Six months ago I found myself in the awkward position of having a song stuck in my head which I found pretty repugnant. The lyrics made me feel queasy and the video was sort of hypnotising in its dreadfulness, like watching a car crash in slow motion. And I was wandering around humming it under my breath, singing it in the shower, and dancing along to it in clubs with all the enthusiasm of, well, a drunk girl who loves to dance.
I am of course talking about Robin Thicke’s piece of pop misogyny in the form of Blurred Lines. I actually sang the title as I typed it just now, and that is what upsets me the most. It’s just so god damn catchy. Sooner or later you find yourself rapping innocently along with T.I and realise you’ve just said – and it pains me to even type it out – “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”, as though that’s a totally normal, socially acceptable, and non-rapey statement to make. (Does anyone else hear that and just think, episiotomy? Not sexy, T.I. Not sexy at all.)
So when I watched the video for Lily Allen’s new single, Hard Out Here, I breathed an audible sigh of relief. The deeply satirical plot of the video is, in a nutshell, that Lily is trying to make a post-baby come-back to pop and can’t do so without liposuction, twerking, and a lesson in sex-appeal from some overweight middle-aged men. In an apparent twist on the Three 6 Mafia song, Hard Out Here For a Pimp, Lily sings that it’s “hard out here for a bitch” – the obvious implication being that a woman in the music industry, or indeed in Western society on the whole, might not have to charge for sex but still has to sell her body. Objecting rather understandably to this mentality, she sings, with some seriously ironic twerking, “Don’t need to shake my arse for you cos I’ve got a brain”. (Take note, Miley Cyrus.) Hard Out Here is a song about objectification and the double standard between the sexes, and I’m really, really not saying that Lily is the music industry’s answer to Virginia Woolf, but she sure as hell stakes claim to a body of her own. So effective in fact is her pre-emptive strike against criticism of her body that any idiot who dares to imply that she’s “let herself go” will struggle to do so without admitting their own sexism.
And, to return to my original point, she parodies the Blurred Lines video in its general attitude to – and objectification of – women as well as specifically, and most entertainingly, by replacing Thicke’s giant silver balloons spelling out “Robin Thicke has a big d**k” (overpowering temptation to replace ‘has’ with ‘is’) with her own giant silver balloons spelling out a statement which is, er, perhaps unsurprising considering that she’s given birth three times. She even mocks that episiotomy-like Pharrell line, sarcastically urging women to lose weight because: “Don’t do you want to have somebody to objectify you? Have you thought about your butt, who’s gonna tear it in two?”. In her lyrics and in her video, she continues the conversation Blurred Lines started about asses to make Thicke look like one.
She parodies not just Thicke’s sexism, but inequality across the music industry. In a far less friendly version of R.E.M. writing ‘yeah’ as many times as possible into Man on the Moon in order to tease Nirvana, Lily raises questions about artists such as Britney’s use of the word ‘bitch’ – the swear word is repeated no less than 54 times in Hard Out Here, and it seems to become less normalised and more and more venomous as the song goes on. Miley Cyrus’s bum-wiggling and apparent desire to perform fellatio on random objects (see the banana moment at 2:31) are also put under scrutiny, as the middle-aged actor playing the role of Lily’s agent is the driving force behind such antics.
It’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff. But the best bit about Lily’s criticism of the institutionalised sexism maintained by people such as Thicke is that she uses words to do it, rather than the silence of censorship. They might not be the most eloquent words ever spoken on the subject of equality, but then the Gilbert and Gubars of this world weren’t trying to make a hit single. Basically, it’s not perfect – but it’s a start. It offers no solutions, but at least it draws attention to the problem. So someone should link Hard Out Here (and post copies of The Handmaid’s Tale) to all the feminist societies who successfully campaigned to ban Blurred Lines at their university student unions. Seriously. Freedom of speech is crucial for equality. You might not like what Thicke’s saying but rather than silencing him, do what Lily has done: start a conversation. Better yet, do what Lily has done and show Thicke’s video to be a joke. Laughter is the most powerful weapon we have.
Hard Out Here is, in my humble opinion, the closest thing pop has right now to an antidote to Blurred Lines. Clutch at it like Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom as though you’ve been desperately crawling around searching for it on the floor – which coincidentally brings the Blurred Lines video to mind somewhat. (Now pause for a moment to have an Indiana Jones based daydream where you don’t objectify him but deeply appreciate the fact that his intelligence makes him sexy. Done? No? Stop thinking about his whip: we’re trying to have a serious discussion here. But, er, if anyone does know an archaeologist who knows how to use a whip, likes an adventure, and happens to be as beautiful as Indiana Jones then please point him in my direction. Obviously.)
To summarise: Hard Out Here is not the perfect feminist video and neither is it, in my opinion, Lily Allen’s best musical work. But I kind of love it anyway because Lily makes Robin look thick by name and thick by nature. And by that I do mean dumb. Unlike him, I’m not talking about his penis.