Last year, Robin Thicke was riding high on the success of his summer smash, “Blurred Lines,” when his personal life fell apart. Shortly after Thicke’s 2013 MTV Video Music Awards appearance—in which Miley Cyrus ground her butt on his referee-striped crotch, and a fan snapped a backstage photo of him surreptitiously grabbing a woman’s ass—Thicke and wife Paula Patton announced their separation, and he’s spent the ensuing months airing public mea culpas in a bid to regain her affections. Thicke has pined for Patton on stage and on TMZ, named his new album “Paula” in her honor, and, this week, debuted the music video for his new single, “Get Her Back.” In the video, Thicke sings shirtless, feigns drowning in a tank of blood-stained water, cavorts with a naked woman who resembles Patton, and cries openly, as text messages—implied to have been sent between Thicke and Patton—pop up on the screen. “I wrote a whole album about you,” he says. “I don’t care,” she says. “I hate myself,” he says. “You ruined everything,” she says. “This is just the beginning,” he says.
When critics parsed his “Blurred Lines” lyrics last summer—“I know you want it, I know you want it … I hate these blurred lines”—they couldn’t decide if Thicke was borderline rapey, or just winkingly cocky. Now, he’s either a hopeless romantic or a full-blown stalker. As Jessica Valenti put it in the Guardian, “romanticizing the creepy and potentially harassing efforts of a man obsessed with this ex sends a dangerous message to young men about what ‘romance’ really is. Hint: it has nothing to do with haranguing and publicly shaming us back into a relationship. … the video sends a message that Thicke won't take no for an answer. And that's not romantic—it's just downright scary.”
The music industry—which has spun romantic stalking narratives into some of its most celebrated pop songs—views things differently. Consider the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life”: "I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man … You better run for your life if you can, little girl.” (John Lennon later expressed regret for writing the song.) Or the Temptations’ “Running Away (Ain’t Gonna Help You)”: “Running away sure ain't gonna help you, I'm gonna get you girl.” Or Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”: "Girl you know we belong together … You'll be mine forever baby, you just see." The Bee Gees' 1975 song “Nights On Broadway” was self-aware enough to blame musical narratives for the singer’s stalking behavior: “Well, I had to follow you, though you did not want me to,” the song goes. “Blaming it all on the nights on Broadway, singing them love songs.” And Lionel Richie’s 1983 ballad “Hello” advanced the game by pairing its longing lyrics with an early music video where Richie plays a college professor stalking his blind student. Even artists who attempt to critique this damaging trope can see their work repurposed for romance. Sting claims that he wrote “Every Breath You Take” to read as “very sinister and ugly,” but that hasn’t stopped listeners from misinterpreting it as “a gentle little love song.” Meanwhile, the Plain White T's successfully hid their creepiness under lovey-dovey language: Their 2005 hit “Hey There Delilah" sounds like it's about a dreamy long-distance romance until you learn that singer Tom Higgenson wrote it after meeting runner Delilah DiCrescenzo just once at a party, got rejected, and penned the song to communicate his strange obsession.
Movies, as Valenti notes, are also replete with tales of male stalkers framed as romantic leads, reinforcing the trope that “the guy who would do anything to land the girl is supposedly the stuff women's dreams are made of.” In the realm of romantic comedies, it is overwhelmingly men standing outside, staring in the bedroom window. Films where women tread the charming stalker’s path— Sleepless in Seattle, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and While You Were Sleeping—are the exception, not the rule. (I’m omitting movies like Fatal Attraction, where stalking is rightly framed as horrific, not romantic.)
In pop music, where young female singers are endlessly bankable, women routinely step into the role of romantic sociopath, then film music videos casting themselves as the stalker star. In Lady Gaga’s 2009 hit “Paparazzi,” she sings “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me”; in the video, she gets her man, then murders him with a poisoned drink. Cher Lloyd’s breakout 2012 hit, “Want U Back,” comes complete with a video where a crazed Lloyd assaults her ex-boyfriend and his new beau in a diner, then vamps in a police line-up. Taylor Swift has made a career out of playing both the villain and victim in these creepy romantic scenarios, often in the same video. In her 2008 song “You Belong With Me,” Swift laments that her high school crush doesn’t understand that he “belongs” with her, and spends her days “dreaming about the day when you wake up and find that what you're looking for has been here the whole time.” In the video, she monitors the guy from her bedroom window and shows up at the school dance in a virginal white dress to steal him away from his girlfriend (played by Swift in a red dress, raven wig, and permanent bitch face). “Back to December” is Swift’s more heartfelt take on unrequited romantic obsession. Blazing this trail were Blondie (“One Way Or Another”), Carly Simon (“You Belong To Me”), and Peggy March (“I Will Follow Him”).
These songs aren't dismissed as creepy; they're regarded as fierce, even empowering. While the male stalking narratives serve to reinforce a real social problem—the idea that seduction looks indistinguishable from abuse—putting a woman in the stalker's position turns the song into a power fantasy that's not backed up by horrifying real-world statistics.
So what’s different about “Get Her Back”? Why are so many critics—at outlets as diverse as Complex, Entertainment Weekly, and the Washington Post—totally skeeved out by this song and video? For one, Thicke has stated outright that he’s leveraging his music as a bargaining tactic with his estranged wife, so the creepiness feels concrete and targeted, not abstract.
Plus, it's hard to give Thicke a pass when he appears to believe that hiring a hot model to run her hands over his naked body—as angry texts from his estranged wife pop up on the screen—is not just a compelling music video for popular consumption, but also a viable strategy for winning over Patton. Whether "Get Her Back" is a serious overture to get her back, or just a bid to capitalize on the creepy image that's kept him in the tabloids post-"Blurred Lines," Thicke isn't doing much to earn the benefit of the doubt.