Paula, out Tuesday, has been described by critics, bloggers, people who think it’s just plain weird that the singer rush-recorded a whole album aimed at winning back his estranged wife, actress Paula Patton. But is it?
“Being [perceived as] a one-hit wonder is one thing and the usual follow-up is that nobody cares, not that everybody thinks you’re a jackass,” said Alan Light, who’s the author of the upcoming book “Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain.”
Thicke’s effort, a stripped-down, soulful meditation on love lost, regret and a yearning to have Patton back, is a brazen, old-school soul-sounding album that, yes, lacks the heat of a “Blurred Lines,” but Light, former Spin and Vibe editor in chief, wondered why it’s been met with so much bile.
“Often the backlash after someone has a big hit is that people are tired of them or they’re overexposed, but it’s not about them as a human being, which seems to be what this is,” he said of the very personal venom aimed at Thicke’s effort to patch his broken marriage.
“Think about Marvin Gaye’s record [1978’s Here, My Dear, about the bitter dissolution of his marriage] or [Eric Clapton’s] ’Layla’ [about the guitarist’s love for friend George Harrison’s then-wife],” Light continued. “In this media environment, what the hell would people have made of something like that? Can you see Eric Clapton going into this project to win over his friend’s wife? I can imagine the TMZ headline, ’Pervy Slowhand.’ ”
Or consider Usher’s smash 2004 album Confessions, which chronicled his trials in love, or 2010’s Raymond V. Raymond, about the end of his marriage. Ush spilled his heart, but why was he not met with the same blowback? In part because Confessions had major hit singles, but also because he wasn’t coming off a massive smash like “Lines,” whose video and lyrical content had already branded Thicke as creepy in some critics’ and fans’ minds.
“Plenty of people were ready to attack because there were mixed emotions churned up by the phenomenon of that record,” Light said of “Lines.” Is it possible that people are mixing up the persona and the person, foisting their own feelings about Thicke onto his music in ways the artist didn’t intend?
“It doesn’t change anything,” said Mic News Senior Editor Elizabeth Plank, who studied behavior science and social policy at the London School of Economics and tweets as @feministabulous about the album’s content and intention. “To me this [album] is like stalking on crack. I don’t know what [Patton] thinks. I don’t know if she gave her approval, but there’s clearly no willingness to engage in his campaign. It sends a really weird message about what you’re supposed to do when you’re broken up with, especially when you watch how public this breakup was.”
Given the controversies over the “Lines” video and Thicke’s recent admission that he was “selfish” in his marriage, Plank said the album feels like a “weird” way to get Patton back. “It’s self-serving. He’s making money off of it and it’s to get him a higher profile but she’s the name behind the whole thing.”
Plank was particularly turned off by the video for the first Paula single, “Get Her Back,” which shows a bruised and battered Thicke crooning amid a series of texts in which his ex is clearly saying she isn’t interested and still hurt over his betrayal.
“Most of the songs [on the album] are about love and heartbreak and that’s fine,” she said. “But the video shows she’s clearly unwilling to engage with him and he’s not understanding that no means no. When it says ’this is just the beginning’? I would be so creeped out if I got that text from an ex-boyfriend. I would call all my girlfriends and say, ’I don’t know what to do.’ It’s borderline obsessive.”
At best, both Plank and Light said the concept behind the album, the roll-out of the single and video and the apology tour that Thicke has been on are kind of ill-conceived and maybe poorly thought-out.
Though we live in a share-everything-all-the-time social media age, Light said it’s possible that Thicke’s sincere, personal statement is just being misconstrued. “We’re not used to that,” he said of the naked confessional vibe of Paula. “We don’t see a lot of that in music people are doing now. … When people said [the lyrics of] ’Blurred Lines’ seemed to border on being pro-rape, he said they were not to be taken seriously or literally. And now he comes back with this, which is meant to be taken seriously. He’s trying to play both sides.”
Leaving behind the merits of whether the album is good or not, Light said he felt Thicke is getting a bit of a raw deal. “He should be allowed to do stuff like this in his music without people immediately dismissing it as, ’Oh, that guy’s a creepy stalker,'” he said. The bottom line, though, is that if “Get Her Back” (or any of the other tracks on the album) had the same punch and hit-making potential as “Blurred Lines” we might not be having this conversation.
“When quality is up, forgiveness is up, when it’s down, people bring up other stuff,” Light said of the power of a hit. Plank agreed, adding, “Before he was happy, jazzy with Pharrell and T.I. and now he’s alone and it makes me sad … It makes me pity him. Maybe they’re trying to go for the creepy ex-boyfriend vibe and see if it jives, but I hope they learn that women and men are not into that.”
Even Thicke isn’t sure. “I actually have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants on this one,” he said on ’Good Morning America.’ “I just wanted to make something artistic out of a very difficult period. When you lose the love of your life, you don’t have much to hide anymore… She’s the best person I ever met, so I thought the least I could do would be to devote an album to her.”