Photos By Joy Asico, Words By Jeb Gavin
From the front of the stage on the floor of the Patriot Center this past Thursday night Robin Thicke announced again how much he loved the audience in the half full arena. No matter how many times he said it, it sounded earnest. Perhaps it was because he’s Canadian. Perhaps it was because the basis of his act is imitating amazing R&B artists. Perhaps Thicke just genuinely likes making music for people. He’s a personable and convivial performer who connected deeply with his audience and put on an amazing show. And then he played that song.
This is not a defense of Thicke as an artist for making “Blurred Lines.” But given the quality of the show, weighed against how one song could be interpreted, I’ve been sitting here all weekend asking myself questions, bogged down in some serious, Talmudic shit. How bad is advocacy of evil? Hopefully worse than the evil itself? Do we judge someone by the worst thing they’ve ever done? By the best? Does it matter the scale on which they do it? Even more confusing, what if not everyone can agree on whether a song is just a song, or endorsing a particularly unique and heinous form of violence? In such a case, is it possible to, or would anyone care to separate the artist from the art?
Unlike fair use, there is no metric for subtlety in the court of public opinion. If a work of art can be understood to condone or recommend something bad (bad being defined by any individual comprising a member of the audience), there tends to be a vocal section of the audience declaring the artist is in favor of that bad thing and the art itself prurient. Rather than jump to any conclusion, we should first ask questions, debate the merit of that work both in and out of context. This is not an instance of false balance; this discussion is the best method for defining our culture. Instead we paint in broad strokes, focusing only on our side of the argument and choosing to ignore any further details.
The set in the middle of George Mason’s basketball arena had an old school flare, everyone in various states of tuxedo undress. Even the drummer on the riser off to one side had a matching black towel he’d use to wipe the sweat off his bald head. The front of the stage was reserved for a roving bassist and guitarist, and occasionally the two backup singers. Sometimes Thicke himself came down from his baby grand piano- literally from atop the piano, to pace downstage. The basic horn section, a saxophone, trombone, and trumpet were situated between the percussionist behind Thicke’s piano and the drummer and keyboardist on the far end of the stage. The whole band looked like they were enjoying the evening. Given the almost constantly screaming audience, everyone seemed to have a good night. Hell, I’d go as far as to admit I like “Feel Good,” and was happy he played it. It sounds vibrant and effervescent live, a trance track slipped into an R&B set so subtly no one noticed.
I cannot overemphasize how impressed I was by this show, as I had no real expectations going into it. I might be one of the fifteen people who owned a copy of “When I Get You Alone” when it came out in 2002, but I haven’t been paying close attention to the man over the past dozen years. You might not have known Alan Thicke’s son was a singer prior to a year ago. Despite being the guy who wasn’t T.I. or Pharrell, I would argue some people only pieced together Robin was the white guy in the music video after he was seen on stage with Miley Cyrus. Speaking of which, maybe you’re aware of his recent marital troubles. Nearly all of this stems from controversy surrounding or related to “Blurred Lines,” and I’m not even talking about the possible Marvin Gaye sample and its preemptive lawsuit. This is entirely centered on the sexy/sexist initially-banned-from-YouTube video, the date rape transcript lyrics. It’s all fostered a mental image of a person similar to Robin Thicke, yet largely divorced from the person on stage playing piano and waving to his fans in the cheap seats.
The music industry and an overwhelming majority of the radio audience felt that same song is one of the best written all year, going so far as to buy the record millions of times and nominate it for awards to that effect. At the same time, Thicke is thus deemed unequivocally wrong and bad and evil for one of the dozens of songs he wrote in his career, even if nothing about his personal or professional life would otherwise suggest he advocates the worst possible reading of one small aspect of his body of work. If you’re a fan, he can do no wrong. If you think “Blurred Lines” is about rape (either the act or simply defending it,) nothing he’ll do can change your mind.
At the end of his set, Thicke spoke candidly to the audience about his marriage breaking up, describing it as separation and not divorce, and professing his love for his wife. He was frank, and without being patronizing stated he felt he could and would get her back. He then sang “Lost Without U,” for her. It was a touching moment, revealing an almost Bill Clinton-like quality, sharing a moment with a crowd so everyone feels like they were talking to a close friend about tough times. The encore started with “Shakin’ it 4 Daddy” sans Nicki Minaj. This was followed by both Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Finally, Robin Thicke closed with his biggest hit to date, as almost every artist does. The audience loved it, and it was the only way to end the show. There was no discussion afterward.